Seattle Art Museum/University of Nebraska Press, 240 pp., $50.00
“It would be an history of a large volume,” wrote Captain John Smith in his A Description of New England (1616),
to recite the adventures of the Spaniards, and Portugals, their affronts, and defeats, their dangers and miseries; which with such incomparable honour and constant resolution, so far beyond belief, they have attempted and endured in their discoveries and plantations, as may well condemn us of too much imbecility, sloth, and negligence….
In issuing his rallying call to his compatriots to engage in “the erecting of a colony,” Captain Smith challenged them to action by reminding them of the example of the Iberians in finding “new lands, new nations, and trades,” and cast a baleful eye on England’s failure to accept “that honest offer of noble Columbus.”1
At the heart of the history of Western imperialism and overseas expansion lies a story of imitation and competition between states. It began in the fifteenth century with the rivalry between two of the states of which the Iberian peninsula was then composed—Castile and Portugal. Between 1474 and 1479 they were at war, as Alfonso V of Portugal sought to prevent the accession of Isabella, the heiress presumptive, to the Castilian throne. After the war ended in the victory of Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, the rivalry continued and became a contest for space. The rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in 1487 by a reconnaissance expedition under the command of Bartholomeu Díaz opened the way to the establishment of a maritime route which would give the Portuguese access to the spices of Asia. It was to steal a march on the Portuguese monarch that Ferdinand and Isabella agreed in 1492 to accept “that honest offer of noble Columbus” to bring them the riches of the East by sailing westward across the Atlantic.
“It would,” as Captain John Smith observed, “be an history of a large volume to recite the adventures of the Spaniards,…their affronts and defeats, their dangers and miseries” in the aftermath of Columbus’s epic voyage. It is just such “an history of a large volume” that Hugh Thomas has now triumphantly given us in his Rivers of Gold. A historian who has also enjoyed a career in public life, Hugh Thomas, it should be said, has never been a man for small volumes. He first made his name with his groundbreaking history of the Spanish civil war,2 and his subsequent publications include Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom3; An Unfinished History of the World4; Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico5; and, most recently, The Slave Trade.6 Between them they add up to thousands of pages and represent an impressive record of achievement.
All these books display an author with a voracious appetite for information. They are based on enormously wide reading, in primary as well as secondary sources. Comprehensive in approach, meticulous in their presentation of detail, they enlighten by recounting. Hugh Thomas belongs in the…
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