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Book Review: Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan (Hugh Thomas)

“Rivers Of Gold” is not for the faint of heart. If you are looking for a compact treatment of the early Spanish empire in the New World, this isn’t it. If you are looking for a book that bewails the fate of the indigenous inhabitants of the New World at the hands of the evil Spanish monsters, this isn’t it either. But if you are looking for a voluminous and detailed study of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, that treats the Spanish as they were, a combination of varying proportions within each man of hero and ruthless killer, this is the book for you.

Thomas starts at the beginning, describing the final stages of the Reconquista of Spain from the Muslim invaders who had occupied it for hundreds of years, and takes the reader through Magellan’s voyage around the world (not that Magellan himself completed it). The book covers roughly a thirty-year period. Throughout the book, Thomas gives the reader a real flavor of medieval Spain, its colonies, and the way its people thought.

Four themes run through the book: the Spanish obsession with both riches and spreading the Gospel; the courage of the explorers; the outsized role of former Jews; and the key role of powerful women. (Fortunately, the Spanish Inquisition is NOT a theme. The book only lightly touches on the Inquisition and does not obsess about it—while the Inquisition is frequently (and ignorantly) brought up today, originally due to anti-Catholic sentiment of 19th Century Protestant historians and today due to generalized anti-Christian bigotry, it was actually relatively trivial and unimportant in the overall sweep of Spanish history, not to mention world history.)

As to the theme of riches, the title “Rivers of Gold” refers to one of the many over-optimistic assessments of the New World sent back to Spain’s monarchs by explorers. Thomas notes that “the physical attraction of gold exercised men’s minds in those days in a way impossible now to recapture.” This is evident from Spanish behavior in the book—sure, explorers wanted to get rich, just like people today, but the totalizing obsession seems odd by our standards. Gold simply had a talismanic pull for men of those times, in a way it does not now.

Equally strange to most people of modern mind is the obsession with bringing Christianity to the pagans, which all the Spanish explorers regarded as a holy and critical goal, much more important than preserving the lives, property or freedom of indigenous people. The Spaniards believed strongly they were giving eternal life to those otherwise damned. Failure to understand this makes much Spanish colonial behavior incomprehensible. It all seems like a lot of cognitive dissonance to us—Spanish explorers raped, killed, enslaved and stole, all the while regularly going to Mass and Confession, and congratulating themselves on their behavior because they were bringing God and civilization to the pagans. As Thomas says, “They made their conquests with a clear conscience, certain that they were taking with them civilization, believing that they would in the end permit these new people to leave behind their backward conditions. 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?” (Of course, many today actually do doubt exactly that.)

That’s also not to say that many Spaniards didn’t grasp the cognitive dissonance of such behavior. Very early in the conquests Spanish religious, led by the famous Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, aggressively attacked their own people for their mistreatment of the indigenous people and demanded, with intermittent success, that the Spanish monarchs put a stop to it. As one priest in Hispaniola castigated his parishioners, “[The voice of Christ crying in the wilderness] says that you are in mortal sin, that you are living and may die in it, because of the cruelty and tyranny which you use in dealing with these innocent people. . . . Are these not men? Have they not rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?” The result was a set of very public royal inquiries, which alleviated bad behavior to a certain extent, though royal decrees to treat the indigenous inhabitants better were widely ignored. Thomas notes “We should recognize that this debate was unique in the history of empires. Did Rome, Athens or Macedon inspire such a debate in respect of their conquests?” But ultimately this did little for the indigenous peoples, and as Thomas also notes, one unintended response was to import more black slaves, about whom (oddly, given that racism in the modern sense didn’t exist) there were fewer such concerns, thus beginning the Atlantic slave trade.

The second theme is Spanish heroism. I am surprised “Rivers Of Gold” has not come in for more criticism, given that it for the most part treats the Spaniards as courageous heroes, in this day of the uneducated trying to change Columbus Day to World Genocide Day or some such drivel. In a typical aside, Thomas refers to Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of the Incas (in a later period than this book—here he was a minor player in Balboa’s expedition to the Pacific), as “a lawyer, and a great leader of the future.” And Thomas notes of the many small expeditions exploring Central and South America, many of which did not return, “These long forgotten journeys by unremembered conquistadors into remote jungles constituted an extraordinary mixture of courage and cruelty.” Such characterizations occur throughout the book.

The Spanish were courageous, of course. That’s something impossible to deny. But it’s no longer fashionable to state that truth—rather, it’s fashionable to lionize the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas as some kind of beatific exemplars, without inquiring into their actual behaviors. But there was nothing particularly virtuous about those inhabitants (and in many cases much evil, as with the Aztecs, who aside from mass human sacrifice only occupied the land they did because they had exterminated the prior inhabitants a hundred years before). The indigenous people ended up on the wrong side of history when confronted with Westerners with superior technology, superior political and other organization, and courageous Spanish ambition.

The third theme is the role of converted Jews in the creation of the Spanish empire. As is well known, Ferdinand and Isabella supposedly expelled Spain’s Jews in 1492. But contrary to popular modern understanding, the monarchs’ decree wasn’t intended to be an expulsion at all. It was intended to force the conversion of Spain’s Jews to Christianity, on pain of expulsion, due to a fear that Jews who had already converted were being “corrupted” by those who continued as Jews. Up to that time, Jewish practice, like Muslim practice, was largely tolerated (though, as in Muslim lands, to a greater or lesser extent at different times and different places). Ferdinand and Isabella ended that toleration.

To the monarchs’ surprise, many Jews chose to leave instead of convert. But most Jews chose to convert, including several famous rabbis and other very prominent Jews. This resulted in an amazing number of very powerful men in Spain being “conversos,” that is, converted Jews. Thomas identifies such men, and they are everywhere. They are priests, bishops, explorers, financiers, writers, and merchants, including some of the most powerful men in the land. So while the conversion decree is often compared to modern ethnic cleansing, it wasn’t that at all—the medieval, and the ancient, mind cared about creed, not color or background. A former Jew wasn’t a Jew at all (unless accused, correctly or not, of still being a secret Jew and executed, as happened to thousands of Jews over the years), and while he sometimes was under a cloud of suspicion (conversos were not supposed to be settlers in the New World, a rule honored in the breach, like so many royal rules), he was otherwise regarded as no different than any other member of society.

The fourth theme of the book is the critical role played by powerful women. The most important, of course, was Isabel of Castile, co-monarch with Ferdinand of Aragon, the monarchs who ultimately sponsored Columbus. She is justly famous and covered extensively in this book. But another woman, lesser known but nearly as important, was Margaret of Austria, Princess of Asturia and Duchess of Savory, who seems to crop up everywhere, perhaps most importantly as the aunt and formative influence on the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella. She also governed the Netherlands (a Hapsburg province) and played a key role in the growth of Hapsburg power. And other women crop up as important players throughout the book, from noble Spaniards to Malinche/Doña Marina, the Mayan woman who served as translator to Cortes in his conquest of the Aztecs (translating Spanish to Maya, which was then translated by Azetcs into Nahuatl, the Aztec language).

Thomas pretty obviously knows everything there is to know about this period of Spanish history. The endless names, dates and places can become daunting. This book is only one of a trilogy, and Thomas also wrote a separate fantastic history of Cortes (“Conquest”). But honestly, sometimes reading “Rivers Of Gold” is a bit of a slog. I plan to read the other two volumes of the trilogy, but I think I need a pretty long recovery period first. It’s a great book, nonetheless, and I highly recommend it to expand the reader’s knowledge.

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