In the empire stakes, the Anglo-Saxons were for long Spain’s inferiors

A review of World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II, by Hugh Thomas. This history of the Spanish Empire seems more interested in the conquerors than the conquered but still makes its argument well

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II Hugh Thomas

Allen Lane/Penguin Books, pp.464, £30, ISBN: 9781846140839

‘Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma and who strangled Atahualpa.’ Macaulay, anticipating Gove, was complaining that the schoolboys by contrast did not get enough about Clive and the British conquest of India. Hugh Thomas, in this and in the two previous volumes of his trilogy on the Spanish empire, presumes that we have all forgotten about Montezuma and Atahualpa, and argues that we do not appreciate Spain’s imperial achievements. He is probably right, and he sets one off to speculate why.

Take Philip II himself. He was musical, owning ‘ten clavicords, thirteen vihuelas, and sixteen bagpipes’. He had a library of 14,000 books, which we would consider more to his credit than his 6,000 holy relics, and an eye for Titian and Bosch. We are told, although no samples are given, that his jokes were amusing. His confessors were usually fat men, another supposedly endearing quality. He worked very hard, and occasionally confessed that he did not know what to do. Yet we do not warm to him, and all we remember about him is the Spanish Armada. His ideas of monarchia universalis are likely to excite as little enthusiasm with us as the European Union. His monastery-palace of the Escorial, despite its erudite defenders, we tend to find gloomy, a sort of giant corporate headquarters that would not be altogether out of place in, say, Detroit or St Louis, Missouri.

Then the empire. Leaving aside the ‘Black Legend’ of its cruelties, its Catholic and baroque societies and occasions are not ones we easily understand. What is more, the English were for its duration virtually excluded from it, and there are few accounts from Englishmen who knew it from the inside. The best, from the still too little-known Dominican Thomas Gage — The English American, His Travail by Sea and Land — is full of admiration for what he saw. Gage encouraged Cromwell’s Western Design, which led to our seizure of Jamaica, but that did not alter our status as second-rate onlookers in the Indies, a prey to prejudice, envy and greed.

How successful is Hugh Thomas in redressing the balance? He dearly loves a conquistador — he has published in Spain a biographical dictionary of them — and the earlier two volumes had the advantage of covering the epic era of the conquest, events as surprising and dramatic as any in human history. He is also partial to grandees, and here he has plenty of viceroys, archbishops, bishops and other eminences, briefly and confidently judged — easy-going, severe, intelligent, even occasionally obtuse.

He has chosen to cover this last period in 28 short chapters on episodes in, and aspects of, Philip’s vast dominions. He begins with the King, and then ranges from early Mexican insubordinations, Aguirre ‘Wrath of God’, Viceroy Toledo’s Peru, the Jesuits, the convents of Lima and Santa Rosa, the Chilean epic poem of ‘Ercilla’, to end with the Philippines and Spanish plans for the conquest of China — indeed, if Mexico had been a relative pushover, why not China? Send a couple of ships. These are reflective essays, with no pretence to original scholarship. A criticism would be that so much ground is covered that there is no space to look in satisfying detail at any of the societies that emerged in the immediate aftermath of conquest. Some readers will also feel that the author is more interested in conquerors than conquered, and that the treatment of the demographic collapse that followed in the Americas is too perfunctory. Quotations heading the chapters are sometimes gnomic: ‘Yucatan is not an island’ – Fray Diego de Landa; ‘There never was a Spanish Empire’ – Anthony Pagden; ‘Colonies are like fruits which cling to the tree only when they are ripe’ — Turgot. Discuss.

Yet Hugh Thomas’s concluding arguments are well made. The Spanish empire left much that we should admire, and much that deserves our attention: its cities and their monumental architecture, the chronicles of conquest and the subsequent descriptions of the cultures found, the moral seriousness of the contemporary debates, the scale and completeness of the whole endeavour. In all these respects, we Anglo-Saxons were for long Spain’s inferiors.

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  • Bonkim

    More barbaric for sure – and the Spanish Inquisition helped. The Portugueses/ Spanish were the Taliban invaders of the times – razing temples, and constructing Churches such as in Goa India, forced conversions or death, disfiguring religious imagery, etc, etc, In contrast British colonists were too civilized and more interested in native cultures and ways of life, even adopting some and bringing back home. One would say more enlightened compared with the barbaric and tyrannical Catholic Conquistadores – whose main aim was conquest and subjugation. No need to say which method won.

    • Historian

      That must be the reason why the British whiped out 99% of the native american population, and did not keep any of their old traditions, while the Spanish married with the american indians and kept many of their traditions (until today). British colonization was one of the cruelest (based in slavery and material explotiation), Spanish conquest was not perfect, but it was not colonization (since it’s territories were not considered colinies but kingdoms of the empire), and even though the Spanish made a huge effort to convert (not through the sword or the Inquisition, which was actually banned of bringing natives to trial, but by the work of thousands of monks and missionaries who went to teach people about christianity). I think that you should stop reading Spanish history written by its historical enemies, and begin to develop more criticism and objectivity.

      • Bonkim

        History is written by the victors – and objectivity depends on the interests of the author, their cultural and historic perspectives – as you say the army of monks spreading Christianity amongst the local populations may be seen as another form of violence – undermining local culture and belief systems. Violence – not just physical – same as Islam the Catholic conquerors destroyed religious temples and other totems of the occupied lands, and destroyed existing cultures and belief systems – enslaving people for generations – still continuing. In that context the British – yes they killed off native Americans, aborigines, etc but that was how conquests went in the past. In many parts of the British Empire local cultures/religions were respected in some form and encouraged to absorb anglo organisation and education for mutual benefit and order. The British did not embark on wholesale destruction of local temples and Mosques in countries like India whereas the Portuguese Catholic Church did and built their edifices at the locations, also forcefully convert local populations at the threat of persecution/expulsion not dissimilar to the Muslim invaders.

        • Bruce Lewis

          Actually, the most civilized and humane imperialists were the French, as almost all the aboriginal peoples of North America would concede. Even Francis Parkman’s histories of the French and Indian wars bear this out.

          • Bonkim

            But the French were failures in their management – they had to withdraw in ignominy from every colony they had, some involving protracted warfare. they also failed to enlighten the territories or encourage education, and social organisation – ex-French colonies remain backward today compared with locations managed by the British apart from Vietnam which developed on its own/under communism.

            The main problem with European colonists was – they were colonised with the clear intent of exploiting the people and natural resources – the British strategy was more circumspect – whilst exploiting the commercial potential better strategy and some extent of the win win formula and strategic withdrawal when things got too hot or unmanageable. The British venture was more business development/commercial exploitation and in the process brought social organisation and cricket.

        • Catiline_Conspirator

          I see that the Black Legend is still going strong in Old Blighty. Let’s ask the Irish about the benevolence of the British empire.

          • Bonkim

            You forget that technologically and organisationally superior tribes always colonized lesser tribes, and in time absorbed them. The less able are exploited – that is nature of man – survival of the fittest – the Irish were ignorant peasants at the time they were dominated and their religion bred subservience (they were already enslaved by the Catholic Church) the English merely too advantage of the situation.

          • dirtybird

            They are blind to everything but their own propaganda, even if its is 400 year old propaganda.

    • dirtybird

      More barbaric?

      Explain to me why it is that in the territories that Britain and their US successors colonized in the Americas, the Native American populations were virtually wiped out in their ENTIRETY. At the time of the British colonization of Canada and the east coast of what is now the United States of America, there were approximately 20 million native Americans living in what is today the United States and Canada. Today in those territories live less than 6 million native Americans.

      In the territories of the Americas colonized by Spain, there were approximately 30 million Native Americans in those territories at the time of Spanish conquest. Today in those territories live over 60 million Native Americans.

      If the Spanish were “More barbaric for sure…” as you claim, then would you please care to explain the drastic statistical discrepancy of the Native American populations between the territories colonized by Britain and their Anglo-US successors and those territories that were colonized by Spain?

      I believe that the answer to this question is that you are just wrong.

      • Bonkim

        Simply because the British came into the Empire game later than the Spanish and allowed every other European nation to join in – also the American Indians fought back and wars have casualties. Yes putting them in reservations and exploitation by the crooked agents was not clever – but we are talking about an era of Robber Barrons and Privateers and Pirates and it was a free for all.

        What you have to look up is the final consequences. The Anglo Empire following its take over by the British Parliament thrived across the Globe. Whereas the Spanish and French Empires – more of an extension of their homeland became bogged down in promoting the Catholic religion and intermarrying and turning native – lost its vigour. Finally had to retract in defeat from various parts of the world – most Spanish territories ended up as Dictatorships – not much different from the French that had to get out defeated militarily. The British were masters of negotiation and strategic withdrawals and their de-colonisation following the American war of independence was fairly painless except in one or two places.

        Look up the legacy of the British and the other Empires – and decide which was more progressive.

        Admittedly Empires were exploitative and not all fun and games particularly for the natives – but then don’t compare prevailing norms within the different societies that existed three or four hundred years back with today’s post-WW2 societies you see in Europe and North America. Barbarity was the norm – regards Catholic atrocities – many ancient temples and structures destroyed by the Portuguese in locations such as Goa to make place for their Cathedrals, may people forcefully converted or expelled – not unlike Taliban behaviour. Jesuits such as Francis Xavier were virulent racists and ruthless in their mission to convert and enslave the population in the colonies.

  • Steve Lee

    Philip II probably was not informed of the fiasco suffered by the Portuguese in the Battle of Tuen Mun 70 years ago. Fortunately, he was wise enough to abandon this whimsical plan. In the early 1600’s, the Dutch provoked Ming China. They were soundly defeated in the Battle of Liaoluo Bay.