Jonathan Sumption

On the silver trail

The Spanish empire was the first of Europe’s great overseas empires, and for many years the richest and most powerful.

On the silver trail
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The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V

Hugh Thomas

Allen Lane, pp. 697, £

The Spanish empire was the first of Europe’s great overseas empires, and for many years the richest and most powerful.

The Spanish empire was the first of Europe’s great overseas empires, and for many years the richest and most powerful. It was also unusual in being an empire of colonists. The Portuguese, and later the Dutch, created coastal forts and settlements which served as trading posts for high-value commodities, chiefly spices. But the Spanish extended their power into the vast spaces of the South American interior, populating the towns with native Spaniards and their half-caste cousins, and lording it over the indigenous inhabitants who worked the great agricultural estates and ranches. With an estimated quarter of a million emigrants in the 16th century and twice that many in the 17th, Spain was the source of the first wave of the great migration of Europeans across the globe which continued until the 20th century.

Britain’s empire was the only comparable case. But it was founded on private enterprise and a highly decentralised model of governance, whereas the American colonies of Spain were essentially creations of the Spanish state, founded by royal initiative and tightly controlled by judges and bureaucrats sent out from Spain.

What made this vast enterprise possible was silver. The world’s chief monetary metal had grown progressively scarcer in late medieval Europe, generating a severe deflation. But it was found in great quantities in Spanish South America. Potosí, in what is now Bolivia, was for more than two centuries the world’s richest silver mine. Regular convoys of armed ships carried the annual tribute of silver back to Seville, where it funded Spain’s expensive European wars. By the end of the 16th century, more than 95 per cent of cargo leaving South America for Europe was precious metal, almost all of it silver. South America’s dependence on this one commodity is a large part of the explanation of its slow economic and social development, by comparison with the great European settlements of North America.

Ultimately, the Spanish empire would be destroyed by the very forces which created it. Administrative centralisation and political corruption strangled enterprise and made it vulnerable to nimbler Dutch and English predators. The massive imports of silver generated a great inflation that would ultimately wreck Spain’s economy and public finances. The Spanish empire, the first to be born, was destined to be the first to die. The Napoleonic wars and the command of the sea lanes by the British navy created the conditions for the South American wars of independence in the early 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th, the United States, the successor to England’s American settlements, appropriated the Philippines and for all practical purposes Cuba.

Hugh Thomas’s The Golden Age is the second volume of what will eventually be a trilogy on the history of the Spanish empire, from its origins in the discoveries of Columbus until the union with Portugal in 1580 (the first, Rivers of Gold, appeared in 2003). It covers the reign of the first Habsburg King of Spain, Charles V, who reigned for 40 years, from 1516 until his abdication in 1556. Charles has given his name to the subtitle. But his main political interests lay elsewhere, in Europe, and particularly in Germany, where his dynasty originated, and Italy, which was then a Spanish dependency.

The traditional view is that although Charles’s huge European empire depended on the wealth of the Spanish colonies, he never shared his predecessors’ interest in exploration and colonisation, nor his successor’s diligence in organising the government of Spain’s vast new territories. Thomas thinks that this is unjust, but it is broadly borne out by his narrative.

So this is mainly the story of the expeditions which explored and conquered the delta of the Orinoco, the untamed parts of Central America, and what is now Peru and Argentina. The King is a distant eminence, making no more than an occasional appearance. The lives of Cortés, Pizarro, Ordaz, Vaca de Castro and Cabeza de Vaca are, however, quite enough to sustain the reader’s interest. They were men of heroic stature. Fired by ambition and greed, they were capable of astonishing feats of endurance and brutality. They subdued vast territories with tiny forces, raising issues of conscience among their compatriots three centuries before the morality of empire became an issue in Britain.

Thomas writes narrative history in the grand style. There are striking incidents and great moments, all well told. At the end, however, one is left with a sense of disappointment. Somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The story is told in the traditional way, from the Spanish point of view. Archaeology and anthropology have yielded much information in the past 60 years about the indigenous societies of South America, and their response to invasion by ruthless and technologically superior outsiders. But one would scarcely know it from this account. The demographic catastrophe which followed upon the arrival of Europeans with unknown diseases to which South Americans had no natural immunity, is barely mentioned. In spite of the inclusion of a whole section on ‘The Indies as a Treasure House’, there is no attempt to put Spain’s South American empire in a broader economic context, or to assess its impact on Spanish society back home.

The result is a rather unstructured narrative, conveying no sense of the place of these stirring events in the broader scheme of history. The classic account of these events by the Boston historian W.H. Prescott is now more than a century and a half old. But it has dated better than this one will.