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Empire of the sun

An erudite view of Spain's domination of the Americas, covering conquest and catastrophe

Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, From Columbus to Magellan

By Hugh Thomas

Random House, 696 pp., illustrated, $35

Hugh Thomas is a British historian of the old school: gluttonous in his thematic approach, allergic to intrusive theoretical systems, punctilious in his research, and engaging in his narrative style. The Hispanic world -- as a trans-Atlantic entity, an ''organism," even -- has been his prime interest for decades, but he has also written books on the European Union and the Suez Canal.

Thomas's career path is enlightening. His ''Spanish Civil War," an essential exploration of the decisive years before World War II, appeared in 1961. Based on detailed analysis of primary sources, the book was clearly sympathetic to the Second Republic, which made it forbidden reading under Franco's regime. It was smuggled through the Pyrenees and became an alternative voice to official Spanish history. ''Cuba," a sweeping chronicle of the Caribbean island up until the '60s, which highlighted Castro's revolution, was published in 1971.

By then Thomas was moving away from the left and into a more comfortable center-right position. He would eventually become a dandy of Margaret Thatcher's conservatism. His subsequent works received mixed notices, among them ''The Slave Trade," which was disappointing, in part because of its poor command of African history. But ''The Conquest of Mexico" was applauded when it came out in 1993: It is an unrivaled modern investigation of Corts's project in Mexico, the resistance he faced from Moctezuma, and the fall of the Aztec Empire.

Thomas has often been accused of being long-winded. The main point of attack is the size of his books: added up, the four listed above total in excess of 4,000 pages. It isn't surprising, then, that his new volume, ''Rivers of Gold," in which he returns to the same territory of ''Conquest" but enlarges his scope considerably, was described by British reviewers earlier this year as verbose. It is almost 700 pages. But that, let me assure the reader, isn't one of its failures. On the contrary, Thomas makes masterful use of his space and energy in analyzing, with care and sensitivity, the 30 elastic years that utterly redefined Western civilization: from 1492, when Columbus arrived at the Bahamas, to 1522, as Magellan finished circumnavigating the earth, an accomplishment not unlike the arrival of man on the moon. Thomas asks the right questions: What was Spain like at the time? To what extent is the expulsion of Jews and Moors from the peninsula related to the enterprise of discovery? What was the role of converted Jews in the funding of Columbus's voyage? Why was Queen Isabella of Castile interested in the effort? And what were the effects of the Americas on Spain?

Thomas puts his erudition to fine use. He visited the majority of the sites he discusses, from Segovia to Jamaica, and offers insightful portraits of conquistadors, explorers, religious leaders, and activists like Peter Martyr, Vasco Nez de Balboa, and Diego Fernndez de Oviedo that are based on diverse accounts, diaries, and epistolary exchanges. Still, some of Thomas's priorities are questionable. Is it accurate to suggest that the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 is comparable to similar ejections from England in 1290 and France in 1306, and to the forced conversions in Portugal in 1497? And why does he emphasize the military transformation of the Spanish Empire but ignore the decimation of the Indian population? Plus, he argues that had the Spanish colonizers not arrived in the 16th century, the Aztecs, a culture dependent on human sacrifices, would have most probably destroyed themselves. But is that so? On what does Thomas base his argument?

Thomas scrutinizes the Spanish colonial approach, studying its limitations: racial disparity, lack of democratic principles, etc. These limitations, of course, were the cause of its undoing. Ironically, the problem with ''Rivers of Gold" is to be found in its lack of adventurous spirit. In the past 50 years a number of seminal studies have emphasized other aspects of history. Thomas does explore the religious aspect but leaves the reader wanting. He presents the viewpoint of Catholic friars and bishops. But the reader seldom hears the Indian voice: What was the initial reaction of the native population to the mighty crucifix? Another aspect left untouched is the clashing sexualities of the differing worldviews, the pre-Columbian and the European: To what extent was the colonial tte--tte an act of subjugation?

Instead, he focuses on the military, technological, fiscal, political, and social aspects, all of which have been contemplated by generations of scholars. Thomas delivers a revisionist interpretation with little by way of inventiveness. The linguistic factor is one example. How did the handful of Spanish soldiers and missionaries manage to force an entire continent to use the Spanish language in such a relatively short period? What tools were used to implement that education? Who were the early translators and interpreters? And what happened to native languages such a Nahuatl, Quechua, and Toltec?

And yet, ''Rivers of Gold" is immensely readable. 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 is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His ''Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature" is due out in January.

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