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The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan

A-RiversGoldThe three decades between 1491 and 1522 forever altered the course of Western civilization. So argues Lord Thomas in this look at Spain’s explosive rise as an empire. Thomas starts with Ferdinand and Isabel’s conquest of Granada (with Catholicism now prevailing on the Iberian Peninsula) and Columbus’s arrival at the Bahamas, and ends with Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. In between, he discusses Spain’s explorers, religious leaders, sailors, and its Jews and Moors. He delves into the culture of discovery (from Mexico to Jamaica), Columbus’s voyage, the Americas’ effects on Spain, the rise of the colonies, and the treatment of Native Americans. In the end, Spain’s far-reaching conquests rewrote our modern world history.
Random. 720 pages. $35. ISBN: 0375502041

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[This story] has rarely been told before in its entirety or with such flare. … Rivers of Gold has all the virtues of its predecessors: an unflagging narrative, a host of characters and a way of holding the reader’s attention even when recounting the often-wearying details of early-modern diplomatic history." Anthony Pagden

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"A book the size of Rivers of Gold would be an astonishing work by any author, yet its publication simply affirms Hugh Thomas’s record as one of the most productive and wide-ranging historians of modern times." Paul Kennedy

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"How did they do it? In the splendid Rivers of Gold, Hugh Thomas builds on five centuries of scholarship—including his own authoritative studies of Cuba, the Atlantic slave trade and the conquest of Mexico—to answer that question. In the process, he delivers a rich and sweeping narrative and offers multiple answers to an even more compelling question: Why?" Francis X. Rocca

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ironically, the problem with Rivers of Gold is to be found in its lack of adventurous spirit. … It is a larger-than-life mural, at once ruthless, expansive, and colorful, that prompts us to ask a timely question: Are empires aware of the mistakes they make?" Ilan Stavans

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Handsomely illustrated and written with verve—I especially like Thomas’s firsthand descriptions of virtually all the many places mentioned in the book—Rivers of Gold is not without flaws, particularly in its lack of a clearly articulated perspective on events that are fairly well known." Richard L. Kagan

Miami Herald 3 of 5 Stars
"He doesn’t break any ground, and he largely ducks the hot controversies among his colleagues about the true causes of the Inquisition or the demographic collapse of the Indians. … This is history at its most traditional." Anne Bartlett

Orlando Sentinel 2 of 5 Stars
"Unlike most previous histories, Thomas goes to particular pains to depict the intrigues of the life at court of ‘The Catholic Kings,’ Ferdinand and Isabella, and the non-Spanish-speaking Hapsburg, Charles V, who succeeded them. … But the short shrift he gives the actual conquests means that while he provides a thorough account of the march through the Indies, there is no payoff at the end." Roger Moore

Critical Summary

"Lord" Thomas’s old school style privileges grand themes and rich descriptions over theory. It all adds up to a sweeping history of a brief but crucial period of the Spanish Empire. While Thomas doesn’t say anything new (and writes from an outdated Eurocentric perspective), he recounts the story of Spain’s rise—and the subversion of imperial ventures by private interests—with great panache. Household names (remember Balboa, Columbus, and Ferdinand and Isabel?) as well as lesser-known figures come alive. A family tree, glossary, and fascinating endnotes supplement his narrative. But, Thomas skims over some key themes (such as the conquest of the Aztecs and the Native Americans), and his arcane language, myriad details, and breezy narrative may sidetrack some readers.

About Hugh Thomas

Thomas established his reputation as a first-rate historian of Spain and Hispanic culture with The Spanish Civil War (1961). As he moved away from the left, he embraced Thatcher’s conservatism, serving as an adviser to her during the ‘80s and rewriting his political views into new histories. Thomas served as Professor of History at the University of Reading between 1966 and 1975, directed the Centre for Policy Studies in London between 1979 and 1991, and participates in the House of Lords.


The Spanish Civil War | (1961): Sympathetic to the Second Republic, this work on the Spanish Civil War was banned under Franco’s regime. Winner of the Somerset Maugham Prize.

Cuba or the Pursuit of Freedom | (1971): A classic history of Cuban history, from the British capture of Havana in the 1700s through Fidel Castro’s reign.

Armed Truce The Beginnings of the Cold War, 1945-1946 | (1987): A traditional examination of the underpinnings of conflict between the U.S. and Soviet Union.

The Slave Trade The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 | (1997): Not as generally well received as his previous works, this history analyzes the rise of the slave trade between Africa and the Americas.

World History The Story of Mankind from Prehistory to the Present | (1996): From prehistory to the age of agriculture, industry, and democracy, a synthetic and thematic history of our role on earth.

Conquest Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico | (1994): The first major look at Spain’s conquest of Mexico (and the Aztec Empire) since William H. Prescott’s mid-19th century epic, History of the Conquest of Mexico.