Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review of The Golden Empire by Hugh Thomas

The Golden Empire: Spain, Charles V and the Creation of America by Hugh Thomas, 2011. Glossy's rating: 8/10.

This is the second book of Hugh Thomas's trilogy about the early Spanish Empire. The most important conquest described here is that of Peru. I will quote extensively from Thomas's comparison of Mexico and Peru, pre-Columbian America's two most powerful states, which according to him knew nothing of each other at the time of European contact:

"Both had settled capital cities—in Tenochtitlan and in Cuzco—something that at that stage Spain had not.

The two monarchies were both absolute ones: The power of the ruler was unquestioned. Both rulers were in constant touch, it was said, with the sun. The popular adulation attached to the monarch was exorbitant, and protest or dissent unthinkable.

Both societies liked alcohol and some drugs: The Peruvians had chicha, a mild beer made from maize, while the Mexica had pulque, made from the agave cactus; the Incas enjoyed coca rather than the elaborate range of hallucinogenic drugs available to the Mexica from mushrooms.

There were, of course, differences between these two indigenous societies. The most important one was that ancient Peru had no commercial life, while Mexico enjoyed a lively one: Mexican merchants also played an important part in informing the rulers, the “Emperors,” about other places, as if they were secret agents. A related difference was that there was no private landholding in Peru. The peasants farmed elaborate, productive, and even beautiful terraces, but they were held in common. Never was there a more pervasive government than that of the Incas. Personal liberty was practically nonexistent. Blind obedience and unquestioning self-abnegation had forever to be accorded. But if much was demanded of the subject, much was done for him. Marxists have talked of “Inca communism,” and they may have been correct thus to designate the Peruvian social structure, in which almost everything was supervised by officials.

Aztec society was much less controlled. Montezuma’s remark about the necessity of dealing harshly with his people if they were going to be ruled effectively is well known.

Another difference was that the Peruvians had sails on their rafts and canoes, which the Mexica and Mesoamerican people, such as the Maya, do not seem to have had. The Peruvians used the sea as a means for trade more than the Mexica did."

This was really surprising to me because Mexico faces the Caribbean with its huge islands. Mesoamericans had places to go, yet didn't. In fact, Thomas mentioned in his first volume that they seem to have never visited Cuba, Hispañola, etc.

"The Inca built magnificent roads and suspension bridges, far superior to anything then found in ancient Mexico—or, thought the Sevillano chronicler Pedro de Cieza de León, in old Europe.
The Mexica had remarkable artistic achievements to their credit: for example, their painting, poetry, and sculpture, monumental and tiny, relief and in the round. In these matters, the Peruvians were more limited, and no pre-Hispanic poetry is known from Peru.

Both had a process for creating metals of quality out of ore. But the Peruvians created more elaborate gold ornaments than the Mexica did.

Based on a straightforward worship of the sun, Inca religion was simpler than that of Mexico. Human sacrifices occurred but on a much lesser level than in ancient Mexico—the victims in Peru being usually beautiful boys and girls, often prisoners of war. Still, the death or investiture of a ruler could inspire the sacrifice of hundreds."

If the Incas achieved more political control over their subjects with less violence than the Aztecs, then perhaps the people of pre-Columbian Peru were tamer than Mesoamericans by nature? And one would normally expect a tamer people to be less artistically gifted.

The Spaniards who went to the New World were the opposite of tame. The number and extent of conflicts among them was shocking. For example, when Cortés set out to conquer Mexico, he was in revolt against his superior, the governor of Cuba. Some time after capturing Mexico City he left it to punish a revolt by one of his subordinates, so guess what happened - the Spaniards he left in charge in the capital revolted against him. And this was typical.

Extremeños, a wild bunch, were the most overrepresented type of Spaniards among the conquistadors. Catalans, who seem to be the most core-European of Iberians, were the most underrepresented.

Of course Indians fought each other all the time too, but on the whole, from the big picture perspective, instinctive loyalties predictably tended to align with genetic distances:

“This was the most dreadful and cruel war … Between Christians and Moors, there is usually some fellow feeling and it is in the interests of both sides to spare those whom they take alive, because of the ransom. But in this Indian war there is no such fellow feeling. We give each other the most cruel deaths we can imagine.”

Except for one familiar pattern: the converso Bartolomé de las Casas consistently took the side of the Indians against the Spaniards. He persuaded Charles V to issue a new set of laws which prohibited the enslavement of Indians and abolished the encomienda system of feudal-like land holding in Spanish America.

It's important to note here that Las Casas was not motivated by humanitarianism. In fact he's quoted here saying that the Spaniards who opposed the new laws should have been hanged, drawn and quartered.

These laws produced a large-scale rebellion of Spanish colonists in Peru, led by Gonzalo Pizarro, the brother of the deceased conqueror Francisco. Some of Gonzalo's supporters advised him to declare independence from Spain, marry a woman from the Inca royal house and make himself king.

He was eventually defeated by forces loyal to the Spanish crown. Before Gonzalo was executed, the royal governor reproached him for his ingratitude. The king of Spain sent the Pizarro brothers to Peru, gave them all these honors, etc., and what did they do in return?

Gonzalo answered that Francisco Pizarro and his followers conquered Peru on their own and that the king did not raise them up from dust because "the Pizarros have been noblemen and gentlemen with our own estates since the Goths came to Spain."

I found it very interesting that the Spanish gentry of the 16th century considered themselves to be descended from the Goths. What would have been the alternatives? The Romans or claims of being entirely autochthonous.

Back to Las Casas: he had a public debate with a scholar named Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda about the nature of the Indians.

"Sepúlveda’s arguments for the legality of the conquests were, first, on account of the gravity of the sins committed by the Indians, especially their idolatries and their sins against nature; second, on account of the rudeness of the Indians’ nature which obliged them to serve the Spaniards. Here Aristotle could be cited, recalling his observation that some people are inferior by nature. The Indians were as different from Spaniards as monkeys are from men.

Compare then those blessings enjoyed by Spaniards, of prudence, genius, magnanimity, temperance, humanity and religion, with those of the “hombrecillos” among whom you will scarcely find even a vestige of humanity, who not only possess no science but who also lack letters and preserve no monument of their history except certain vague and obscure reminiscences in some paintings. Neither do they have written laws, but barbaric institutions and customs. They do not even have private property."

It must be said that the Mayans did have a writing system, but its use went into decline before the Spaniards arrived. Thomas says that at the time of contact they did not use their characters for writing letters or contracts.

Fray Domingo de Betanzos, another opponent of Las Casas, wrote that Indians should not have been encouraged to study “since no benefit could be expected for a long time … Indians are not stable persons to whom one can entrust the preaching of the Holy Gospel. They do not have the ability to understand correctly and fully the Christian faith nor is their language sufficient and copious enough to be able to express our faith without great improprieties, which can easily result in great errors.” So no Indian should be ordained a priest"...

"He added that he, like Bishop Zumárraga, "longed to go to China, where apparently the “natives were so much more intelligent than those of New Spain.”

Las Casas countered this in a very modern leftist fashion by saying that the Indians were as smart as the ancient Greeks and Romans and more civilized than Spaniards. He even tried to justify their human sacrifices.

Thomas says that Las Casas ended up winning the intellectual argument in Spain but that the situation on the ground in the Indies remained largely unchanged.

The real audience of Las Casas's and Sepulveda's debate was the king-emperor Charles V, a very important figure in this book. I was surprised to learn that the name Carlos was almost unknown in Spain before his reign began. This reminded me of the fact that the Greek name Phillip, born by Charles's successor, was brought to Western Europe by a daughter of the Russian prince Yaroslav the Wise, who was married to the king of France and who gave it to one of her sons, who eventually became king.

Charles V is shown here as an earnest, well-meaning man. He twice challenged Francis I, the king of France, to single combat to settle their differences without war. Unfortunately these duels did not end up occurring.

Charles was by far the most powerful European ruler of his day. In 1522, in an apparent attempt to get into his good graces the cardinals elected his trusted advisor and former tutor Adrian pope. Being Dutch, he was the last non-Italian pope until John Paul II in the late 20th century.

"He caused consternation by refusing to countenance nepotism." A placard placed on a door in the Vatican "denounced the cardinals who had elected Adrian as “robbers, betrayers of Christ’s blood” and asked, “Do you not feel sorrow to have surrendered the Vatican to German fury?”...

Ludwig von Pastor, the historian of the popes, wrote that “Adrian’s single-hearted anxiety to live exclusively for duty was to Italians of that age like an apparition from another world, beyond the grasp of their comprehension.”

Thomas also informs us that Adrian was denounced by Romans for preferring beer to wine.

As always, I was fascinated by all the old ethnic stereotypes mentioned in this book. For example, Thomas says that Greeks were often employed as artillery specialists in Spanish armies, including in the Americas.

The following reads bizarrely today: "Black slaves were thought to work harder than Indians, something especially noticeable in the hot climate."

In contrast to the Indian situation, the question of the morality of enslaving Blacks seems to have never come up.

"If these monarchs gave the matter any thought at all, they would have supposed that a slave in Christian hands would be much better off than a free African in Africa."

At one point Thomas writes that there is no evidence that anyone in pre-Colombian Mexico or Peru "had a sense of humor, whereas the Spaniards were always laughing." This must have seemed especially alien to a Brit like him. I can read Spanish, so I sometimes asked myself "why am I reading about Spanish and Latin American history in English?" Well, it's very hard to imagine anyone but a Brit writing about history with such great style and such subtle humor as Hugh Thomas. I recommend this volume highly.     ø

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