Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan

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9780375502040: Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan

From one of the greatest historians of the Spanish world, here is a fresh and fascinating account of Spain’s early conquests in the Americas. Hugh Thomas’s magisterial narrative of Spain in the New World has all the characteristics of great historical literature: amazing discoveries, ambition, greed, religious fanaticism, court intrigue, and a battle for the soul of humankind.

Hugh Thomas shows Spain at the dawn of the sixteenth century as a world power on the brink of greatness. Her monarchs, Fernando and Isabel, had retaken Granada from Islam, thereby completing restoration of the entire Iberian peninsula to Catholic rule. Flush with success, they agreed to sponsor an obscure Genoese sailor’s plan to sail west to the Indies, where, legend purported, gold and spices flowed as if they were rivers. For Spain and for the world, this decision to send Christopher Columbus west was epochal—the dividing line between the medieval and the modern.

Spain’s colonial adventures began inauspiciously: Columbus’s meagerly funded expedition cost less than a Spanish princess’s recent wedding. In spite of its small scale, it was a mission of astounding scope: to claim for Spain all the wealth of the Indies. The gold alone, thought Columbus, would fund a grand Crusade to reunite Christendom with its holy city, Jerusalem.

The lofty aspirations of the first explorers died hard, as the pursuit of wealth and glory competed with the pursuit of pious impulses. The adventurers from Spain were also, of course, curious about geographical mysteries, and they had a remarkable loyalty to their country. But rather than bridging earth and heaven, Spain’s many conquests bore a bitter fruit. In their search for gold, Spaniards enslaved “Indians” from the Bahamas and the South American mainland. The eloquent protests of Bartolomé de las Casas, here much discussed, began almost immediately. Columbus and other Spanish explorers—Cortés, Ponce de León, and Magellan among them—created an empire for Spain of unsurpassed size and scope. But the door was soon open for other powers, enemies of Spain, to stake their claims.
Great men and women dominate these pages: cardinals and bishops, priors and sailors, landowners and warriors, princes and priests, noblemen and their determined wives.

Rivers of Gold is a great story brilliantly told. More significant, it is an engrossing history with many profound—often disturbing—echoes in the present.

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About the Author:

HUGH THOMAS is the author of numerous histories, including The Spanish Civil War, for which he won the Somerset Maugham Award, Conquest, and The Slave Trade. His A History of the World won him the Arts Council Prize for History. Made a Lord in 1981, Lord Thomas was educated at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

"This city is a wife,

whose husband is the hill"

Stay awhile here on the terrace of the Alhambra and look about you.

This city is a wife, whose husband is the hill.

Girt she is by water and by flowers

Which glisten at her throat,

Ringed with streams; and, behold the groves of trees which are the wedding guests,

Whose thirst is assuaged by the water-channels.

The Alhambra sits like a garland on Granada's brow,

On which the stars are entwined,

And the Alhambra (may God preserve it!)

Is the ruby set above that garland.

Granada is the bride whose headdress is the Alhambra

And whose jewels and adornments are its flowers.

Ibn Zamrak, c. 14501

The Spanish army and the court lay in Andalusia, at Santa Fe, a new white-painted town that King Fernando and Queen Isabel had built to serve their siege of Granada, the last Islamic city in Spain to resist the Christians. It was the autumn of 1491. Those who know the fertile plain, the vega, in which Granada stands, at that season of the year will recall the slight chill on the fine mornings, the blue sky at noon, and the sparkle from the high sierra to the south, with its near-perpetual snow.

Santa Fe had been constructed by soldiers, quickly, in eighty days, in the shape of a gridiron within a cross, four hundred paces long by three hundred broad. Coincidentally, and after Fernando's decision to build, a fire had destroyed the old Spanish camp nearby. The Queen had narrowly escaped being burned in her tent and had had to borrow clothes from a friend. Several villages had been razed by soldiers to provide material for the new town. But Santa Fe now had a mayor, a courtier who had been among the heroes of an earlier stage of the war against Granada: Francisco de Bobadilla, a comendador (commander) of the military Order of Calatrava, one of the semireligious brotherhoods that had played such a part in the Christian reconquest of Spain. Bobadilla was also maestresala (steward) of the monarchs and brother of the Queen's best friend, Beatriz de Bobadilla.3 There were now stables for a thousand horses. The intimation of permanence, combined with the speed with which Santa Fe had been built, constituted a good psychological weapon against the Muslims.

Santa Fe is still today a small, shining, white town. One can stand in the square before the church of Santa María de la Encarnación, built in the sixteenth century, and gaze, in four directions, down whitewashed streets. Gates surmounted by chapels stand at the center of each of four old external walls, which, in their gleaming paint, seem at once new and immortal. Over the entrance to the church a lance has been sculpted, accompanying the words "¡Ave María!," to recall a Christian knight, Hernán Pérez de Pulgar, "he of the doughty deeds," who, one night the previous winter, had gone to Granada by a secret tunnel in order to pin, with his dagger, a parchment bearing those same words over the entrance to the main mosque.

Pulgar's action recalled that the conflict against the Muslims in which the Christians were engaged was for many a noble war in which men wanted to be seen to be brave. Most of the aristocracy of Spain had taken part, and many were competing not only for the conquest of the Muslim city, but also for fame.

Granada, 2,500 feet above sea level, is six miles to the east of Santa Fe. From the Spanish camp, the city looked to be a congeries of palaces and small houses, provided with water from the nearby Sierra Nevada by the two rivers, the Xenil and the Darro, which were said to wed, as well as meet, just short of the city. "What has Cairo to boast of, with her Nile, when Granada has her thousand Niles?" Muslim poets asked. From tall minarets, above mosques that the Christians believed would soon be converted into churches, the muezzin called the faithful to prayer; but the Spanish monarchs, eight years before, had obtained from the tolerant Genoese Pope, Innocent VIII, the right of patronage to all the churches and convents established in conquered territory. Spanish soldiers on reconnaissance could look into the besieged city: rest their eyes on the Arch of the Ears, and on the Plaza del Arenal, not to speak of the Bibarrambla, a quarter of artisans, and a densely built residential district, El Albaicín.

The city was more like those of Muslim North Africa than of Christian Spain, as one or two experienced Spanish soldiers would have been able to recall. The beauty of Granada's blue tiles could not be seen from afar; nor could the Christians see such mottoes in Arabic as "Be not the indolent one" or "There is no conqueror but God," nor even "Blessed be He who gave to the Imam Mohammed a mansion which exceeds all others in beauty." But the rumor of the wealth in Granada was diffused in the Christian camp. Some Castilians thought that there was gold in the River Darro; while the more hardheaded Spanish commanders knew that Granada's principal product was silk, sometimes brought raw from Italy but usually deriving from the mulberries of the valley of the Alpujarras to the south, beyond the Sierra Nevada, and sold in many colors in the market of la alcaicería.

Higher up, there was the Moorish kings' lovely, rambling palace of the Alhambra, mostly built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, much of the work performed by Christian slaves. Again, from the Spanish camp, one could not see the multitude of arches leading there from one magnificent room to another. But one could glimpse the strong towers and the wooden galleries that linked them. Higher still, at the end of a path bordered by myrtle and bay, there were the beautiful gardens of the Generalife, full of remarkable fruits, where splendid fountains flowed, or so the spies said.

In the town, the besiegers could observe too the strange apparel of a multitude of men and women in Muslim dress, since the latter, in burkas, appeared to be wearing shrouds, these covering not just their bodies but most of their faces. At night, they resembled ghosts. Here, too, were refugees who had fled from the Christians after earlier battles, from other cities, but also people who had refused to live as subject Muslims (mudéjares), under the peace terms offered in such places as Huéscar, Zahara, Malaga, Alcalá de los Gazules, and Antequera.

At that time, only a few of their counterparts, Christians who had survived through the generations of Mohammedan rule, mozárabes, lived in Granada; most of those who once had lived there had been deported, being perceived by the rulers as a potential military threat. There were some Jews in Granada, but their customs, like their food and official language, were largely Muslim. They fitted better into the life of the city than the Christians.

Granada was the capital of an emirate that had come into being in the thirteenth century, in the shadow of the fall of other Muslim monarchies in Córdoba, Valencia, Jaén, and Seville. The emirs were from a family, the Nasrids, which had emerged in the 1240s when a clever general from the little town of Arjona, in central Andalusia, seven miles south of Andújar, made himself a monarch, as Muhammad I. He made peace with the Christians, sent five hundred men to help King Fernando capture Seville, and paid a tribute to the Castilians. That relation continued indefinitely: Granada sent gold to Castile until 1480 in order to be allowed to continue her separate being, though whether that constituted what the Christians called "vassaldom" is open to argument.

The city under siege in 1491 was the last stronghold of a Muslim empire that had once stretched to the Pyrenees and beyond, and had included such northern Spanish lands as Galicia and, for a time, Asturias. Once the Muslim civilization in Spain had been rich, sophisticated, and scholarly, and Castilians, like other Christians, had learned much from it. But European civilization no longer looked to the Muslim world for inspiration. Instead, Granada had been chosen as a redoubt, both religious and military, by the Nasrids. Though its politics had been scandalous, murder and treachery being normal in the ruling family, its mullahs had been austere. Muslims elsewhere had been enjoined to flee there by their leaders: "By God, O Muslims, Granada has no equal, and there is nothing like service on the frontier during the Holy War. . . . Al-Andalus . . . where in the words of the Prophet, the living are happy and the dead are martyrs, is a city to which, as long as it endures, Christians will be led as prisoners. . . ."

Despite such advice, however, many Muslims lived in cities in Christian Spain in morerías (Muslim ghettoes): 30,000, say, in Aragon, chiefly in the valley of the Ebro; perhaps 75,000 in Valencia; and 15,000 to 25,000 in Castile. Their condition was the same, whether they were the victims of recent conquests or whether their ancestors had surrendered to Christian Spain in the thirteenth century or even before. If the Christians captured a Muslim town after a battle, the citizens would be driven out; but when a city surrendered without a fight, they would often settle to become mudéjares. The latter decision seemed a danger for Islam. A Muslim lawyer wrote: "One has to beware of the pervasive effect of their [Christian] way of life, their language, their dress, their objectionable habits and their influence on people living with them over a long period of time, as has occurred in the case of the [Muslim] inhabitants of Ávila and other places, for they have lost their Arabic and, when the Arabic language dies out, so does devotion." But then it was also contrary to Islamic law for a state to pay tribute to a Christian king, as Granada had done for most of her existence.

Christian practices varied. Navarre, an independent kingdom in the north, astride the Pyrenees, was particularly tolerant of Islam, the so...

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