Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Collapse of Empires: Spain, The Goldon Empire

That Spain had an Empire; and that the Empire is no longer around hopefully is not new news to most readers here. But I saw an interesting (mixed) review on a relatively new review of the Empire, and thought it would be reasonable to add it into our mix of collapsed Empires. The emphasis here is not on the collapse of Spain, but on their being agents of collapse.

The novel reviewed is Hugh Thomas' The Golden Empire: Spain, Charles V, and the Creation of America, Illustrated. 646 pp. Random House. $35, NYT excerpt: Excerpt: ‘The Golden Empire’.

Charles C. Mann (Reviewer), New York Times, 16 September 2011 (HT: MR).

Charles C. Mann is the author of “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.”

Hugh Thomas’s big new book falls firmly into the genre of Nobody Does This Anymore. “The Golden Empire” is the second installment in a multi­volume history of the rise of the Spanish Empire. The whole enterprise will surely comprise 2,000 pages or more; this present book clocks in at almost 700 pages, including five of intricate genealogical charts. The last historian of imperial Spain to work on this scale published his first volume in 1918, and the fourth and final volume didn’t appear for 26 years. Baron Thomas of Swynnerton, as Thomas is officially known, works much faster. If he keeps up the present rate of production, he might be able to lay down his pen after only 16.

The Spanish Empire is worthy of these mega-endeavors. At its height, it was the first truly global enterprise, a federation that sprawled across much of Europe, most of the Americas, parts of Africa and various commercial outposts in Asia. Lasting twice as long as the British Empire, it may have had more impact in the end. Spain effectively began the trans-­Atlantic slave trade, created the first worldwide currency (the “pieces of eight” clinking in Johnny Depp pirate movies) and rooted Christianity in Latin America and parts of Asia. Its creators were a matchless collection of rogues, ruffians and religious visionaries. Few things, for the history buff in a Barcalounger, are more enjoyable to encounter than the Spaniards’ epic struggles and epic cruelties in the arid deserts and wet forests of the Americas.

On a shoestring budget, the conquistadors were able to collapse two very major empires. The infamy of their deeds still haunts is still not forgiven in all quarters.

The author in an NPR interview makes a very interesting note:

Exploring the Spanish Empire: Robert Siegel talks with historian Hugh Thomas on his new book….

Hugh Thomas: Well, I think we must certainly recognize it was an astounding achievement. I recognize that they were brutal and sometimes contradictory, sometimes foolish, but still, I admire their achievement more than I condemn it. But an important point, which I mention quite a lot in this book, is that the Spaniards discussed as to whether they had any right to be in the New World, had they - was there any justification for their conquests? And I think I emphasize the fact that in no other imperial history, the British or the Roman or the French or the Chinese, do we see such a discussion of this nature. I mean, my father was in Africa all his life. He was a good man, but he never wondered why he was there. He never thought, well, we must have a discussion with the Africans as to whether we are right to be here.

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