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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 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.
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on 14 December 2003
The Spanish Empire is one of history’s turning points, which makes the significant lack of information available to the English reader inexplicable. We know it existed, but we know very little of its nature and compositions, indeed, I’ve met people who believe that the Spanish only ever held Cuba and the Philippines, which they lost to America in 1898.
Recently, however, there has been an upsurge in books dedicated to that period of history. Spain’s Road to Empire is one such book – and now Hugh Thomas has added his own book on the subject. In doing so he provides background to ‘The Conquest of Mexico’, which he wrote several years before and is still the definite (if long-winded) word on the subject.
Thomas begins by examining the victory of the two monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, perhaps the ablest monarchs in an outstanding generation of European rulers, over the Muslims. This victory completed their quest to unify Spain under their banner. He then discusses the processes and politics that led to Spain (and Portugal) becoming involved in the New World and the development of what we, in later years, would call the ‘white mans burden’. Not unlike the British, the Spanish monarchy would consider the native Americans their responsibility, while adopting an attitude of complete unconcern over the fate of Jews, Muslims and Conversos, who were Jews who had embraced Christianity.
There is frustratingly little detail on the problems in Spain that resulted from Charles becoming Holy Roman Emperor. The Commeros revolt looks a little like the Nomonhan incident – we know its important, but how many sources are there on it?
There is ample ground for alternate history speculations. The link between the mother nations and the early colonists was fragile, it may have been cut at any time, leaving the colonies as independent nations. A bid for independence on the part of Cortes was apparently expected (although it never materialised) by the royal agents, who spent considerable effort in neutralising him. Other possibilities along those lines came very close to frutation when the Spanish court tried to press laws that granted natives some basic rights, or when the religious orders tried to press their own power and influence over the Indians.
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on 9 February 2011
After his `Conquest of Mexico', Hugh Thomas produces another gem of a book with this, the story of the rise of the Spanish Empire. A book that covers the most amazing events of the time; the discovery of the new world, the Pacific via Panama, the conquest of Mexico and of course the first world circumnavigation. All through a book that is an easy read but thoroughly detailed in every way.

To discover, often conquer, then colonise and to administer so many countries in such a short period of time in the era of sail is simply amazing. More so when the era in question for Spain was punctuated with a certain amount of intrinsic turmoil with the inquisition in full flow, the ongoing battle against the Moors and internal unrest. In addition Spain was also coming to terms with a foreigner on the throne in the form of Flemish born Charles the first after the deaths of Isabel and Fernando.

Discover they did though and the book unfolds to tell us of the vision and determination of the great men who went forth and found a new world and thus created for Spain an Empire that was second to none for several hundred years. Columbus, Balboa, Ponce de Leon, Cortes and Magellan are just a few of those legends that have now enshrined themselves in history. These pioneers of the day eventually prompted thousands of their countrymen to make the leap to live in the new world, to find new riches and to serve god. They believed that the rivers in the new world flowed with gold and in the end Spain found riches in vast quantities and used it's conquistadores to bleed the new world of its wealth. At the same time, as often happened with new colonies, they bought with them not only god but also slavery and disease but eventually they carved out a new world that made Spain the richest nation in the world.

All of these events are truly historic and they are all told in easily readable detail by Thomas. Each chapter is a delight to read and the description of Columbus' journeys and Cortes' conquest of Mexico is particularly engrossing. All in all a superb read of a truly golden period in Spanish history. The only negative aspect is that perhaps a summation of what lay ahead for Spain in the next hundred or so years would have been a better finale than an antecedent description dedicated to the glory of Seville! Never the less it gets five stars as the overall content is superb...
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on 28 June 2015
Superb account of the founding of the Spanish empire . A must for anyone interested in this era and the political and religious motivations of the Spanish conquistadors . This book details the fall of Granada, the expulsion of the Spanish Jews, and the political upheaval in Spain following the death of Isabella of Castile and the transfer of power to the Habsburgs. Authoritative account of the lives of the explorers , conquistadors and the native people of the new world. Some readers may find the large number of Spanish names challenging but this should be seen as an indication of the authors research. The author has physically followed in the steps of all the major personalities of this account on both sides of the Atlantic and is just as familiar with a church in Segovia as a ruined fort in Cuba.
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on 25 March 2011
Rivers of Gold is an outstanding work of its kind . The biographical detail of the main players in the expansion of Western Culture therein bespeaks a major work of research. Likely to be the work of record on the subject.
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on 11 February 2012
This book suffers from an excess of irrelevant detail that all but stifles the narrative. You would think it would be hard to make this story dull, but somehow the author has managed it. No-one could doubt his erudition, and there are some interesting facts - but even these are lost in a sea of trivia. Talking of lost at sea, after taking up a hefty chunk of the book setting the context and charting the minutiae of all Columbus's perambulations around Spain and Portugal, finally the great navigator sets sail. 'At last', you think, 'Now the epic story starts.' But the author dismisses the most significant voyage in world history with the breezy assertion that this has been covered elsewhere before so often that we don't need to dwell on it! Then there are the digressions about the Spanish court's involvement in Italy... ARRRGGHH!
I gave up before Cortez ever arrived on the scene (if he ever did).
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on 8 July 2011
This amazing work by Hugh Thomas deserves a standing ovation. The immense detail given on the Golden Age of Spain, envigorates every page. The conquest of Granada, Columbus's lengthy efforts to get his expedition sanctoned, the consequences of his first and following voyages to the New World, are all covered as are subsequent European events affecting Spain and its possessions. Tou can even discover why Columbus dared ask whether his young son should be created a cardinal!!!

The coloured plates, together with the appended comprehensive notes - which include some interesting mini Spanish quotes from original sources - is written in a captivating manner which carries the reader's interest forward at a wonderous rate, making it very hard to break away to other tasks! A 'bible' of Spanish history - something any keen 'aficionado' of Spain and Spanish should treasure for pleasure and reference purposes.
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on 30 November 2014
Never has a book needed an editor and a thick red pencil more. The mind-numbing level of detail, the endless lists of names and the multi-compound sentences, make this book virtually unreadable. Worse, the insistence on cramming in every fact the author knows about the subject leaves no space for exploring some of the genuinely interesting ideas he unearths.

Here are a, sadly not untypical, couple of sentences. “One such [navigator] was Antonio de Alaminos, the pioneer of the use of the Gulf Stream, who now began his maritime life with Columbus as a cabin boy; and Juan Bono de Quejo, a Basque, from San Sebastian. The chief clerk of the fleet was Diego Méndez, an old ally of Columbus, a Sevillano of Portuguese origin who, having fought on the losing side in the civil war of La Beltraneja, had accompanied Lope de Alburquerque, Count of Peñaflor, in a long exile in France, Flanders and even England.” (Chapter 15)

At a quick count, there are 11 facts in those two sentences that the general reader does not need or want to know, and one fascinating one, about pioneering the “use” of the Gulf Stream, that is stated tantalisingly, and then ignored. How did Alaminos use the Gulf Stream? What use did subsequent navigators make of his knowledge? How did this affect future exploration? We will have to do our own research if we want to know.

The book also suffers from a lack of any thesis or point of view. To take just one example of an area where a better writer, in a better book, would have added interest to the endless recitation of facts: There are numerous references to “conversos” (Jews who had been forced by the Inquisition to convert to Christianity). However, although apparently every converso who took part in the explorations is identified as such, there is no discussion of what impact their status had. Did their erstwhile Jewish faith alter the way they approached the indigenous peoples, or did their commercial relationships change the patterns of trade, or did the fact of their being conversos make any difference at all to the conquest of the Spanish empire? This book certainly won’t offer any ideas or debate or conclusions.

As a source book for an academic, this book would have value, for the general reader its only virtue is as a cure for insomnia.
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on 13 February 2013
"Rivers of gold" starts off well, with a lively history of the Columbus first voyage. Once the Spanish are established in Hispaniola, though, the narration slows down to a crawl; the author takes pains to enumerate all the people (including thei pedigree and CV) concerned in every minor action, so it becomes impossible to follow the main story; the reader, distracted by way too many insignificant details, loses sight of the major ones (and, in the process, gets bored) so the end of the book comes as a relief. This is a pity, as the story is a compelling one and the author has a monumental knowledge of the subject; too bad, then, that all the important facts become muddled in a sea of distractions.
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on 11 May 2014
The sudden rise of early modern Spain and its world changing discoveries and conquests is arguably the most gripping,inspiring and shocking story in all of history.

The input of scholarship is this book cannot be questioned. However, it is written in a style that is ponderous and at a pace that falters and sidetracks itself all over the place. I made two attempts to read this book but gave up each time before page 100.

It will be very useful if one is studying this epochal period of history at degree level or beyond. For the more general reader, something just a little more focused and racier in style would be most welcome.
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