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Thomas, Hugh, Baron Swynnerton. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2003.

I bought this book because I decided I needed background on Caribbean history for my writing, and because I knew that it had been favorably reviewed in The New York Times. Having read the book, I cannot imagine what kind of crack the reviewer was smoking, but evidently it was good.

Which sounds like this is a terrible book, but on one level it is the exact opposite of a terrible book. Thomas is clearly a past master at archival research, and he evidently knows Spain and most of the old Spanish Empire like the back of his hand. I cannot fault his research or, in general terms, his conclusions. But I had many serious concerns about the manner in which he told this story, and also with his apparent obsession with recondite detail over more macro-level thematic concerns.

To be blunt, Thomas is far more interested in teasing out the family history and social background of just about everyone who sailed to the Americas on every expedition of discovery from 1492 to 1519 than with exploring the interesting questions his work raises: he's particularly obsessed with whether or not the Spaniard heroes of his tale (and, though Thomas is not blind to the "demographic catastrophe", as he terms it, that the European invasions of the Americas wrought upon their residents, he is very much a valorizer of the explorers in particular and of their civilization in general. more on this anon) were conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity) or reconciliados (people who had been chastised, but not executed, by the Inquisition). Given that Thomas at several points makes comments about "traits commonly thought to be Jewish," I cannot but wonder strongly whether he is an anti-Semite. Given that Thomas was educated at Queen's College, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne in the mid-century, and that he was granted a life peerage by Baronness Thatcher, it certainly seems plausible.

Any time one wonders that about one's author, one is on shaky ground, and in other respects Thomas does nothing to reassure his readers that he is not a stodgy old reactionary conservative. His disparaging, anachronistic, not-terribly-thinly-veiled comments about the European Union and Brussels do nothing to assauge this suspicion on my part. Seriously, in a history of early-sixteenth-century Spain, he breaks his narrative to insult the European Union! I was flabbergasted both that a professional historian would do this and that an editor would let him get away with it. But it's not just the European Union that Thomas dislikes; he also implicitly justifies the European conquest of the Americas on the grounds of "civilization," asking "Who can doubt now that they were right to denounce the idea of religion based on human sacrifice or the simple worship of the sun or the rain?" 

Yes, he did write that in nearly the penultimate paragraph of the book. I can understand a contemporary critique of the Mexíca religion based on its unending thirst for human lives from a human-rights perspective, but this idea is not sustained by Thomas' disparaging nature worship in the same sentence, and he never particularly excoriates the Inquisition for its murdering thousands of Muslims, Christians and Jews in the name of religious orthodoxy, which a human rights critique would be bound to do (though he doesn't miss a chance to point out that Franco's Spain killed more people on an absolute basis). So evidently he's just prejudiced (and from his consistent valorization of the explorers' Catholic faith, I suspect a Catholic, or a very High Anglican, himself).

Thomas does raise several interesting questions, mostly implicitly. For me, these are: 
  • The intriguingly medieval worldviews of most of the relevant power players in this tale, most notably Isabella, Ferdinand and Columbus (Columbus was also an utter asshat; Thomas shows that for sure). This weakens as time passes (much is made of Bartolome Las Casas, for example, giving what-for to Aristotle in front of King Charles I by noting that Aristotle was a pagan who surely was burning in Hell--to which I said, oddly, "You tell 'em!"), but never entirely vanishes--in fact, I would argue that Spain largely missed out on the Renaissance due to several policies of the Catholic Kings, namely the registration of books to be published and the Inquisition.
  • The explorers' deep, obsessive fixation (to the point of psychosis) on gold, or as they put it, "treasure." I understand that gold was literally money and wealth at the time, but that fact doesn't explain their sentiments completely (their similarly unbalanced thirst for glory is probably part of the same underlying condition/mindset).
  • The entirely accidental nature of the Spanish Empire. No one had any thought to establishing possessions beyond Europe--that the Catholic Kings got them, and that these became for a time the greatest empire (in terms of territory) the world have ever known was due to anything but their conscious policy. The early administration (or, more precisely, the utter lack thereof) of Spain's foreign possessions is ample evidence of this.
  • The huge advantage the technology of writing gave to Cortés in his conquest of Old Mexico and the Mexíca, even more than horses and guns (though clearly these, and the Spaniards' military praxis, were hugely important). Sidenote: No mention of Cortés burning his ships. As a lover of The Hunt for Red October, this saddened me deeply.
  • The intriguing figure of King Charles I of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor who, among other things, faced off against Luther at the Diet of Wurms and who, for a time, raised the possibilty of a "universal monarchy"--although the true opportunity for anything like that passed before it was almost even recognized (see Martin Luther above). This concept of a universal monarch, while deeply disturbing on one level, is on another a fascinating pre-modern concept whose time may finally be coming around at last, if norms of global citizenship and international justice really do take hold in the twenty-first century as many (including myself) hope fervently that they do.
There are worse places to start off on this subject matter than Thomas' book, I'm sure--I do appreciate his emphasis on contextualizing Columbus' asinine exploits firmly within the context of Isabella and Ferdinand's Spain, and their Spain within the Iberian peninsula and (to an extent) the larger European world. His factual, unenraptured take on Magellan is a refreshing corrective to William Manchester's ecstatic hagiography of him in A World Lit Only by Fire (which is an otherwise amazing book that I can't recommend highly enough, since I do happen to look on the medieval era as relatively Dark). But I hope that there are better books on the same period out there, or that, if there aren't, someone (probably a woman) gets around to writing them posthaste.