How the Spaniards Got There First

‘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…

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