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uneven, too long, stuffily pedantic, but very interesting at its best
on 29 September 2011
This book has an odd mix of excessive detail, lack of analysis, and engaging stories that never quite add up to a coherent narrative. I started it with the greatest enthusiasm, as I was reading about a dazzling array of personalities I dimly remembered from middle school texts, but towards the middle of the book felt lost in all the aristocratic titles, complete cargo lists (!), painstakingly twisted theological disputes, and gruesome skirmishes with doomed Indian chiefs. The reader, or at least I, simply could not see quite where the author was intending to go with all the facts and figures. It was like he was not just mistaking the forest for the trees, but for individual leaves.
Indeed, this is really two books. In the first 450 pages, in my reading, the author paints a tableau of the how the politics of a newly united Spain impacted first the explorers and then the conquistadors of the Americas. Fernando and Isabel not only united Aragon and Castille in a uniquely successful joint monarchy as sovereigns of their respective kingdoms as well as brought a highly independent aristocracy under tighter control, but they expelled the last Moslems as well as all non-converted Jews from southern Spain in 1492. These issues left them little time to pay attention to the explorers, though they (or Isabel) did seem to favor Columbus, who was granted unusually extensive rights. Their stories are successfully intermingled.
Isabel's motives for authorizing Columbus' explorations were complex: spread the faith, open a new trade route, and find gold. While many modern accounts pay attention only to the secular motives - the early voyages were largely financed by private interests - they also included Catholic preachers who were skilled at setting up administrative infrastructures that would endure as Indians were herded into a kind of bonded serfdom (encomienda) under local Spanish rulers. This first contact between cultures is told in fascinating and appropriate detail, leading both to the genocide but also to ethical debates that certainly had some impact. Finally, as the Indians were proving poorly adapted to slavery in the gold mines, Thomas also covers the debate that eventually brought black slaves from Africa, which completed the demise of the Indians in the Caribbean.
As Columbus proved an incompetent administrator, others began to claim their own geographical areas of influence, creating complexity completely ungovernable from the capital in Spain. It is here that wide-ranging experiments begin, from humane to unbelievably savage, all in the name of Christ and gold. Oddly, it appears that their consciences were clear: some fought for Indians' rights, others were content to massacre "cannibals". This is a fairly coherent narrative and worth the price of admission (to p. 300 or so).
Unfortunately, the book begins to unravel at the accession of Charles V in the remaining 250 pages. Suddenly, the details of the European power struggles and courtly life come to the fore, and there is seemingly little to connect them to the Americas. Indeed, Thomas' coverage becomes erratic, and the reader gets lost in endless details of how many barrels of wine were included in cargoes, who was saying what in the policy debates, etc. Bored and confused, I began to yearn for the book to end, that is, about half way through it becomes an in comprehensible slog.
Then it gets worse: in the last 100 pages, Thomas moves into summary mode, covering the conquest of Mexico in 40 pages and Magellan's voyage in about 15. It feels pasted on and superficial, like it was added at the behest of editors or Thomas simply ran out of energy. Finally, the conclusion does nothing whatsoever to tie it all together: instead, he enters into an elaborate description of the economy of Seville and its administrative apparatus, only implying that they determined how the new empire would be governed. This profoundly disappointed me and I believe I will have to seek answers to questions elsewhere, i.e. why did economic energy move from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic at that time? Why did the political regimes that emerged become so tumultuously violent and autocratic?
Further, I was surprised at the stuffy hauteur of the book, at once arrogantly academic in its tiring details and pedantic in its spooning out of lessons that are often banal. (Yes, Columbus was a "great explorer", as we repeatedly learn.) In short, in my eyes, the author wrote like a snob and did not exercise the discipline that a good editor should have imposed on him. That adds up to failure for me.
I cannot recommend this book to non-specialized readers. It is not a fun read, but the subject is worthy of effort.