Hugh Thomas’ World Without End – The Global Empire of Philip II

By | 19 August, 2014

Hugh Thomas’ World Without End – The Global Empire of Philip II is the final part of an engrossing three-volume history of the Spanish Empire. Those familiar with Thomas’ work on the Spanish Civil War will immediately expect that they are in for a well-written account on the subject and so it is. The early part, though, is somewhat turgid. It is difficult to make a succession of aristocratic and noble titles and an imperial matrix of applied nepotism interesting reading. It’s rather like being asked to digest a 16th century Spanish edition of Debrett’s. In amongst all this is a rather spare resume of Philip II (1527-1598). Thank God he liked art, especially, Titian and architecture, otherwise there would precious little to say. He comes across as a none-too-inspiring product of his time, an absolute monarch with a desire to increase his global footprint.

When the subject moves on to the cultural, spiritual, military and commercial underpinnings of the discovery and exploitation of the Americas and its peoples, in particular, it becomes both compelling and appalling. The Spanish took to their task with an uncompromising, messianic zeal, which was as extraordinary in its unquestioning self-belief as it was destructive of anything that might stand in its way.

Men in Tight Spots

Thomas admirably sets the scene on those who would be unleashed on the Americas and elsewhere. Spain in the 16th century was in chivalric raptures thanks to the development of printing and the popularity of romantic fiction. Those who could read (the aristocrats and their supporting cast of nobles) were infatuated with tales of knights errant with one in particular holding them enthral: Amadis de Gaula. Originally dating from the 14th century, the eponymous hero was brought back to life in the re-published (early 16th century) version of the tale by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo.

What Catcher in the Rye and On the Road were to the 1950s and 1960s, the adventures of Amadis were to the likes of Hernán Cortés, Francisco de Ulloa, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Teresa of Ávila, Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits/Society of Jesus), etc. – a referent to the zeitgeist of the time. For many brought up on this, like their hero, they would soon be drenched in an orgy of blood-letting and conquest. There was plenty of daring-do interspersed with wholesale inhumanity.

Fiction became fact. Indeed, California, a fictitious land mentioned in the Las Sergas de Esplandián, would become real in the New World, and many a conquistador, Orellana, Aguirre, Berrio, de Quesada among them, would imagine or give shape to the similarly fantastic tale of a tribe of Amazons mentioned in the book. It was a chivalric pull on the imagination and a portal through which fiction passed into reality and, in the case of El Dorado, back again.

The Imperial Template

Renaissance Spain was fresh out of the Reconquista and newly empowered. It had leveraged the conquest and expulsion of the Moors by ceding title (encomiendas) to wealthy nobles and the papacy-endorsed Knights of Calatrava, Santiago, Alcantara and Montesa in lieu of investment and participation. The pattern was set, albeit with different players, and from New Spain to Peru and elsewhere, as Thomas outlines, the same practices prevailed. The conquistadores, many of whom were from Extremadura, got titles (encomiendas – i.e. land and slaves); the clergy (the leading monastic orders) got land, tithes and souls (courtesy of the Indians); the indigenous aristocracies (if they survived) where often bought off and the Crown received anywhere between a third and a quarter of everything. Much of the funding came from Spanish (esp. Seville and Burgos), Jewish (conversos or Christian converts), Genoese and German financiers (e.g. the Augsburg-based banking families, Welser and Fugger).

Empire Of The Sum

Whilst Latin America was only part of the former Spanish empire, it was the giant pivot and resource base on which all subsequent exploration, conquest and development was predicated. Indeed, it is one of Thomas’ contentions that it permitted imperial Spain to think the unthinkable, that it could eventually extend its sphere of influence to China, Cochin-China, Cambodia, Siam, the Moluccas, Sumatra and India. Why not? A few hundred men had brought down two empires and now these vassals of the Spanish Crown could be used to supply the foot soldiers for further colonial expansion elsewhere. It was a tried and trusted formula as old as civilisation and Spain was emboldened. One sage suggested that it would take just 60 well-armed men to “do” a New Spain or Peru on China’s Ming dynasty. This was later revised up by a factor of 100.

The Spanish were the first people to give globalisation a go, based on two imperatives: one nominally spiritual, the other commercial. If you transpose democracy for spiritual, the modus operandi looks startlingly familiar. However, imperial Spain was monopolistic and inter-colonial trade was banned; everything had to revert to Seville (and latterly, Cadiz). Spain was an autocracy and its religious endeavours were sanctioned by another autocracy, the papacy.

In a clash of empires they succeeded in subduing both the Mexicas/Aztecs and the Incas largely with the support of those in tribute-paying vassalage who believed that their enemy’s enemy [Spain] was their friend. Not for the first time in history, those who believed this (if they survived small pox, measles, typhus, TB, torture, influenza, dog attacks, enslavement and acculturation and death in this instance) would have centuries to mull over it merits. Divide and rule, which is as old as the empires of Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, proved as effective a means of subjugation as ever.

New World Order

On the religious front the Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits were at the vanguard of reducing the indigenous populations from a state of sin and barbarism to supplicants of the true faith, Christian civilisation. Each order was given its own turf to manage and set about coercing the native population on the merits of faith, hope and charity – none of which was particularly forthcoming as far as they were concerned.

Moral Turpitude

This process of conversion was often facilitated (as in Yucatan under the Franciscans) by floggings, beatings, garrucha (hoisting and weighting), bulla (an early version of waterboarding) and auto-de-fé (burning at the stake). The Inquisition was inquisitive. If you weren’t Christian after that, you’d disappeared into the jungle, were dead or thoroughly cowed. Before anyone gets too excited, though, were the boot on the other foot, it is doubtful that the Mexicas/Aztecs or Incas would have been any more sympathetic to the Spanish than they were to their own tribute-paying vassals such as the Tlaxcaltecas, Totonacas etc., or in the case or the Incas, the Canari et al.

In the meta-narrative, the apostate in the mission gets it in the neck or is torched, and the man at the top of the temple gets it in the chest with an obsidian knife. There was no moral autonomy out there it was dog-eat-dog with moral rectitude largely defined by whatever views supported the project.

Dominican Enlightenment

However, not everything in the religious domain was depraved, some clergy, notably the Dominican Fray Bartolemeo de las Casas, Bishop of Chiapas, were outraged by the treatment of the Indians and so too were Juan de Zumarraga (first Archbishop of Mexico) and Hernando de Luque (Bishop of Tumbes, Peru). Las Casas would say: “We can estimate very surely and truthfully that in the forty years that have passed, with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than 12 million men, women and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like 15 million.”

The Valladolid Controversy

Controversy raged in the 1550s and grew increasingly heated with las Casas putting the case for moral autonomy, and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (humanist, philosopher and theologian) and supporters such as Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca (Bishop of Burgos) making the old Aristotelian case that the Indians were suitable subjects for slavery, vassalage and Christianity because they were “slaves of nature” (i.e. used to it), offended the natural law with practices such as the ritual sacrifice (of vassals and minors), simple-minded and/or sexually depraved (polygamous).

Sepulveda’s position was a form of manifest destiny by any other name and he was clear that “barbarians should be reduced to slavery”. It put no moral constraints whatsoever on Spanish conduct. The upshot of this policy was that abuse of the Indians was commonplace and was frequently practised by the religious orders themselves as evinced by Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar (Mexico) and Bishop Quiroga’s (Michoacán) decision (1561) to take out a suit against the three leading orders, Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans, for routine abuse of their Indian charges.

Las Casas largely succeeded by pushing both the Emperor and the papacy for improvements. This led in turn to the replacement of the Laws of Burgos (1512) with the New Laws (1542). He made implacable enemies on the way, though, not least among his fellow clerics, the descendants of the conquistadores and the settlers (i.e. anyone who would benefit from the status quo). The revocation of the encomienda system was particularly controversial because it removed from the families of the conquistadores hereditary title to the land and at the same time deprived them of their commercial advantage (i.e. slave labour). By 1545, it had been revoked in respect of the land title element.

In his will of 1566, las Casas wrote: “Surely God will wreak his fury and anger against Spain some day for the unjust wars waged against the American Indian.”

Slings and Arrows

When the puppet Inca Sayri Túpac was greeted by Andrés Hurtado de Mendoza y Cabrera (Marquis de Cañete, viceroy of Peru) at a banquet in Archbishop Loaisa’s palace in Lima on 15 January 1588, he plucked a silk thread from a tassel on the tablecloth and compared it in size to the tablecloth. A more clear illustration of the change in fortune for the indigenous leaders and their peoples would be difficult to find. As Thomas remarks, throughout the continent the Indians had seen the Europeans (not just the Spanish) as “birds of passage”.

A leitmotif for the worse excesses of the conquest – during Philip II’s tenure – could be provided by that particularly grotesque figure among conquistadores, Lope de Aguirre, a man who saw himself as not being answerable to any authority, not nature, his fellow men, his Emperor nor his God. He presaged unrestrained power every bit as malignantly as Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Todo Por Patria

Whilst Thomas comforts himself about the cultural patrimony left behind from the reign of Phillip II in the form of Alonso de Ercilla’s epic poem, La Araucana; convents, monasteries, universities and cathedrals; a few good viceroys Mendoza, Velasco and Enríquez (Mexico) and Francisco de Toledo (Peru); and some of the clerics already mentioned, there is but scant reference to the Spaniards’ observations about the conquered territories or peoples.
Attitudes to the colonised tended to reflect Spanish self-interest and were almost exclusively negative. The Indians were feckless, lazy, stupid, childlike, idolatrous, bellicose and incorrigible. There are few references at length that point to the Indian’s accomplishments apart from Franciscan Fray Bernardino de Sahagún’s La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España/Florentine Codex, a work which runs to 12 books, 12,400 pages and 2,000 illustrations written in Nahuatl and the letter of Fray Jacobo de Testera, the Franciscan monk, who wrote to the Emperor Charles V in 1573 outlining their abundant skills whilst chiding the “the devils” who were encouraging the colonists to believe that the Indians were incapable of living a “normal” life. De-humanisation was total, whom the gods wished to destroy they’d render as animals, infantilise or enslave.

Thomas makes some dubious comments about there being fewer wars between the former colonies of Latin America compared with elsewhere in the world. However, no mention is made of the de facto apartheid that has operated in some states; the dreaded legacy of the encomienda system which has led to so much civil strife over land tenure; the huge disparities in wealth and opportunity between the indigenos and criollos (the inheritors of the conquistadores and settlers) and the failure of almost all the states to develop economies that aren’t reliant on primary products, nearly 500 years after they were first colonised.

Where Next?

Towards the end of the book Thomas reflects on the almost feverish nature of the Spanish desire for more conquest, particularly after the capture of Philippines in the 1560s. Much of the impetus for further expansion, particularly in the Far East, was coming from the Jesuits who saw proselytising and trading, if necessary by force, as two sides of the same coin.

Who knows whether the Spanish might have been successful had they been equally merciless with the Ming. However, there is a rider to that. Insolvent states tend not to get involved in expensive foreign adventures. For all the silver and bullion going into the Spanish state coffers and thence to creditors, the treasure ships contributed to rampant price inflation and a huge increase in debt. In 1558, Emperor Charles V’s realm had a debt of 7m ducats, by 1574, Philip II had got this up to 80m ducats. The failure of the Armada in 1588, added another 10m ducats to the debit column. The writing was beginning to appear on the wall.

Hugh Thomas’ World Without End – The Global Empire of Philip II is available from Amazon UK.



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