Exploring The Spanish Empire

Robert Siegel talks with British historian Hugh Thomas about his new book, The Golden Empire: Spain, Charles V, and the Creation of America.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. "The Golden Empire" is British historian Hugh Thomas' latest work. It is, like most of Thomas' books, big and sweeping, peopled by dozens of historical characters, some of whom are familiar, many of whom are obscure. It is the second volume in Thomas' three-volume history of the Spanish Empire. It covers the years of the reign of Charles V, who was both king of Spain and emperor of Europe in the 1500s. For his many works of history about the Spanish Civil War, about Cuba, about Europe, Thomas, who turns 80 in a couple of months, was ennobled some years back. He is Lord Thomas, and he joins us from London. Welcome to the program.

HUGH THOMAS: It's a pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: And to this lay reader, your book picks up a couple of decades after the spectacular stories of the unification of Christian Spain, the Inquisition, Columbus, and that it ends a couple of decades before the defeat of the Armada, which I can still remember from history class. What's so important about the second act, the years in between that are the subject of this book?

THOMAS: Well, this is a period when Charles V was in effect the emperor of Europe, the universal emperor. He thought he might run the world. He was in a sense a kind of president of the United States in waiting. And his multicultural, multinational empire is not quite dissimilar to the variety of which the United States is now.

SIEGEL: Indeed - or as continental Europe is now. There's at least one moment...

THOMAS: Or continental Europe.

SIEGEL: ...his Spanish subjects complained about those bureaucrats from Brussels back in the 1500s.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THOMAS: That's quite right. They did that, and they complained about the bureaucrats from Brussels now.

SIEGEL: For me, the story becomes most gripping in the conquest of Peru when Francisco Pizarro and his brothers lead a very small group of Spaniards - against fairly advanced Incan Empire and capture it. And there's a moment that you described, a massacre in Cajamarca that - I wonder if you could set the stage for us there.

THOMAS: Well, that was the beginning of the collapse of the old Inca Empire. What happened was that Pizarro and his brothers and his friends arrived in the main square of Cajamarca, which is in northern Peru, and Atahualpa, the Inca emperor as we call him, sent messages, and there was an exchange. And Atahualpa then came into the square of Cajamarca with some of his nobles, and Pizarro and his friends massacred them on the accusation that they were plotting to destroy the Spaniards. The Spaniards were so very few, and they were extremely nervous, I think. And they didn't know what they were going to do till the very last minute, but then, they thought, well, we must capture Atahualpa, which they did, and we will kill as many of his supporters as we can. And that's what happened, and that was the beginning of the Spanish Empire in Peru.

SIEGEL: You write in the book: that terrible day in the square of Cajamarca was not forgotten. Indeed, it would be repeated.

THOMAS: That's quite correct. And it's cast a shadow over Spanish history in that part of the world ever since. Charles V reproached Pizarro for having Atahualpa killed. He did have him killed later, and more or less said, you are not there to kill kings. You are there to capture them and to treat with them, but your responsibility is to deal with them, not to kill them, because he was a bit nervous that that might have a very bad example in Europe for himself.

SIEGEL: You have now been immersed in this trilogy about Spain for some years, I assume. You've been immersed in Renaissance Europe and the Spanish Empire. You tell your readers where each Spanish conquistador came from, his family background, whether he was literate. It feels as though you almost know these people. Do you feel like you almost know these people?

THOMAS: Well, I feel they're friends, many of them, I must say, and I'm interested where they came from. I'm interested to think of how these remarkable people who, whatever their faults, they were certainly brave. They took risks. They experienced enormous hardships. And it is true. I was interested to think how is it possible that someone coming from a small town in Extremadura in Spain, Merida, they could spend their lives in South America creating an empire on behalf of the king of Spain? An astounding achievement.

SIEGEL: Hugh Thomas, you've also written throughout your career much more recent histories about the Spanish Civil War. The first book of yours that I ever saw, as a teenager, was one about the Suez Crisis of 1956, a little, slim report on that. Is it more attractive to you to write entirely from old archives and documents and artifacts of 500 years ago or to investigate a story where there are living witnesses, not to mention newsreels, photographs, recordings of people speaking?

THOMAS: Well, I have now become completely used to writing about the 16th century where the evidence is all archival and the interpretation of documents. I have written books about modern history. It is perfectly true, you remind me. And I'm still thought of in Spain, to some extent, as Hugh Thomas of the Spanish Civil War, though I've had a strange experience in Spain, because when my book came out first on the Spanish Civil War, I was thought to be violently left. Now, I'm thought to be right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THOMAS: So that's an interesting experience...

SIEGEL: Well, have you...

THOMAS: ...which I rather enjoy.

SIEGEL: ...have you changed much over the years, or is it entirely the perspective of your critics that has changed?

THOMAS: I think they've changed. I don't think I have, myself, changed very much. You mentioned that I was in the House of Lords. Well, actually, I made two speeches in the House of Lords this year, and one might have been said to be on the left, one might have been said to be on the right. So I've kept an even keel, you might say.

SIEGEL: OK. As someone, as you say, who's been criticized...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...at various times for being too far left or being too far right, someone who, you know, finds the conquistadors, they feel like friends to you. I just wonder - this is a subject, the conquest of America, that's been written about. In most recent years, I think the view of the Spanish has been far less sympathetic. What's right here? What - how should we view this entire era?

THOMAS: Well, I think we must certainly recognize it was an astounding achievement. I recognize that they were brutal and sometimes contradictory, sometimes foolish, but still, I admire their achievement more than I condemn it. But an important point, which I mention quite a lot in this book, is that the Spaniards discussed as to whether they had any right to be in the New World, had they - was there any justification for their conquests? And I think I emphasize the fact that in no other imperial history, the British or the Roman or the French or the Chinese, do we see such a discussion of this nature. I mean, my father was in Africa all his life. He was a good man, but he never wondered why he was there. He never thought, well, we must have a discussion with the Africans as to whether we are right to be here.

SIEGEL: It was just self-evident, you mean, that the...

THOMAS: It was self-evident.

SIEGEL: Yeah. This is the role of the civilizing mission as the French would say.

THOMAS: Yes.

SIEGEL: Well, Hugh Thomas, Lord Thomas, thank you very much for talking with us today.

THOMAS: Thank you so much for asking me.

SIEGEL: Historian Hugh Thomas' latest book is "The Golden Empire: Spain, Charles V and the Creation of America." He spoke to us from London.

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