The world c. 1870 with possessions of the British Empire in red

Are empires always evil?

Daniel Johnson says Spanish imperialism left a legacy defying simplistic analysis

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

From the dawn of civilisation, empires were loved and feared, romanticised and apostrophised, reviled and revived. Until today. Now, it seems, empires have been consigned to the dustbin of history, irredeemably associated with slavery and racism, war and genocide. The entire vocabulary of empire has, for now, been so contaminated as to be usable only in a negative sense. The very concept of imperium is now as toxic as Novichok.

It was not always thus. When in 1533 Henry VIII laid the constitutional foundation of the English Reformation by declaring that “this realm of England is an Empire”, he intended to signal to the monarchs of continental Europe, and above all to Rome, that his “Imperial Crown” was subject to nobody except God. Empire implied independence and sovereignty or, as the Statute in Restraint of Appeals put it, “plenary, whole, and entire power, pre-eminence, authority, prerogative and jurisdiction”.

There is one glaring exception to the general proscription that has descended upon humanity’s imperial past. China, a vast and ancient empire, with a record of repression as ruthless as that of any of its defunct rivals, has successfully reinvented itself.

As the People’s Republic, under its president-for-life Xi Jinping, China is able to pursue an expansionist strategy that is more unashamedly imperialist than anything the world has seen for the best part of a century. Its attitude to Hong Kong — a self-governing people with a distinct identity — is, frankly, far more colonialist than the British Empire ever was. And although the Chinese Communist Party inflicted upon its people perhaps the most extreme episode of cultural amnesia in history, it did not erase the sense of superiority that the Han Chinese have always maintained.

China’s attitude to Hong Kong is, frankly, far more colonialist than the British Empire ever was

However many buildings and artefacts fell victim to Mao’s Cultural Revolution, from the home of Confucius to the Ming Tombs, the subsequent period has seen a positive reassessment of China’s warlike past. Archaeology and history have been mobilised following the discovery of the terracotta army in the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor. Meanwhile the imperial mission has gathered momentum. Xi’s propagation of nationalism is transforming Deng Xiaoping’s “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” into a more aggressive ideology that goes far beyond the original Maoist policy of restoring territorial losses sustained before 1949 — an ideology that is the antithesis of the West’s self-flagellation about its colonial past. Guilt is foreign to Chinese culture; shame is associated, not with the triumphs of Imperial China, but with its decline and fall.

Much of the debate about imperialism has centred on the British Empire. There is nothing surprising about this focus on the largest of them all, in both geographical and demographic extent. Yet in many ways the British is atypical, even an outlier, among empires. The most notorious phrase from Land of Hope and Glory — “wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set” — in fact hints at its uniqueness. No other empire has seamlessly morphed into a Commonwealth of nations, let alone into a still less clearly defined “Anglosphere”.

Hernán Cortés landing in Mexico, 1519

For most of its history, the British Empire was largely governed by consent, by an astonishingly small number of troops and officials. Force had, admittedly, been used to conquer such vast territories, often riding roughshod over the rights of their previous rulers. As Lord Salisbury told his Cabinet at its zenith, “If our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people, the British Empire would not have been made.”

But no other empire in history has been governed with such infrequent resort to violence. When force was used against civilians, as in the Boer War or the Amritsar Massacre, the damage to British prestige was irreparable. The whole mythology of the “English-speaking peoples” and their civilisational mission depended upon the lightest of light touches — always, of course, with the overwhelming sea power of the Royal Navy in the background.

A much better test case for the ethics of empire is the Spanish dominion over “the Indies”, which embraced much of Latin America and lasted from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The term “Spanish Empire” was seldom used at the time, nor indeed did the loosely connected viceroyalties see themselves as colonies. Rather, they were akin to the constituent kingdoms of Spain itself, bound to the Habsburg monarchy, certainly, but with distinct traditions, loyalties, laws and conventions. It was understood that obedience to central authorities did not necessarily imply implementation. This was an empire for which what we would now call devolution was second nature.

Soto’s fixation on gold, which he had promised to find for the Emperor Charles V, blinded him to everything else

When, more than three centuries after Columbus, Alexander von Humboldt arrived in New Spain — as the largest of these territories, stretching from Costa Rica to Oregon, was known — he was impressed not only by its wealth and grandeur but by its enlightened intelligentsia. According to the historian Fernando Cervantes, however, European intellectuals such as Humboldt were blind to the Baroque spirit that infused the remarkable amalgam of indigenous and Hispanic cultures. He compares this incomprehension of Western Protestant sensibilities to the slow reception of Velázquez, disdained until his late Victorian rediscovery by the Impressionists.

Fortunately Cervantes has given us a superb account of how this imperial experiment emerged in a book that also is also highly suggestive about why it lasted so long. Conquistadores: A New History (Allen Lane, £30) tells the story of the discovery and conquest of the New World, and tells it very well. His portraits of Cortés, Pizarro, Hernando de Soto and the other conquistadors are as vivid as one could wish. He enables us to enter the mentality of the hidalgo, the knight errant, the boldest and most impecunious of which were adventurous enough to risk death and disgrace in terra incognita.

This history of their exploits offers the bonus that Cervantes, a lay Dominican, has a profound grasp of the late medieval world from which they burst onto the global stage. It was a world of mysticism and chivalry, of asceticism and romance — the world, in fact, that another Cervantes would later immortalise in the first great European novel, Don Quixote.

Columbus, the most intrepid navigator of them all, was Genoese, not Spanish, but the discoverer of the New World too belonged to that old one. It was not, as used to be assumed, a world of learned ignorance: the panels of experts who doubted Columbus did not for a second suppose that the Earth was flat. Rather, they doubted his calculations about its circumference and hence the feasibility of a voyage to Asia via the “Ocean Sea”, as the Atlantic was known.

Even after four expeditions, the Admiral remained convinced to his dying day that he had reached the East Indies. Had he not clung with such stubborn tenacity to his erroneous geography, Columbus would never have set off at all. He belongs in this book because his subjugation of Hispaniola (now divided between Haiti and San Domingo) set the pattern for subsequent conquests; up to two-thirds of the population died.

Similar depopulations followed the advance of the conquistadors across great tracts of Central and South America. The appalling suffering of the pre-Columbian indigenous peoples of America during the half century from the 1490s is, of course, the main reason why the reputation of the conquistadors has been tarnished right from the start. Famously, Macaulay averred that “every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa”.

The great English historian cited the example of the conquistadors merely to deprecate their achievements in contrast to Robert Clive’s conquest of India. Macaulay was quite wrong to describe the Aztecs, Incas, Mayans and others as “savages”, but he had first-hand knowledge of India and consequently held its civilisation in high regard. Conquistadors like Cortés, at first admired and imitated by English Protestants such as Drake and Raleigh, were later subsumed into the “Black Legend” of Spanish despotism which still overshadows this era today.

It’s easy to forget that the Church has actually provided the chief witnesses for the prosecution

The conquistadors were cruel, but they were brave, too. It is hard not to admire a man as intrepid as, say, Hernando de Soto. His final expedition to the little-known North American mainland took him four years and thousands of miles, across intractable, hostile territory to the north-west of Florida, traversing present-day Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas. True, this extraordinary explorer was also responsible for terrible massacres. He had captured warriors tied to the stake and shot by fellow natives with longbows; after being ambushed at Mabila, he left “virtually every warrior dead or badly injured”.

As Cervantes observes, Soto’s fixation on gold, which he had promised to find for the Emperor Charles V, blinded him to everything else. Told that treasure awaited them to the north, he sent his final report back to Havana: “May it please God that this may be so; for of what these Indians say I believe nothing but what I see, and must well see; although they know, and have for it a saying, that if they lie to me it will cost them their lives.”

These are the last words that we hear from Soto, who died having failed to find either gold or even, as he had hoped, the South Sea, as the Pacific was known. However much blood he undoubtedly had on his hands, he was faithful to his monarch, his men and his mission.

Why, though, do we know so much about the triumphs of Soto, his erstwhile master Pizarro and their fellow conquistadors, and their crimes? The answer, elaborately elucidated by Cervantes, can be summed up very simply: it’s all thanks to the friars.

As the oldest institution on earth, the Catholic Church has accumulated a uniquely long charge sheet. None has received more obloquy, not all of it deserved. For the one holy and apostolic Church, however, calumny comes with the territory. Indeed, the Church is often condemned in the same breath as the Roman Empire, with which it has always had a subliminal association. Just as we no longer render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, so we no longer render unto God the things that are God’s. It’s easy to forget that the Church has, for most of the evils that have occurred during its long history, actually provided the chief witnesses for the prosecution.

And so it is with the friars of the Mendicant Orders who accompanied and ultimately supplanted the conquistadors. They are largely responsible for the accounts we have of cruelty, exploitation and what would now be called genocide against the indigenous Americans. A few of these friars were animated by a powerful thirst for justice and equally powerful compassion for the peoples whom the conquistadors had subjugated.

Cervantes identifies the source of this compassion: unsurprisingly, a woman. St Catherine of Siena — a lay Dominican like the historian himself — saw the mysteries of redemption and incarnation in mystical terms. She imagines Jesus himself saying that the redeemed sinners “are another me, for they have lost and drowned their own wills and have united and conformed themselves with mine”. This impulse enabled the friars to identify with the Taínos, Mexica and other natives of what had yet to become Latin America.

They agitated at court for royal ordinances to restrain the excesses and crimes of the conquistadors; they set out the moral and legal principles under which these crimes could be condemned before the court of conscience; above all, they wrote the contemporaneous histories that shaped European public opinion.

Empires are not always evil — but some undoubtedly are

What were these friars doing there? They were originally sent by King Fernando, widower and heir of Queen Isabel (as Cervantes correctly terms Ferdinand and Isabella). The King saw the exploration and colonisation of the New World as a recapitulation of the Reconquista. And, like the reconquest of Spain from the Muslims, it was a crusade. Again, one must set aside entrenched modern prejudice: the crusades are now abominated as the original sin of Christian intolerance and European imperialism. But the fact that Christianity dominated both foreground and background in the conquest and settlement of Mexico, Peru and the rest of the “Indies” explains why the conquistadors did not have everything their own way.

From the outset, the friars chastised the conquistadors. In a sermon preached in San Domingo in 1511 before the assembled settlers, Friar Antonio de Montesinos denounced the “cruel and horrible servitude” and “detestable warfare” against “gentle and peaceful” natives. “Are they not human?” he thundered. “Do they not have rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves? Do you not understand this? Do you not feel this?”

We know about this sermon, which scandalised even King Fernando, thanks to one of Montesinos’s brother Dominicans: Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas. This indefatigable historian and polemicist resurfaces throughout Cervantes’s narrative, chronicling the misdeeds of the conquistadors and retrospectively sermonising about how they had turned paradise into pandemonium. He had converted to the Order of Preachers after a disastrous career as a would-be conquistador.

It is no exaggeration to say that de Las Casas single-handedly discredited the whole enterprise in the eyes of Charles V and instigated the “New Laws” of 1542 which empowered the viceroys to terminate the abuse of seigneurial power by the conquistadors. Divide and rule had been the principal tactic of Cortés and Pizarro, but the last of the Incas, driven into the hinterland, turned it against the conquistadors. A bloody feud between the rivals Diego de Almagro and Francisco Pizarro ended with the former executed by garrotting. In revenge, Pizarro was assassinated by Almagristas in his own home. As Pizarro lay dying, he begged for a priest: a bold, bad man, he was still a good Catholic. “You can make your confession in Hell,” one of the assassins replied, before crushing the Marquis’s skull with a water jar.

Such skulduggery swelled the tide of moral indignation in Spain that brought the age of the conquistadors to an end. In future, there would be no more conquests, only conversions. The friars, who by 1550 had 85 foundations in Mexico alone, were not averse to allowing the natives to “mingle pagan songs with holy prayers”, from which new forms of spirituality emerged. The missionaries’ position had triumphed over rape and pillage.

One unintended consequence of the profits reaped by the conquistadors was the rebuke they earned from the greatest theologian at the University of Salamanca, yet another Dominican: Friar Francisco de Vitoria. In a letter written in 1534, Vitoria argued that the conquest of Peru had not only been motivated by greed, butchery and robbery, but was illegal because it denied the indigenous peoples their rights: “I grant that all the battles and conquests were good and holy, but we must still consider that this war, by the very admission of the Peruvian conquistadors, is not against strangers, but against true vassals of the emperor, as if they were natives of Seville.” There was no excuse for their “impiety and tyranny”.

Vitoria proceeded to give a series of lectures in 1539 which developed these ideas. He concluded that the Spanish crown had no right to exercise dominium over the New World. Moreover, the entire world was governed not merely by natural and divine law, but by a ius gentium, derived from what we would call human rights, which should take precedence over national laws. This is one of the sources of the novel idea of international law. It also meant that the natives of the Spanish domains were not slaves, but subjects of the Crown.

Both the theory and practice of empire deserve to be understood dispassionately

Vitoria did not follow up his lectures with a book, but his ideas would be propagated through his disciples Luis de Molina and Francisco Suárez, luminaries of the new Jesuit order that would soon come to play an even bigger role in Latin America than the friars. These radical ideas brought to an end not only the age of conquistadors, but ultimately the age of empires, too. Yet Cervantes takes issue with the tendency to blame the legacy of the Spanish conquest for the poverty and inequality of Hispanic societies. A complex imperial system that had, however reluctantly, come to acknowledge its obligations to the poor was replaced in the nineteenth century by nation-states that have tended to ignore the rights of indigenous communities.

Hence our discussion has come full circle. Imperialism may have had its day, at least in the West, but both the theory and practice of empire deserve to be understood dispassionately. Cervantes is too good a historian to engage in the identity politics masquerading as scholarship that increasingly fills the public square whenever the subject of empire surfaces. A reminder that even the first and in some ways most brutal empire of the modern era had its virtues does not come amiss.

Empires are not always evil — but some undoubtedly are. Given that we are now confronted by an unashamedly imperial power, it may be as well to know one’s enemy. What we are witnessing in Xi Jinping’s China is a phenomenon less familiar to us in our own politics than from science fiction. This time, the empire really is striking back.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover