A remarkable Bengali writer has complained of a decline of historicity in the West, of the sense of man as part of history, during his lifetime.footnote1 Dr J. H. Plumb, in a striking introduction to The Spanish Seaborne Empire,footnote2 as editor of The History of Human Society series, laments the same ‘flight from social and historical reality’, and the narrowing down of history to the pedantry of which so much academic work in our time has consisted. Various things have helped to begin our liberation from this arid professionalism, including the disturbing influence of Marxism and the enlightened self-interest of some publishers. In quite a number of series of historical surveys modern man is being introduced to his ancestors, or provided with a family portrait-gallery. Many of these books, Professor Parry’s among them, do their work remarkably well, combining the virtues of scholarship with those required for broad presentation of a large subject. If the public they are meant for is equally successful in assimilating them, we ought to see the result in a rising level of intelligence in our democracy, which might even, sooner or later, have some effect on its leaders.

This is an account of the rise and fall of Spanish power in the Americas, not primarily by way of narrative but of commentary on the main phases into which the record falls, the main forces at work, and the consequences, both for Spain and for the New World. The Philippine Islands are left out, though the title raises an expectation of them, and they would supply an instructive addition. Even without them there is a wide range of interesting topics—the structure of Spanish colonial government; the pre-Columbian civilizations, about which European readers have been showing a good deal of curiosity of late, along with a loss of cocksureness about their own; the Atlantic shipping and its perils from primitive navigation and poor harbours, tropical woodworms and English pirates. All these things have, naturally, been written about before, but very few writers could be as well qualified as Parry to bring them all together and fit each into place. He is seldom superficial, and never dull.

Whatever else may be thought of it, Spain’s seizure and possession for three centuries of a vast continent beyond a perilous ocean was a feat quite unparalleled in history. What were the springs of action, the motivating forces? Parry has only space to offer limited suggestions. He recalls the Castilian conquest of Andalusia from the Moors, as a sort of ‘domestic imperialism’ generating a habit of conquest that would later overflow outside the Peninsula. Andalusia came two centuries before America; there may not be much to be learned from the English conquest of Wales about later British empire-building. It may be more relevant to observe that Spanish imperialism boiled up in a country convulsed by social and religious tension. Of the two grand victories beyond the Atlantic, the conquest of Mexico came a few years before, that of Peru a few years after, the revolutionary upheaval of 1520–21, of the Comuneros in Castile and the Germanìas in Valencia. Italy was being overrun, and north Africa attacked, at the same time. Parry notes that when the Crown took care to restrict the liberties of the new colonial municipalities, it showed a good memory for the sedition of the Castilian towns in 1520.

That there were no more attempts at revolution in Spain for three centuries (except by national minorities) may be viewed as, in a great measure, one of the baleful results of empire. Colonies were places where restless spirits could betake themselves, thus relieving Spain of their presence as Ireland helped to relieve Cromwellian England. Parry guesses that in the course of the 16th century 100,000 Spaniards may have emigrated. (Nearly all these were men: they left a multitude of women ready to listen to the mystical summons of St. Teresa, and flock after her into the nunnery in quest of an elusive Eldorado of the soul.) Empire furnished the Crown with vast new patronage, an important supplement to its resources. Charles I’s subjects would not have chopped off his head if he had had so many jobs to distribute. Still more, it invested the monarchy, as the chosen instrument for the Christianization of a hemisphere, with an aura of sanctity it had been far from enjoying before.

But for the mass of Spaniards empire was a dead loss; a fact of some significance for modern controversy about the working-class and its crumbs from the table of imperialism. The ordinary Spaniard got hardly any crumbs, and had to pay for the tablecloth. Between old-style imperialism, Spanish or Arab, and modern, the fundamental difference is that the former brought back to the home country only precious metals or luxuries for a restricted upper class, while the latter brings bulk commodities that have to be sold to a wide public in order to be converted into profit for the upper class. Spices, tobacco and sugar, cotton and tea and coffee, have been the making of modern imperialism, and with it (the speculation may be hazarded) of modern capitalism. America could be made to produce sugar, but this was already grown in southern Spain; hides too competed with home production; indigo had a limited market; tobacco was taken up more quickly by other European countries. Chocolate and coffee formed a real addition to Spain’s comforts, but they came at a later stage. In the peak year of the 16th century, 1594, gold and silver accounted for 95.6 per cent of the value of all that Spain received from America. This added to the wealth and power of the government, the Church, and the rich, to whom the tribute went; for the public it meant only inflation, currency crises, and grinding taxation, largely to pay for Atlantic defence. Yet Spaniards clung as patriotically to their Andes as Britons today to their more nebulous East-of-Suez. Parry has a good deal to say about the economic ruin that empire helped to bring on Spain as a nation.

He regards the pre-Columbian civilizations as products of an independent evolution, without borrowings from the Old World. To speak of their mentality as ‘profoundly pessimistic, the sad, acquiescent faith of the last great Stone Age culture’, sounds rather metaphorical. These Amerindians were not aware of being the rearguard of the Stone Age, and the pessimism that later travellers were often struck by might be more easily explained by their experience of the Iron Age. Might they have evolved further? In culture they may not have got beyond the Maya of a thousand years before; but in most respects Europe had not got beyond Rome or Athens. Politically the Inca realm was a recent and impressive growth, and much more a true polity, as Parry stresses, than the predatory Aztec State. Both these were top-heavy, and had crushed out local initiative and with it the possibility of continuing resistance to the Spaniards. Once they were overthrown the defeat of the Indians was abysmal. Dash and daring helped the Spaniards more than their equipment, which was superior but very scanty. Cortés routed the Aztecs with 13 muskets, 16 horses, and a few small cannon. Parry rightly makes much of the flame of adventure that mingled in the conquistadores with brutal greed and an almost as brutal religion—their desire to perform prodigies, to dazzle mankind. Most of these men were nobodies from a feudal society, upstarts eager to lift themselves to the glorious level of the nobility. They belonged to that southern fringe of Europe which so often has provided men of mettle with no better outlet than the delusions of Don Quixote or the banditries of Fra Diavolo. Pizarro and his men united the two characters.

Still more Quixotic were some of the early missionaries, most of them Franciscans. Parry remarks on their enthusiasm as an outgrowth of the revivalism that had been fermenting among Spanish Franciscans, and on their ‘vision of the millennial Christian kingdom’ to be erected in the New World. Religious excitement and millennarian visions were part of the social ferment of late-medieval Europe as a whole; and America may have assisted conservatism in Spain by drawing off fiery spirits dreaming of a new pattern of human life, as well as restless swordsmen. One missionary bishop had read Thomas More, and tried to found Indian-Christian Utopias. The outcome was starkly different from what such an enthusiast imagined; his mental world and his real world were separated, like Don Quixote’s, by more than the breadth of an Atlantic. It was an epitome of Christianity’s reduction to absurdity in such a situation that the papal commission to Spain to spread ‘Christian faith and sound morals’ came from Alexander Borgia.