Monday, February 8, 2016

Review of Rivers of Gold

Rivers of Gold, The Rise of the Spanish Empire from Columbus to Magellan by Hugh Thomas, 2003. Glossy's rating: 7.5/10.

This is a history of the first 30 years of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. It opens with Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs of Aragon and Castile, besieging the last Muslim stronghold in Spain. While doing this they are petitioned by a Genoese sea captain who's sure that he knows the way to the Indies.

Columbus was one of the many dozens of enterprising Genoese mentioned in this book. They seemed to constitute a market-dominant minority in Spain of that time, being especially prominent as bankers and merchants.

The art of the Renaissance was dominated by Florentines, with Venetians far behind and the Genoese almost invisible. I'm guessing that Florentines were less prominent in international commerce than their rivals at least partly because the Arno wasn't navigable from Florence to the sea. Could that be why a greater proportion of their best brains went into the arts? The only noteworthy Florentine in this book is Amerigo Vespucci.

It makes sense that the Genoese would have been more active in the western Mediterranean and that Venetians would have focused on the east.

During the same year that the Spanish monarchs conquered Granada and financed Columbus's voyage they took an important decision with regard to Spain's other market-dominant minority. They decreed that all Spanish Jews had to either convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Thomas reports that three prominent Jewish leaders offered the royal couple 112 million maravedis, more than 50 times the cost of Columbus's trip, to change their minds. It was in vain.

The Jews who accepted Catholicism and stayed were called conversos. They were heavily overrepresented in banking, commerce, government bureaucracy and the church. I was surprised by how many of them fought as conquistadors.

I know that a blogger named Mencius Moldbug claims that leftism was born in 17th century England and that Jews only picked it up from WASPs. Don't get me wrong, I wish that was true myself. But it's not. There was leftism in early 16th century Spain and its leader was a converso named Bartolomé de las Casas.

He railed against Spanish settlers in the Americas, saying that he had "seen the greatest cruelty and inhumanity practiced on the gentle and peace-loving indigenous people, without any reason except for insatiable greed, thirst, and hunger for gold by the conquistadors".

To support these claims he engaged in wild hyperbole: "Here [...], Las Casas first launched his famous propaganda cannonade of figures. He insisted that Bartolomeo Colón had said that there had been 1.1 million Indians in La Española in 1492. But now there were only 12,000. Almost all Las Casas’s statistics were exaggerated, these more than most."

He promoted affirmative action, wishing that "the benefit to the Indians was to be placed ahead of that of the settlers" and that "Indians were not to be punished for wrongdoings in the same way as Spaniards."

He agitated for race mixing in the Americas, dreaming that "in time, Indians and Spaniards would intermarry and so would form a single “republic,” which would become the most peaceful and Christian in the world, “for the sons of one race would marry the daughters of the other.”

Some of Las Casas's opponents in policy debates at court and elsewhere maintained that Indians weren't different from beasts of burden and that, left to themselves, they "would do nothing except drink, dance, and plot." Some brought up the idea "that Aristotle was right that there were laws that proclaimed that white people were superior to those who were black and brown." I don't know if Aristotle actually wrote that.

Thomas calls Las Casas's end of the opinion spectrum humanist, but that's a mistake. Like many others, he petitioned the crown to replace Indian workers in America with African slaves. And when one of Las Casas's enemies accused him of having participated during his time in the Caribbean in exactly the kind of massacres that he now denounced, all Las Casas could answer was that he had reformed - a virtual admission.

Both before and after these debates the crown's official position was that Indians had to be treated with the utmost respect, unless of course they rejected Christianity, in which case they could be attacked, killed and enslaved. Superficially this sounds like modern Western rhetoric - foreigners should be treated well unless they reject feminism, democracy and homosex, in which case war is justified and very much encouraged. The difference is that the Catholicism of 1500 was a much better ideology than feminism, democracy and homosex in the sense that it was more in tune with human nature. It was also a civilizational step up for the Indians.

On the ground in the Americas many Spaniards treated many Indians very cruelly. But contrary to Las Casas's leftist claptrap, the Indians themselves had never been gentle, peace-loving or "free by nature". There was human sacrifice, slavery and epically murderous warfare in Mesoamerica as well as rampant cannibalism in the Caribbean long before the Spaniards showed up. Cortés's conquest of Mexico, for example, was made easier by the alliances he made with the peoples that had been previously subjugated by the Aztec Empire. Some of them saw him as a liberator.

Thomas calls Cortés "the most remarkable of conquistadors", and not just for his martial qualities. He describes his "artful letters" to Charles V as "the only documents still worth reading of the large body of literature created by the conquests." We first meet him when he fails to take advantage of his first opportunity to go to America because "at the last minute he hurt his leg jumping out of the window of a lady in Seville whom he had been trying to seduce."

Cortéz was an Extremaduran, like a wildly disproportionate share of the conquistadors. Why were they so prominent in this endeavor? To start with, the third governor of the Indies was an Extremaduran, and he brought a lot of his people with him. Another hint is given by Thomas when, after describing a bit of wild west-type behavior by the Spaniards - a story of machismo, insubordination and violence - he remarks that "the Caribbean was beginning to seem like Extremadura before the coming of the Catholic Kings."

That epithet refers to the aforementioned Ferdinand and Isabella, who pacified and centralized Spain at the same time that French, English and Russian monarchs pacified and centralized their own realms. The rise of artillery might have been a reason for this continent-wide trend. Petty nobles couldn't hide behind their armor and castle walls any more. But it should be noted that, according to Thomas, guns were less important to the Spanish conquest of the New World than steel swords. The Indians used metals only for decoration, and none of their metals were as hard as steel.

I was surprised to learn that, unlike the French, English and Russian monarchs of the time, Ferdinand and Isabella did not have a capital. Their court constantly moved around the country in the medieval fashion.

Their son Juan was supposed to inherit their throne, but he died in his youth. By the end of his life Ferdinand had to resign himself to the prospect of being succeeded by his foreign grandson Charles.

The world seems to be full of ignoramuses who think that nationalism was invented at the time of the French Revolution. I've even seen the claim that before the 19th century people didn't care if they were ruled by foreigners. As Thomas amply documents, the Spaniards of the 1510s cared.

Physically Charles was roughly half-Spanish, but he did not grow up in Spain and did not know its language when he assumed the throne.

Most of the people he knew and trusted were Flemings, so this is whom he ended up appointing to positions of power in Spain. They effectively became the country's third market-dominant minority after conversos and the Genoese. Stories of them taking money out of the country and disrespecting the locals multiplied.

Spanish representative assemblies petitioned Charles to appoint more Spaniards to high government posts and to only use Spanish tax money for Spanish needs. In addition to Spain he ruled the Netherlands, much of Italy and eventually the Holy Roman Empire. The Cortes (parliament) of Castille asked Charles to only address it in Spanish. While conscious of their regional differences, these people clearly saw themselves as Spaniards and Charles's Flemish friends as foreigners. They did not want Spain to be either a cash cow or one of the gears in his European Empire.

In time these grievances fed an open revolt, which Charles's government had to suppress with violence and concessions. Thomas has written a history of Spain's 20th-century Civil War, so he was especially impressed by how little retribution the winners of the 16th-century one exacted from the losers. There were only about a hundred executions.

Thomas has been criticized for mentioning an enormous amount of people in this book. He lists the merchants who supplied the explorers' ships, telling us where each one was from and what his commercial interests were. He tells us who financed the expeditions, who sat on royal committees and who served in various administrative bodies, often describing these people's personal histories and relationships with each other. Unlike some, I found this mountain of detail illuminating. It slowly gives you an intuitive sense of how things were normally done and what sort of people tended to do them.

The tone is enjoyable - British-professorial and occasionally wry. I never doubted that Thomas knows more about Spanish history than I could ever learn about any subject, and I will probably read more of his books.      ø


  1. Columbus was one of the many dozens of enterprising Genoese mentioned in this book. They seemed to constitute a market-dominant minority in Spain of that time, being especially prominent as bankers and merchants.

    Very interesting.

    I have sometimes wondered why Iberia produced little in the way of culture and science relative to Italy even though on the PISA tests and most other IQ tests they are basically equal. After all the northern Europeans were slow to get to high literacy rates for climatic reasons - it took the printing press and Protestantism for literacy to take off there - but Spain is part of the Mediterranean world and presumably wouldn't have had that particular constraint.

    Any theories?

    1. Medieval and Renaissance Italy could have benefited from the Roman legacy. I've read that in Italy and southern France cities declined enormously during the Dark Ages, but never disappeared. In the rest of western Europe they disappeared, and were revived in the 800 AD - 1000 AD period. In this view civilization was so entrenched in Italy that it was harder for the barbarian invaders to extinguish, and bits of it remained even during the Dark Ages. Same thing for Greece and Asia Minor - there was a civilizational decline during the Dark Ages, but cities remained, books kept being written.

      Guido of Arezzo, a Tuscan, invented modern musical notation around 1000 AD - that's very early, kind of a pre-pre-pre-Renaissance.

      Italy was already more developed than Spain in the pre-Roman period - Greeks in the south, Etruscans in Tuscany. Agriculture arrived there earlier, jumping over from Greece.

      I've read that there were 2 million people in Tuscany during the Renaissance. It's a pretty small region. High population density could be a necessary ingredient for civilizational complexity. But that just leads one to the question of how the Tuscans achieved it. As per McEvedy and Jones, there were 7.75 million people in Spain and 10 million in Italy in 1500, even though Italy is only 60% as large as Spain.

      I'm sure that there is a north-south IQ gradient in Spain, just like in Italy. Barcelona is stereotypically the most core-European Spanish city, Andalusia has a poor reputation. But perhaps the contrast was larger in Italy.

      This book mentions that while Spaniards were conquering the Americas, Spanish armies were conquering Naples and other parts of Italy. Hugh Thomas quotes a Spanish nobleman who was involved in that effort summarizing the difference between the cultures as "España - las armas, Italia - las letras". Italians seemed to have smarts without altruism. I think that all of their Renaissance states except for Venice relied on Swiss German mercenaries in times of war. They were invaded by the French in addition to the Spaniards.

      Columbus was a very brave guy, but most of the Genoese involvement in the conquest of the Americas was on the commercial side.

    2. On the north-south dynamic in Spain:

      At one point Thomas says the following about a Spanish government official: "He was by origin from Santander and had the calm efficiency of men from that region."

      Santander is located on the northern edge of Spain, on the coast of the Bay of Biscay.