A sterling account of Spain’s creation of a vast empire, one that “lasted more than three hundred years, more than the British, the French, the Dutch, or the Russian equivalents.”
The Spanish empire, writes Thomas (The Slave Trade, 1997, etc.), was born in a time of pitched warfare between a resurgent Christian nobility and the last of the Muslim rulers in Western Europe. Defeating the viziers of Al-Andalus required forging strong links among several Iberian kingdoms, whence the wedding of Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon and, in the wake of civil war, the formation of “a national nobility with patriotic loyalties.” Following the expulsion or forced conversion of the last of the Muslims (and, for good measure, the Jews) of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabel quickly translated their peripatetic court into renewed maritime explorations in all directions, completing the subjugation of the Canary Islands, establishing African entrepôts, and funding the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. All this is a story that has been told many times (and with considerable disagreement) in the scholarly literature, but that has not been well covered in popular writing on the conquest of the New World. Writing with a scholar’s concern for details and a storyteller’s skill, Thomas provides memorable portraits of the principal figures in this tangled history: Isabel, a severe woman who “had a taste for irony”; Columbus, who was less a monster than some recent histories would have us think; Francisco de Bobadilla, a colonial administrator who enjoyed the Spanish rulers’ confidence until imprisoning Columbus on trumped-up charges, then was relieved of command of Santo Domingo even though he “thought that he was doing well and was making money for the Crown”; Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who told amazing tales about rivers of gold and instant-growing cucumbers; and a host of other servants of Spain who “made their conquests with a clear conscience, certain that they were taking with them civilization.”
A nuanced and much-needed survey of a critically important episode in world history.