‘Philip II offering his son, Prince Fernando, to God after the victory at Lepanto’; painting by Titian, 1573–1575

Museo del Prado, Madrid/Erich Lessing/Art Resource

‘Philip II offering his son, Prince Fernando, to God after the victory at Lepanto’; painting by Titian, 1573–1575

Hugh Thomas is right to include the phrase “Global Empire” in the title of World Without End, his grand piece of Spanish imperial history. There has always been a certain reluctance, among the English-speaking peoples, to acknowledge their predecessors in European empire-building in other parts of the world. Those of a left-wing political persuasion have often simply condemned Western “imperialism” as a whole, nowadays mostly referring to the United States. But Spain has come in for particular obloquy. Work on the short reign of Mary I of England (1553–1558) commonly reveals, in most historians, a disparagement of her husband Philip II of Spain—king of England from 1554 to 1558—that first began in the sixteenth century, and still seems to possess extraordinary power to shape minds. Thus Mary’s reign is seen as a Spanish-influenced period of darkness and persecution, while Elizabeth’s is an English Protestant Golden Age.1

Yet wherever the British traveled in the early modern world, whether as pirates, traders, or governors, they very often found that the Spanish, or else the Portuguese, had got there first. In his long and distinguished career as a historian, Hugh Thomas has tried to restore the Spanish to their place in world history, for better or worse. World Without End completes a trilogy that covers the Spanish imperial adventure from Columbus’s 1492 “discoveries” to the death of Philip II in 1598, just over a century later. Primarily concerned with Philip’s time as king of Spain, from 1556 until his death, he addresses this period, which may be regarded as the highpoint of the Spanish empire, from several different angles.

The first part of the book focuses on the character of Philip II himself, who has often been the butt of foreign criticism as a coldhearted, fanatical bureaucrat. Just over a hundred years ago, Julián Juderías, a Spanish diplomat, social reformer, writer, and translator, published a book to counteract this portrayal, denouncing what he characterized as the foreign “Black Legend” of his country’s supposed cruelty abroad.2 Although the “Legend” originated in late-medieval and sixteenth-century opposition from native Italians to Spanish attempts at hegemony over their peninsula, a large part of the material that Juderías criticized concerned accusations of tyrannical behavior by the Spanish conquistadores in the “Indies.”

A major source of charges and evidence of atrocities committed against the native populations of the Caribbean and the American mainland was the voluminous writing of the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas. In his historical work on the Indies, and particularly in his highly polemical Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Brevísima relación de la destruicción de las Indias), composed in 1542 and published in 1552, Las Casas provided copious and startling evidence of bestial cruelty by Spanish colonizers. His vivid accounts, in which he equated the “Christian” Spanish to the Muslims who had invaded and conquered Spain in the eighth century, would provide written and illustrative ammunition for Spain’s European enemies from the reign of Philip II onward. Thus it is not surprising that, in Thomas’s account, Las Casas came to be seen as an evil influence by subsequent Spanish conquistadores, and also by some churchmen, especially Franciscans, who resented him and his Dominican order.

As for King Philip himself, Thomas evidently concurs with Juderías, at least to the extent of giving a rounded, and generally sympathetic, assessment of this prime target of the “Black Legend.” Indeed, from his birth in 1527 until the 1560s at the earliest, all the evidence, from Philip’s courtiers and supporters, clearly indicates that he was a fun-loving, though nonetheless conscientious, prince. His father, the emperor Charles V, was perpetually disappointed with his failure to profit from his highly qualified tutors, and particularly by his apparent inability to master the languages, including written and spoken Latin, that were required of a sixteenth-century Habsburg who would rule over multiple kingdoms and other territories.

As he prepared for the events of his reign over Spain and the New World, his father sent him on a European tour. From 1548 he partied and philandered through Spain, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, leaving behind, in Valladolid, a mistress, Isabel Osorio, and an illegitimate child. All this, including subsequent liaisons in the Netherlands, though not apparently in England itself, had to be kept from his second wife, Queen Mary I, who seems never to have heard of them. Yet there is also an “Escorial” legend of Philip II of Spain, dressed in black, devoutly Catholic, obsessed with his own sin and guilt, while backing to the hilt the oppression and violence of the Inquisition.

This too is part of the reality. When he returned to Spain, in the summer of 1559, after his experience in England and the Netherlands, Philip at once declared his full support for the Inquisition, and particularly for Fernando de Valdés, the inquisitor general (or “Grand Inquisitor,” as Thomas operatically has it).


In this respect, Thomas is perhaps a bit too forgiving, though he is absolutely right to portray his subject not only as one who sought supremacy in Europe, or “Monarchy,” as it was described in the sixteenth century, but also as a potential world conqueror—a “globalizer.” Even so, repression and persecution constantly accompanied the spread of Spanish rule over large parts of the globe, and the evidence for this is a recurring theme in Thomas’s book, just as with Las Casas’s sterling defense of the human rights of Native Americans—which, most unfortunately, did not extend to black Africans, whom he was happy to see imported to the New World, to do what Thomas describes, with reference to the Florida expedition of 1565, as “the really dirty hard work.”

World Without End, like much of Thomas’s other writing, is rich in personal and anecdotal detail; its prose is always lively and stimulating. The immense range and quantity of the research on which it is based lead to a succession of fascinating stories and information. Yet the very complexity and variety of the account can leave the reader somewhat overwhelmed, although such a reaction successfully conveys the monumental scale of the Spanish achievement in what is still commonly known as the “Golden Age” (Siglo de Oro).

Every now and again, in the forest of specific acts and circumstances, Thomas draws back and takes a more general view of the Spanish enterprise as a whole. He thus highlights the contradiction, so frequently met when one human group finds itself dealing with another, between standards acceptable among the dominant nation, in this case the Spanish (for the most part, though the Portuguese and other Europeans are sometimes involved), and the peoples whose land they invaded and often conquered. Thomas highlights the double standards involved, and in doing so he authenticates Las Casas’s view of the conquest, as opposed to that of colonizers and their advocates back in Spain, who attempted to prop up the system of exploitation that had reigned since the days of Christopher Columbus.

In the process, this distinguished historian does something brave in recalling the highly unfashionable racial categories that prevailed in Spanish colonial societies, in whichever part of the world they found themselves. Thomas even provides a classification, which contains far more distinctions than are customary in the twenty-first century. He lists fourteen Spanish terms that were held, in and around 1600, to define not only racial mixes, such as Spanish and American “Indian” (mestizo) and Spanish and black African (mulatto), but other labels that related to those of mixed origins among non-Spanish groups, such as a person of mixed Spanish and mulatto origin, further mixed with a mulatto, who was known as a lobo, or wolf.

The only route to being counted as Spanish was apparently to be a castizo, who was three-quarters Spanish and one quarter mestizo. Present-day readers will probably not be able to resist thoughts, in this context, about the Nazi Nuremberg laws on race, with their tortured definitions of degrees of “Jewishness,” but the obvious immediate association is with the racial obsessions of Spain in Philip II’s time, including “purity of blood” (limpieza de sangre) and the untiring efforts of the Inquisition that involved such “purity.”

The second part of the book concentrates on the lives and achievements of individual conquistadores, even including a few women, such as Mencía de Nidos and Inés de Atienza, who broke the taboos of the society of their day by adopting “masculine” roles, just as Mary Tudor did between 1553 and 1558. In the main, though, this book adds to the all-male conquering pantheon of Columbus, Hernán Cortés, and the Pizarros, well known to Anglophone readers, a long list of amazing, and often accident-prone, characters who not only consolidated a Spanish regime in the West Indies and Latin America, which would largely survive until the nineteenth century, but spread their power across the Pacific to the Philippines and even Japan and China.

At times this section becomes something of a catalog, but it is redeemed by the often almost surreal details included in the biographical accounts. There was genuine human courage and endurance, as well as prejudice, cruelty, and rage, in the explorations that were undertaken into the interior of South America, as well as limited forays into California and Florida. Whatever the racial, and racist, views that many conquistadores evidently held, their heroic, and sometimes almost suicidal, deeds could clearly not have taken place without frequent and significant collaboration offered, often at great cost, by members of the native population. Some of the ventures into the interior, on the Orinoco and Amazon rivers and their tributaries, as vividly recounted here on the basis of original sources, show how easily a web of myth and history has come to dominate so much modern Latin American literature, as in the works of Carlos Fuentes and Jorge Luis Borges.


Thomas does not restrict himself to Thomas Carlyle’s history of great men (and here, sometimes, women) as the sole nature and purpose of historical study. His third part also provides a lively and readable account, based on years of careful and wide-ranging research in archives and contemporary chronicles and memoirs, of some of the material bases of the Spanish imperial enterprise. He recounts useful details of shipping and of the equipment and composition of military expeditions, which illustrate the prisonlike nature of the vessels of the period, even for those who were not confined in them as slaves. It is hard for those today who live with technological aids to navigation, and still find the world a dangerous place, to comprehend the exploits of their predecessors, who relied on astrolabes and dead reckoning to find their way across the seas.

Perhaps some of the explanation for the extraordinary courage and fortitude of the Spanish conquistadores may be found in another constant theme of the book, which is the rich Christian life of the “New World,” at least as it was interpreted by its (mostly clerical) Spanish participants. Here, one needs to recall themes from an earlier period of Spanish history, as well as the first two volumes of Thomas’s trilogy. The particular religious focus of the medieval Iberian peninsula, with its pragmatic coexistence (convivencia) of the three “Faiths of Abraham”—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—continues, rightly, to inspire deep and committed debate. There is controversy over just how well adherents of these three religions coexisted in medieval Spain.

This is the story told by the guides who lead present-day tourists around such masterworks of Muslim architecture (even with their many later additions) as the former Friday Mosque, now Mezquita-Catedral, of Córdoba, and the Alhambra of Granada. For them, the tolerance of the Muslim rulers, between 711 and 1236, in the case of Córdoba, and 1492 in that of Granada, was replaced by Christian fanaticism and intolerance, embodied by the military reconquest (Reconquista) of Al-Andalus and by the Inquisition. Although the point is not always made clearly in Thomas’s third volume, it is impossible to understand the extraordinary bravery, and especially the persistence, of the Spaniards in their worldwide conquests in the sixteenth century without awareness of the events on the Iberian Peninsula in the previous centuries.

The Reconquista, as a coherent historical process, was largely the creation of the sixteenth century itself. In fact, the tour guides are not totally wrong: there was a great deal of convivencia, even if it did not, generally speaking, betoken love, respect, or basic knowledge, among the three faith communities of medieval Iberia. While “official” Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, as embodied in rabbis, imams, and priests, never accepted anything other than the absolute, immortal truth of each tradition, ordinary Spaniards often took a more pragmatic and less ideological view, though this normally landed them in trouble. The undeniable fact is that the Christian Church and its followers, represented both symbolically and practically by the “Catholic Monarchs” (Reyes Católicos), Ferdinand and Isabella, did emerge as “conquerors” in their homeland, at the very time that Christopher Columbus began his voyages of discovery.

‘Aztec women and children fleeing from the Spaniards’; anonymous painting from seventeenth-century colonial Mexico

Franz Mayer Museum, Mexico City/Alfredo Dagli Orti/Art Resource

‘Aztec women and children fleeing from the Spaniards’; anonymous painting from seventeenth-century colonial Mexico

Thus a central thesis of Thomas’s book, beginning with the experience in America and spreading, especially after 1570, to the Pacific islands and East Asia, rightly argues for the strong moral and proprietary sense that had characterized the Spanish overseas enterprise ever since Columbus’s crew sighted the Bahamas, on October 12 (old style), 1492. Almost at once, churchmen, lawyers, and administrators arrived, first in the West Indies and then on the American mainland. The religious, above all the fiery Las Casas, developed their royally and papally approved mission, to convert the indigenous peoples, into a critique of the often cruel and violent excesses of the colonists.

As Thomas shows, Las Casas’s views, expressed in the “Indies,” in Spain itself, and in print, never were disregarded during Philip’s reign. Yet the underlying faith, which carried the whole conquering enterprise along, was an absolute belief that the Spanish were a nation chosen by God to carry out a mission to the whole world, in which secular administration could not be separated from religious mission, conversion, and authority.

Although Thomas’s account focuses primarily on the action overseas, it does not omit the agonized theological and legal debates that took place at home over the ethics of conquest and the proper treatment of the “Indians.” Thomas also stresses the vital role of the Spanish administrators and judges who went to the colonies, in their refereeing and restraint of these numerous and scattered conquests and settlements, even though this work was always done in a setting of exploitation and claimed Spanish superiority.

There is an incongruous mixture of feudal vocabulary, expressed in terms of vassalage to the emperor Charles V and then his son, Philip II, and also in the Catholic concept of Papal Monarchy, as represented in the legal demand (Requirimiento), which had to be read, often in absurd circumstances, to the native inhabitants of America before they were conquered, and frequently placed in the virtual enslavement of the encomiendas. Like most, if not all, human enterprises, the Spanish global empire was a bundle of internal and practical contradictions.

At another level, behind this official thinking, Thomas rightly stresses the immense power, for the leaders and not only for ordinary soldiers, sailors, and colonizers, of the popular chivalric novels that dominated the Spanish book market throughout the sixteenth century, and that would be wickedly satirized in Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Series such as Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s Amadís de Gaula, set in Britain, and an inspiration or solace for Philip and his worried courtiers when they came to Mary I’s England in 1554, were the soap operas of the day. The fantastical images and exploits of these romances were used by Spanish writers such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the artful old soldier and chronicler of the conquest of New Spain (Mexico), in their attempts to convey the American experience to stay-at-home readers.

The equally popular histories of classical heroes, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, provided models for actual behavior on the ground. The conquistadores seem genuinely to have believed that their deeds surpassed those of the classical and fictional characters. In this, as Thomas rightly observes, they were entirely in tune with their king and his courtiers, who traveled through Hampshire, from their landing at Southampton to the royal wedding of Philip and Mary in Winchester Cathedral on July 25, 1554, the Feast of Saint James the Moor-slayer, apparently believing that they really were in the green, fertile land of their chivalric hero, Amadís de Gaula.

It is the third part of World Without End that contains perhaps the most amazing tales in this epic. Throughout, Thomas stresses the point that only a very small number of Spaniards, a matter of hundreds or at times a few thousand, sometimes with their families but often not, managed to rule over a vast indigenous majority in the Americas. He also emphasizes, as has not always been done, the enormous black African presence in the Spanish colonies, way beyond the West Indies. After Las Casas’s ill-advised advocacy of the practice, in the early and mid-sixteenth century the use of black African slaves from the west and center of that continent spread on the American mainland, as well as in the islands of the Caribbean, just as the native population declined as a result of disease and ill-treatment.

In some respects, the chapters on the conquest of the Philippines, and other ventures in East Asia, are the most startling in Thomas’s book. Eventually named after the king, this group of Pacific islands were initially known as the “Isles of the West,” because the Spaniards approached them from Acapulco, on the west coast of “New Spain” (Mexico). In the Philippines, the Europeans came face to face, once again, with Muslim rulers, whom they dealt with in summary fashion, following the earlier model of Granada at home. However they also met, for the first time, in the 1560s and 1570s, significant Chinese trading communities, who led them to become entangled with the politics of the mainland, and also with Japan, which had both been Columbus’s original targets.

The emerging plan for the conquest of China itself, which is vividly described here, was based on very limited knowledge of the Chinese from the presence of these traders in the Philippine archipelago, as well as one or two Jesuit missionaries in China itself. In discussing this issue, Thomas points to a significant aspect of the Catholic religious orders’ work in the Spanish empire, which was direct intervention in military strategy, if only aimed at the spread of the Christian gospel. In any case, the entire concept of the conquest of China seems, from this distance, to be quite irrational, but at the time it appeared to emerge naturally from recent colonial experience.

Some Spanish advisers, in the colonies and back home, simply thought that the Chinese empire might dissolve as quickly as the Mexican Aztec and Peruvian Inca structures had done. Just as the capture and capitulation of Montezuma and Atahualpa had led to the collapse of their respective empires, so it was thought that a small military detachment might capture the Ming emperor, and thus gain control of the sophisticated and efficient Chinese imperial system.

In the event, as Thomas shows, a development back in Europe put an end to this extraordinary scheme. The defeat of the Spanish Armada to England in 1588 was not only the severest psychological shock for Philip, who began to ask whether God had actually rejected him and Spain; it also shifted the strategic focus away from East Asia and back to Europe.

The Spaniards of Philip II’s reign approached East Asia, both practically and conceptually, as an extension of “the West” and this is, of course, still a powerful and seductive concept to many in the world today. Spanish action in East Asia, joined, if not always well coordinated, after 1580 with the efforts of the Portuguese, who had secured the trading colony of Macao, inflicted no more than pin-pricks on the mighty Ming empire. It would not be until the nineteenth century that European imperial activity in the region, first by the British and French and then by the United States, inflicted the perceived humiliation on China that still motivates its government’s foreign policy today.

In sum, as Thomas splendidly demonstrates, the Spanish empire may indeed be legitimately regarded as the prototype of “globalization,” in the European and modern North American sense. Although many more specific and detailed studies need to be read in order for modern advocates of the process to understand the costs, as well as the benefits, of mass migration and a global economy, Thomas’s three volumes, including this one on Philip II’s reign, are an eloquent and scholarly synthesis, and a strong stimulus to contemporary “global” historical studies. The staggering individual courage of the Spanish conquistadores, and their faith in the truth of the Christian religion, which they took with them to other continents, can never be forgotten. Neither of these things should be dismissed or disparaged in a facile or undiscriminating manner, but it is undeniable that our world today is still struggling with the contents of the Pandora’s box that Philip’s conquistadores opened.