Beginning with the final siege of Islam's last outpost in Grenada, the author, Hugh Thomas, outlines the Kingdom of Castile's earlier history as a tumultous, but dynamic, medieval kingdom. The capture of Grenada is a crowning achievement for Ferdinand and Isabelle, but Castile's rowdy and impoverished caballeros and hidalgos now have few outlets for their earthly ambitions. At the same time a curious and presumptuous Italian sailor determinedly seeks an audience with the royal couple.
The deal they made would change the course of history. Within the space of a couple decades thousands of poor, but daring, knights and adventurers would conquer the Carribbean islands and Central America, carving out the beginnings of the Spanish Empire. With Cristobal Colon (Columbus) as their titular head, these ruthless men conquer Hispanola, Puerto Rico, Panama, Cuba, Jamaica, and Mexico.
The native inhabitants are offered the choice of either converting to Christianity and essentially slaving for their new masters or death. Many flee the Spanish. These natives would rather starve than live as slaves. However, death from disease and conflict does kill most of the natives. With rich lands and gold mines beyond belief but few laborers to work them, the Spanish fall back on a little-known (in modern times) medieval institution, i.e. slavery. Though the Spanish had slaves of all nationalities, it was soon discovered that African slaves survived the ravages of the New World's tropical diseases the best.
Though some brave clergymen, notably Bartholome de las Casas, fought against the enslavement and maltreatment of natives, it would be a losing battle against human greed. Curiously, the Papacy didn't outlaw slavery. In fact, the Papacy was instrumental in ensuring the famous Spanish exlusive rights in the New World - in exchange for a tithe of course. However, there were many, many unrecorded covert voyages by other European nations (e.g. Portugal, England, France) to the New World. The story of Magellan's voyage is also told.
This book covers the deals, the voyages, the contacts, the conquests, the settlement, the politics, and the fascinating adventures of these intrepid, but brutal, men. I personally had not known that many of these voyages within the Carribbean were by large war canoes like the natives used. Also, there were attempts to start religious colonies for converting natives that ultimately collapsed due to greedy local administrators. There is still more interesting material in this book about Spain and its rulers.
This book contains a treasure trove of information - much of it very fascinating and unknown. I enjoyed reading it. I have to admit the book cover caught my eye, and I had to have it. But, it's very interesting and - with over 100 pages of notes and references - certainly extensively documented. I had some trouble keeping up with the huge cast of personalities, though. I definitely recommend it.