"To carry out the conquest of so many countries, to cross so many seas and rivers, valleys, forests and mountains, and to take on the Aztecs and the Mayans in their own territory, some great idea was needed as well as human will." (Americo Castro) When, in 1492, Christopher Columbus finally stood ready to set sail across the 'Ocean Sea' for what he thought was India (christening the Indies and the Indians), he crossed himself and devoted his expedition to the Holy Trinity and to the King and Queen of Spain. With the gold and spices (and slaves) he would find, Columbus planned to fund a new Crusade to win back Jerusalem. As he set out, the Muslims were being besieged at Granada. The Catholic monarchs would soon inhabit the Alhambra, and the Inquisition would persuade them to command all Jews to convert or be expelled from Spain penniless. At the time Columbus's voyage was insignificant, but it became one of the most important events in history. The colonisation he started was followed by the Dutch, French and British. Pioneers like Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci (who gave his name to America) and the hundreds of Spaniards they inspired looked for riches, glory and to serve God in the New World. While they didn't believe the earth was flat, they thought an Earthly Paradise existed on the far side of the Indies, and that the rivers flowed with gold. Later the Conquistadores brought slavery, their irresistable weapons and European diseases to the ancient civilisations, and made Spain the richest nation in the world.
Although Thomas recognizes the frequent butality of the Spanish in their persistant exploitation of the Inidians, he is simply not that interested. The following typical quote describes the conquest of Cuba, "As elsewhere in the Americas, bows and arrows and stones flung by slings were no match for Spanish weapons, including ... those long steel swords that even now cause a shiver of anxiety when we see them in military museums. How curious to imagine all these knights from Cuéllar, and other cities of Old Castile, riding across the beautiful tropical island. Unfortunately, the only real source for the feelings of the conquistadores is the history of Las Casas, who had his own priorities when he came to write his book." Aparently Thomas would have prefered Las Casas to have revelled in the imagined chivalry of the Spanish instead of protesting their abuse of the Indians.
But in the end, Thomas doesn't produce a very good adventure story either. In hewing close to the (extremely well researched) documents, Thomas primarily gives us endless lists of the Spanish and other travelers to the New World, with frequent mini-biographies of even the most minor characters. This wealth of personal background is a poor substitute for historical context. As an example, Thomas seems to be at pains to note each and every Spainiard with Jewish heratige (conversos) and yet he never tells us why he thinks this is important (barring a rather disconected summary of the inquisition early in the book).
But perhaps my greatest disapointment was the lack of institutional history. Thomas offers us very little understanding of how the Spanish managed their precarious empire. An encomienda in theory is different from one in practice, especially in these new colonies. This was a crucial time when the Spanish developed the institutions of power that would mold the Americas for centuries, but Thomas tells us little of this.
Also missing is an analysis of the impact of the new empire on the home country. The fantastic flow of wealth and power into Europe begun in the Spanish Empire arguably initiated the transformations that would propel Europe to dominate the world for centuries to come.
I had hoped that these were the "Rivers of Gold" of the title. But for Thomas the most important "Rivers of Gold" were those found in Balboa's 1513 letter to the crown describing the Darien (the modern border between Panama and Colombia). There was little gold in the Darien, but fabrications or no, Balboa's "Rivers of Gold" inspired the Spanish to daring deeds across a vast ocean.
Perhaps Thomas would have been better off writing a novel; for a history of the Spanish Empire, look elsewhere.
There are a lot more thrilling tales of document-drafting in back-rooms of Castilian monasteries than there are of shipwrecks or of men in armour marching thorough tropical rain-forests, but it's by no means dry and stodgy. It soon becomes clear that it was decisions taken in those thirty years that shaped the way South America and the Caribbean would develop, and led unintentionally or not to the wiping-out of the indigenous people of the Caribbean and the start of the transatlantic slave-trade. You can see Thomas finally losing patience with Bartolomé de las Casas, whose well-intentioned but flagrantly inaccurate reporting must be an irritation to all historians, at the moment when he suggests that the best way to protect the indigenous people would be to permit the import of black slaves from Africa. Somehow the alternative strategy, of restricting migration from Spain to people whose social status doesn't make it impossible for them to do manual work, never seems to have been considered seriously by anyone.
Very interesting, and certainly a good book to read before a visit to Seville...
sadly, the mapping is relatively poor, but the genealogical charts are just the thing to base even deeper reading on. Do start here, and the the second volume, about the Empire after the 1520's.