Conquistadors: Mad Men?

Hugh Thomas tells Paul Lay about his unparalleled research into the lives of the extraordinary generation of men who conquered the New World for Golden Age Spain.

Hugh Thomas first came to public prominence in 1961 with his acclaimed study, The Spanish Civil War. Thirty years later the former Professor of History at the University of Reading and political colleague of Margaret Thatcher produced a masterly account of a more distant though no less controversial episode in Spanish history, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés and the Fall of Old Mexico. In 2003 came Rivers of Gold, the first in a monumental trilogy on the Spanish Empire, the second volume of which, The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V, was published in November. No other historian has managed to portray so completely the terrible endeavours of the Conquistadors.

‘It was an extraordinary achievement’, says Thomas as we sit before a warm fire in his spacious drawing room in west London. ‘The conquests of the New World reflected some kind of combustion in Spain that made it all possible. The union of Aragon and Castile had taken place [in 1479] and Navarre had been brought in. You had some very bright monarchs involved: Ferdinand and Isabella were the most intelligent rulers Spain had had – up to Juan Carlos, anyway’, Thomas laughs. ‘They knew how to organise a country. They travelled a lot, as did Charles V [r. 1516-56]; they were never stationary. We know where they were on every day of their reign. This enabled them to meet people who could be of use to them, either as civil servants, bishops or as generals.’

What motivated the Conquistadors. Was it simply a matter of greed?

‘The pursuit of material wealth is something you can’t push aside’, Thomas replies. ‘Especially when you are talking about people from Extremadura, which is a very poor part of Spain, even now. But they had other motives. The desire for some kind of glory, to cut some kind of dash in the world, played a part. They were Renaissance men and they thought they were doing the right thing so far as the Church was concerned and for the religious fortunes of the conquered peoples. That was especially the case in Mexico, where there was a powerful state-driven religion that did have some horrible aspects to it. The Spaniards genuinely believed they were replacing it with something benign and good. You can’t challenge that fact.

‘The mental world they inhabited is difficult for us to access. They were not rebels. Hernando Cortés [1485-1547] was rebellious by nature but he was anxious to keep to the rules that he thought the Spanish crown would like him to maintain. They kept to those rules by giving the crown a percentage of their findings and of their loot. They accepted the crown’s nominations for governors, viceroys and, to some extent, generals. They were not medieval characters anxious to create a territory of their own. They thought of themselves as loyal subjects of the king of Spain and would do what the crown in Salamanca or Valladolid wanted them to do. There was the exception of Peru, where Gonzalo, the brother of Francisco Pizarro [c. 1471-1541, the conqueror of the Inca empire], tried some kind of unilateral declaration of independence. But he was destroyed eventually.

‘In many ways the Conquistadors were the products of the centralisation that began with Ferdinand and Isabella. For example, Charles V had a committee, the Council of the Indies, which was meant to guide him on what he should do with his New World empire. It was the body that decided on nominations, especially civilian administrators. In the late 1540s it was plainly necessary to send someone new to Peru. The old guard, represented by the Duke of Alba [1507-82], wished to send an aristocrat to rule. But the other members of the board, university-educated civil servants, wanted someone of their own kind, the newly made men of a unified Spain. They got their way and defeated Gonzalo Pizarro and had him executed, quenching the most serious rebellion to affect the Spanish empire until the 18th century.’


New World of opportunity

How was the creation of this enormous empire perceived in Spain itself?

‘Many Spaniards saw it as an opportunity’, says Thomas. ‘Here was a new zone in the world where, if you wanted, you could make a contribution and prosper. The people who created the conquests were not usually the sons of aristocrats. Of Cortés’ people who accompanied him on the Conquest of Mexico, achieved in 1521, I have found about eight whose fathers had made something of their lives, no more. Most of the Conquistadors were people who had been regarded as cannon fodder in wars in mainland Europe and were glad to find some new outlet.’

How did the Spanish manage to settle such difficult terrains and tortuous climates?

‘Darien/Panama was a tremendous struggle. But they were very tough people. The Gulf of Urabá was a well-known hell-hole. It was very shady; the sun never really got to it. Yet the the Spanish had to create something on the coast; they could not go far inland. They did what they could. They improvised buildings for which they cut wood using swords as saws. The business of setting up a town was very demanding. But they were conventional about it. You not only had a main street, a church, a square, but you also had a town council. They provided for that everywhere at a very early stage.

‘There were few women: in the early days the Conquistadors had to be happy with kidnapped or otherwise quiescent Indian females. Bernal Díaz (1492-1585), for example, describes how he was given a woman by Montezuma himself. Later on, his own wife came out from Spain and life began again. Cortés encouraged that and went to great lengths to get people to bring their wives out.’

The brutality of the Conquistadors is often, rightly, stressed. But two figures, to whom Thomas devotes considerable space in The Golden Age, brought what seems a modern sensibility to the understanding of the New World’s indigenous peoples: Pope Paul III (r. 1534-49) and the Dominican monk Bartolomé de las Casas (c. 1474-1566).

‘Ludwig von Pastor’s 40-volume History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages [1886-1930] is one of the great works and it contains a wealth of information on Pope Paul. He was a Farnese pope. His sister was a mistress of Alexander VI, the Borgia pope; that’s how he got his foot on the ladder, so to speak. But he saw the need to stretch out his hands, to hold a light for the naturales, the indigenous peoples. Las Casas must have had a very infectious personality: whenever Charles V saw him he was convinced by what he had to say. He was a pupil of the great grammarian Antonio de Lebriga and probably came from a family of conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity). It’s not quite clear, but I think so. He was shocked by the Spanish method of landholding, which he himself took up when he went to what is now the Dominican Republic in 1502. By 1506 he had become a clergyman. He later visited Rome and was shocked by what he saw there too. I believe he was the first clergyman to be sent to the New World. There has been a lot of work done on him in the last 25 years. He lived to a great age and was very active even in his seventies. Sometimes he is portrayed as a prophet of international human rights, with some justification.’

Were such apparently progressive figures part of a wider current?

‘There was another monk, also Dominican, called Antonio de Montesinos, who preached to the colonisers’ faces one Sunday at Santo Domingo [now capital of the Dominican Republic] in 1510. It was a sermon that Las Casas was strongly influenced by. We don’t know exactly what Montesinos said, but it was something along the lines later developed by Las Casas. The Dominicans were divided to begin with about how to treat the Indians. But they had become the defenders of the indigenous population by around the 1530s. The interesting thing is that they didn’t see the need to have the same approach towards black slaves until much later. Las Casas did, though that wasn’t widely known until the 19th century. The first big slave contract for the New World was produced under the orders of Charles V in 1518.’

There was a little known German element to the advances into the New World.

‘The Welsers and the Fuggers, German banking families, lent Charles V a lot of the money which helped him bribe the electors of the Holy Roman Empire. If it hadn’t been for that money the electors might have voted for Francis I of France as emperor. As a result, Charles felt he owed a debt to them. Though the Fuggers were much the most important, it was the Welsers of Augsburg who were given the opportunity to colonise Venezuela. They were not very successful and had something of a tragic time. Nicolás Federman [c. 1505-42] became the Welsers’ local representative in what was to become Venezuela. This was during the 1530s. He was determined to find the route from Venezuela to the Pacific and thought he could do that by crossing the Andes. He got to the top of the mountain range only to find himself in Colombia, where another Spanish expedition under Jiménez de Quesada [1495-1579] had arrived in what is now Bogota. Both sides faced each other when yet another Spanish army came up from the south led by Sebastian Benalcázar [c. 1479-1551], who had taken part in the conquest of Peru. They almost came to blows, but all eventually returned to Spain. Jiménez de Quesada became one of the great figures in Venezuelan history. He was probably Jewish, too; he came from Córdoba, which was unusual. But all the Conquistadors were outsiders in one way or another.’

Does the stereotype of the Conquistadors as rough and ready adventurers stand up to scrutiny?

‘Cortés came from a family connected indirectly to the Pizarros, who themselves were a grand family in a poor town, Trujillo. Pedro de Valdivia [c. 1500-54], the conqueror of Chile, like them came from Extremadura, as did Núñez de Balboa [c. 1475-1519, who reached the Pacific]. Many of these tremendously inventive and brilliant conquerors came from there.

‘But Cortés had been to Salamanca University and Las Casas – who didn’t like him – says that he was a good Latinist. I don’t think Valdivia had much in the way of education, except in swordplay and riding. Jiménez de Quesada came from a cloth family in Córdoba and, if he was a converso, he probably was educated to some extent.’

How has the study of this period changed over Thomas’ long career?

‘The great book I read as an undergraduate was that of [William Hickling] Prescott [History of the Conquest of Mexico]. He is a marvellous writer. Until the 1990s that was the book people read if they wanted to know about the Conquest of Mexico. I like to think that my book has taken its place. And I think it ought to because Prescott’s book, brilliantly written though it is, misses everything that has been done in the last two or three generations with respect to interpretations of indigenous culture. It was published in 1843. For example, when someone stopped being a governor in the New World they had to submit to a juicio de residencia (‘trial of residence’), in which people could make allegations against them. Cortés had a very big residencia, the details of which are contained in about five large folders. Prescott didn’t consult them. In fact, he made very disparaging remarks about them, such as “I don’t think we can discuss these minor details”. But it is actually very interesting material. Witnesses of all kinds are produced and I think I am the only person who has read it in full.’

Authentic voices

‘There is some other very interesting material: a hobby horse of mine. Often, after the conquests of Mexico and elsewhere, the Conquistadors complained that they weren’t getting as much money, pensions and land as they expected. So they instigated something called an información de los méritos y servicios, in which they got themselves a lawyer and wrote a questionnaire out – 10 or 20 questions –  and found five or 10 people to testify on their behalf. I have a lot of this unpublished material that I am going to leave to the London Library: about 4,000 pages of documents. They contain passages such as: “How did you know about the fighting on the pyramid in Mexico?” “Oh, because I was there myself, I saw it with my own eyes. Don Hernando was with me.” It’s absolutely wonderful stuff. I published a short book called Who’s Who of the Conquistadors (2000), which draws on all this material. It is extraordinarily well documented, especially the Conquest of Mexico. About eight documents have been published, but 200 or 300 are left.’

So why were these treasures not published before?

‘They are difficult to read. I employed an assistant to help me decipher the handwriting. To begin with I found it terribly hard work. What’s more, Spanish historians haven’t been terribly interested in the conquests. They feel a bit ashamed of it all.’

What about the final volume of trilogy?

‘I have started it, but it is far from completion. It will stop in 1580 when Philip II decided he didn’t want to conquer China. Perhaps there’ll also be an epilogue on the Armada. I may not be able to resist that.’

Thomas and I discover a shared admiration for Werner Herzog’s great 1972 film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, easily the most convincing portrait of the Conquistadors. He regrets that Herzog never made his planned film on the Conquest of Mexico. ‘I talked to him about it. “I have in my mind,” he said, “a picture of the Spaniards appearing on the horizon, like specks, with the Indians down below.” It is one of the most remarkable moments in all history.’

The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V by Hugh Thomas is published by Allen Lane (2010).

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