The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)


The Road of Gold

The world changed in the late fifteenth century. There was no apocalypse, no end of time, as Columbus and others feared – at least not as far as Europe was concerned. A series of long-range expeditions setting out from Spain and Portugal connected the Americas to Africa and Europe and ultimately to Asia for the first time. In the process, new trade routes were established, in some cases extending existing networks, in others replacing them. Ideas, goods and people began to move further and more quickly than at any time in human history – and in greater numbers too.

The new dawn propelled Europe to centre-stage, enveloping it in golden light and blessing it with a series of golden ages. Its rise, however, brought terrible suffering in newly discovered locations. There was a price for the magnificent cathedrals, the glorious art and the rising standards of living that blossomed from the sixteenth century onwards. It was paid by populations living across the oceans: Europeans were able not only to explore the world but to dominate it. They did so thanks to the relentless advances in military and naval technology that provided an unassailable advantage over the populations they came into contact with. The age of empire and the rise of the west were built on the capacity to inflict violence on a major scale. The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, the progression towards democracy, civil liberty and human rights, were not the result of an unseen chain linking back to Athens in antiquity or a natural state of affairs in Europe; they were the fruits of political, military and economic success in faraway continents.

This seemed unlikely when Columbus set sail into the unknown in 1492. Reading his logbook in the twenty-first century, excitement and fear, optimism and anxiety still spill out of it. Certain though he was of finding the Great Khan – and of the role he would play in the liberation of Jerusalem – there was, he knew, every chance that the journey would end in death and disaster. He was heading for the east, he wrote, not by the ‘way it is customary to go, but by the route to the West, by which route we do not know for certain that anyone previously has passed’.1

There was, nevertheless, some precedent for this ambitious expedition. Columbus and his crews were part of a long and successful period of exploration that had seen new parts of the world open up in Africa and the eastern Atlantic to the Christian powers on the Iberian peninsula. This had been driven in part by attempts to access the gold markets of West Africa. The mineral wealth of this region was the stuff of legend, a region known to early Muslim writers simply as ‘the land of gold’. Some contended that ‘gold grows in the sand as carrots do, and is picked at sunrise’. Others thought the water had magical properties that made bullion grow in the darkness.2 The output of gold was prodigious and its economic effects were huge: chemical analysis shows that Muslim Egypt’s famously fine coinage was made from gold from western Africa, transported by trans-Saharan trade routes.3

Much of this commercial exchange was controlled from late antiquity onwards by Wangara traders.4 Malian by origin, these tribesmen played much the same role that Sogdian merchants did in Asia, traversing difficult terrain and setting up points along the dangerous routes across the desert to enable them to trade over long distance. This commercial traffic led to the emergence of a network of oases and trading bases, and in time to the development of flourishing cities such as Djenné, Gao and Timbuktu, which became home to royal palaces and splendid mosques, protected by magnificent baked brick walls.5

By the early fourteenth century, Timbuktu in particular was not just an important commercial centre but a hub for scholars, musicians, artists and students who gathered around the Sankoré, Djinguereber and Sīdī Yaimageyā mosques, beacons of intellectual discourse and home to countless manuscripts collected from all over Africa.6

Not surprisingly, the region attracted attention from thousands of miles away. There had been gasps in Cairo when Mansa Musa – or Musa, King of Kings of the Malian Empire – ‘a devout and just man’ whose like had not been seen before, passed through the city in the fourteenth century on his way to Mecca on pilgrimage, accompanied by an enormous retinue and carrying huge amounts of gold to give as presents. So much was spent in the markets during his visit to the city that a mini-depression is supposed to have been triggered across the Mediterranean basin and in the Middle East as the price of bullion apparently plummeted under the pressure of the huge inflow of new capital.7

Writers and travellers from far-distant countries made it their business carefully to note down royal lineages of the Malian kings, and to record the court ceremonies of Timbuktu. The great North African traveller Ibn Baimageimageūimagea, for example, journeyed across the Sahara to see the city and its majestic Mansa Musa for himself. The ruler would come out of the palace wearing a gold skullcap and a tunic made of the finest red cloth, behind musicians playing gold- and silver-stringed instruments. He would then sit in a lavishly decorated pavilion – topped by a golden bird the size of a falcon – to hear the day’s news from across his empire. With astonishing wealth at the king’s disposal, Ibn Baimageimageūimagea found it hard to hide his disappointment that Mansa Musa was not more lavish with his gifts – at least to him. ‘He is a miserly king,’ Baimageimageūimagea wrote, ‘not a man from whom one might hope for a rich present.’8

Christian Europe’s interest had also been piqued by tales of legendary riches that followed the gold being traded in Egypt and along the North African coast, in cities like Tunis, Ceuta and Bougie, which had been home for centuries to colonies of merchants from Pisa, Amalfi and above all Genoa, the primary conduit of African gold in the Mediterranean.9 Despite these mercantile contacts, there was little knowledge or understanding in Europe of how gold reached the coastal cities, or of the complex networks that brought ivory, rock crystal, hides and tortoiseshell from as far away as the Limpopo up the Swahili coast and into the African interior, as well as to the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. From Europe’s perspective, the Sahara was a blanket that shrouded the rest of the continent in mystery: there was no way of knowing what went on beyond the narrow, fertile coastal strip of North Africa.10

There certainly was an awareness, on the other hand, that land beyond the desert was home to great riches. This is something neatly captured by the famous Catalan Atlas, a map commissioned by Pedro IV of Aragon in the late fourteenth century, which depicts a dark-skinned ruler, usually assumed to be Mansa Musa, dressed in western fashion and holding a huge nugget of gold alongside a note spelling out the scale of his wealth: ‘so abundant is the gold found in his country’, it says, ‘that he is the richest and most noble king in the land’.11

For a long time, however, the pursuit of direct access to the gold and treasures of western Africa remained fruitless; the barren coastline of what is now southern Morocco and Mauritania offered small incentive and even less reward, and there seemed little point in sailing south past hundreds of miles of inhospitable and uninhabited desert into the unknown. Then, in the fifteenth century, slowly, the world began to open up.

Expeditions into the eastern Atlantic and down the African coast had led to the discovery of a series of island groups, including the Canary Islands, Madeira and the Azores. As well as raising the possibility of further discoveries, they also became lucrative oases in their own right thanks to their climate and rich soils that made them perfectly suited to crops like sugar, which was soon being exported not only to Bristol and Flanders but as far as the Black Sea. By the time Columbus set sail, Madeira alone was producing more than 3 million pounds in weight of sugar per year – albeit at the cost of what one scholar has described as early modern ‘ecocide’, as forests were cleared and non-native animal species like rabbits and rats multiplied in such numbers that they were seen as a form of divine punishment.12

Although the ambitious rulers of Castile, who had slowly consolidated power in most of the Iberian peninsula, had an eye on expanding into this New World, it was the Portuguese who seized the initiative.13 Since the thirteenth century, Portugal had been actively building trading links to connect northern and southern Europe with the markets of Africa. As early as the reign of King Dinis (ruled 1279–1325), large transport ships were regularly dispatched to ‘Flanders, England, Normandy, Britain and La Rochelle’ as well as to ‘Seville and other parts’ of the Mediterranean, filled with goods from Muslim North Africa and elsewhere.14

Now, as Portugal’s ambitions began to grow, so did its might. First, Genoa was squeezed out of the gold trade; then in 1415, after years of planning, Ceuta, a Muslim city on the North African coast, was captured. This was little more than a statement of intent, for it had limited strategic or economic value. If anything, in fact, it proved counter-productive as it came at considerable expense, upset long-standing commercial ties and antagonised the local population thanks to heavy-handed gestures such as the celebration of Mass in the city’s great mosque, which was converted into a Christian church.15

This belligerent posturing was part of a wider hostility towards Islam that was growing across the Iberian peninsula at the time. When Henry the Navigator, the son of the King of Portugal, wrote to the Pope in 1454 to request a monopoly over the navigation of the Atlantic, he said his motivation was to reach ‘the Indians who, it is said, worship the name of Christ, so that we can . . . persuade them to come to the aid of the Christians against the Saracens’.16

Such sweeping ambitions were not the full story, since requests to legitimise Portuguese expansion were as much about thwarting European rivals as they were about leading a charge against the Islamic world. And in fact Portugal’s lucky break came not from provoking discord with Muslim traders and disrupting traditional markets but from finding new ones. Of crucial importance were the island groups in the eastern Atlantic, which facilitated exploration, providing harbours and havens that could serve as bases for taking on provisions and fresh water and enabling ships to sail further from home with greater security.

From the middle of the fifteenth century, colonies were settled as part of a deliberate effort to extend Portugal’s tentacles and establish control over the most important sea lanes. Arguim, just off the west coast of modern Mauritania, and then São Jorge da Mina on the Atlantic seashore of modern Ghana, were built as fortresses that also had extensive warehousing facilities.17 These were designed to enable the accurate cataloguing of imports, something that was significant for the Portuguese crown which insisted that trade to Africa from the mid-fifteenth century was a royal monopoly.18 An administrative framework was established from the very start which formally set out how each of the latest points on the expanding Portuguese maritime network should be run. When new discoveries were made, such as the Cape Verde islands in the 1450s, there was a tried and tested template that could be applied.19

The Castilians did not sit idly by as this happened; they attempted to loosen the Portuguese grip on the newly founded points along the chain running south, using direct force against ships flying their rival’s flag. Tensions were soothed by the Treaty of Alcáçovas in 1479, which gave Castile control of the Canary Islands on the one hand, while conceding authority over the other island groups as well as control over trade with West Africa to Portugal on the other.20

However, it was not high politics, papal grants or royal competition over territorial possessions that opened up Africa and transformed the fortunes of western Europe. The real breakthrough came when entrepreneurial ships’ captains realised that in addition to trading oil and skins and looking for opportunities to buy gold, there were easier and better opportunities on offer. As had proved the case many times before in the history of Europe, the best money was to be had in the trafficking of people.

The African slave trade exploded in the fifteenth century: it proved highly lucrative from the outset. There was considerable demand for manpower to work on farms and plantations in Portugal – with slaves brought back in such numbers that the crown prince who sponsored the first expeditions was compared to no less a figure than Alexander the Great for having forged a new age of empire. It was not long before the houses of the wealthy were described as ‘being full to overflowing of male and female slaves’, allowing their owners to use their capital elsewhere and become even richer.21

Few showed any moral repugnance at enslaving people captured in western Africa, even if some sources suggest empathy. One Portuguese chronicler records the groans, wails and tears of a group of Africans who had been captured in one raid on the west coast and brought back to Lagos in 1444. As it dawned on the captives that it was now necessary ‘to part fathers from sons, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers’, the sorrows intensified – even for those watching: ‘what heart, however hard it might be, would not be pierced with piteous feeling to see that company?’ noted one onlooker.22

Such reactions were rare, with neither buyers nor sellers sparing a thought for those who were sold. Nor did the crown, which saw slaves not only as additional manpower but also as a source of income via the quinto – the tax of one-fifth of the profit on revenues of trade with Africa – and for which, therefore, the greater the numbers brought back and sold the better.23 And even the chronicler who claimed to have been moved by what he saw on the quayside in Lagos had no qualms when, two years later, he took part in a slaving raid in which a woman and her two-year-old son, spotted collecting shellfish on a beach, were captured along with a fourteen-year-old girl who struggled so furiously that it took three men to force her into the boat. At least, says the chronicler matter-of-factly, she ‘had a pleasurable presence for a Guinean’.24 Men, women and children were routinely rounded up in raids that resembled animal hunts. Some begged the crown prince for a licence to equip multiple vessels and head off in convoy. Not only did he approve, but he ‘at once commanded . . . banners to be made, with the Cross of the Order of Jesus Christ’ – one for each ship. Human trafficking was thus in league with the crown and with God.25

All this new money did not impress everyone back home. One visitor from Poland in the late fifteenth century was struck by the lack of grace, elegance and sophistication of the country’s inhabitants. The men of Portugal, he wrote, were ‘coarse, poor, lacking in good manners and ignorant despite the pretence of wisdom’. As for the women, ‘few are beautiful; almost all look like men, though in general they have lovely black eyes’. They also had magnificent posteriors, he added, ‘so full that I say it in all truth in the whole world nothing finer is to be seen’. Nevertheless, it was only fair to note that the women were also lewd, greedy, fickle, mean and dissolute.26

Although the slave trade had considerable impact on the Portuguese domestic economy, the role it played in the exploration and discovery of the long African coastline in the fifteenth century was much more important. Portuguese vessels kept sailing ever southwards to seek their prey, finding time and again that the further they went, the less well-defended settlements proved to be. Curious village elders and chieftains who marched out to meet those arriving from Europe were routinely butchered on the spot, their shields and spears taken as trophies for the king or crown prince.27

Spurred onwards in search of rich and easy pickings, explorers pushed ever further along the African coast in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. In addition to slaving expeditions, ships bearing emissaries were dispatched by King João II of Portugal, who was keen to build close relations with powerful local rulers in order to protect his country’s position against the Spanish. One such representative was none other than Christopher Columbus, who was soon using his experiences to calculate what might be required to supply, service and maintain other long-distance voyages. He also tried to use this new information on the length of the African coast to estimate what the size of the earth might be, in anticipation of an ambitious journey of his own in the future.28

Other explorers lived in the present. In the 1480s, Diogo Cão discovered the mouth of the River Congo, paving the way for the formal exchange of embassies with the powerful king of the region, who agreed to be baptised. This delighted the Portuguese, who used it to burnish their credentials with the papacy in Rome, especially when the King of Kongo went to war with his enemies carrying a papal banner bearing the sign of the cross.29 In 1488, the southern tip of the continent was reached by the explorer Bartolomeu Dias; he christened it the Cape of Storms, before returning home after a highly perilous journey.

Portugal guarded its expansion jealously, to the point that when Columbus approached João II around the end of 1484 to fund an expedition to take him westwards across the Atlantic, his proposal fell on deaf ears. Although the Portuguese king’s interest was sufficiently roused to ‘send a caravel in secret to attempt what [Columbus] had offered to do’, the fact that even Dias’s dramatic discoveries were not followed up suggests that Portugal’s primary concern was to consolidate its expansion in the parts of the new world it had recently come into contact with, rather than to expand further still.30

Things changed when Columbus finally found the sponsorship he was looking for from Ferdinand and Isabella, the rulers of Castile and Aragon, and set sail in 1492. News of his discoveries across the Atlantic drove Europe wild with excitement. New lands and islands which were part of ‘India beyond the Ganges had been discovered’, he announced confidently in a letter sent to Ferdinand and Isabella on his way back to Spain. These new territories were ‘fertile to a limitless degree . . . beyond comparison with others’; spices grew there in such large quantities that it did not bear reckoning; there were ‘great mines of gold and other metals’ waiting to be exploited, as well as extensive trade to be done ‘with the mainland . . . belonging to the Great Khan’. Cotton, mastic, aloe wood, rhubarb, spices, slaves and ‘a thousand other things of value’ were all to be found in abundance.31

The reality was that Columbus had been confused and mystified by what he found. In place of the cultured people he had been expecting to encounter, he came across local populations who went about naked and seemed, to his eyes, astonishingly primitive. While they were ‘very well formed, with handsome bodies and good faces’, he noted, they were also credulous, delighted by the gift of red caps, beads and even broken pieces of glass and pottery. They had no idea of weapons, taking swords by the blade when shown them, cutting themselves as a result ‘through ignorance’.32

In some respects, this seemed like good news: those he met ‘are very gentle and do not know what evil is’, he observed; they are ‘aware that there is a God in heaven and convinced that we come from the heavens; and they very quickly say any prayer that we tell them to say and they make the sign of the cross’. It was a matter of time before ‘a multitude of peoples’ would be converted ‘to our Holy Faith’.33

In fact, the letter which swaggeringly recounted his extraordinary discoveries – copies of which were disseminated so fast that versions were circulating in Basel, Paris, Antwerp and Rome almost before Columbus and his sailors had reached home waters – was a masterpiece of the dark arts, nothing more than what some historians have called ‘a tissue of exaggerations, misconceptions and outright lies’.34 He had not found gold mines, while plants identified as cinnamon, rhubarb and aloe were nothing of the sort. Nor was there the remotest sign of the Great Khan. The claim that there was so much treasure to be had that within seven years there would be sufficient funds to pay for 5,000 cavalry and 50,000 footsoldiers and effect the conquest of Jerusalem was nothing short of outright deception.35

It was a pattern that continued as Columbus made further voyages across the Atlantic. He again assured his patrons Ferdinand and Isabella that he had found gold mines, blaming illness and logistical problems for his failure to produce better hard evidence, sending parrots, cannibals and castrated males instead to try to conceal the truth. Just as he had been certain that he had been close to Japan on his first expedition, so he reported with complete confidence now that he was near the mines of Ophir, which had yielded the gold to build Solomon’s Temple, after finding a few impressively large nuggets on the island of Hispaniola. Later he claimed to have discovered the gates of paradise itself when he reached what was in fact the mouth of the Orinoco.36

Some of Columbus’ men, infuriated by the way he obsessively managed every detail of his expeditions, by how stingily he rationed provisions and by how easily he lost his temper when anyone disagreed with him, returned to Europe with information that poured cold water over the admiral’s reports, which were anyway becoming frankly tiring in their implausible optimism. Crossing the Atlantic was a farce, Pedro Margarit, a Spanish explorer, and Bernardo Buyl, a missionary monk, told the rulers of Spain: there was no gold, and they had found nothing to bring back other than naked Indians, fancy birds and a few trinkets; the costs of the expeditions would never be recovered.37 This utter failure to find treasures was perhaps one reason why attention shifted from material wealth to the erotic in these new territories. Accounts about the newly discovered lands written in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries increasingly focused on unusual sexual practices, intercourse in public and sodomy.38

But then fortunes changed. In 1498, while exploring the Paria peninsula in what is now northern Venezuela, Columbus came across locals wearing strings of pearls around their necks and shortly afterwards discovered a set of islands with astonishingly rich oyster beds. Explorers rushed to fill their ships with the prizes. Contemporary accounts record how sacks filled to bursting with pearls, ‘some as large as hazelnuts, very clear and beautiful’, were shipped back to Spain, generating fortunes for the captains and crews who brought them home.39 The sense of excitement was heightened by stories of the quantities of pearls waiting to be gathered, by their enormous sizes and above all by the reports of the prices at which they were sold by the locals – which were swiftly exaggerated as rumours swirled around Europe. One, ostensibly written by Amerigo Vespucci but either heavily embroidered or more likely a forgery, told how the Italian explorer had been able to acquire ‘a hundred and nineteen marks of pearls’ (around sixty pounds in weight), in exchange for ‘nothing other than bells, mirrors, glass beads and brass leaves. One [of the natives] traded all the pearls he had for one bell.’40

Some pearls were so large that they became famous in their own right – such as ‘La Peregrina’ (the ‘Pilgrim pearl’), which remains one of the largest single pearls ever found, and the similarly named ‘La Pelegrina’, famed for its unparalleled quality. Both held pride of place in royal and imperial treasuries across Europe for centuries, depicted in portraits of sovereigns by Velázquez, and more recently, as centrepieces of legendary modern collections, such as that of Elizabeth Taylor.

The pearl bonanza was followed by the discovery of gold and silver as the Spanish investigations of Central and southern America brought them into contact with sophisticated and complex societies such as the Aztecs and, soon afterwards, the Inca. Inevitably, exploration turned to conquest. Columbus had noted on his very first expedition that the Europeans enjoyed a major technological advantage over the people he had come into contact with. ‘The Indians’, as he wrongly called them, ‘do not have arms and are all naked, and of no skill in arms, and so cowardly that a thousand would not stand against three.’41 They had watched with wonder at one banquet as Columbus showed them the accuracy of a Turkish bow, and then demonstrated the power of a small Lombard cannon and of a spingard – a heavy gun capable of piercing armour. The new arrivals might have admired the idyllic and naive characteristics of the people they encountered, but they were also proud of their instruments of death, which had evolved from centuries of near-incessant fighting against both Muslims and neighbouring Christian kingdoms in Europe.42

Columbus had already advised on the passivity and naivety of those he encountered on his first crossing. ‘They are fit to be ordered about and made to work, plant and do everything else that may be needed, and build towns and be taught our customs,’ he wrote.43 From the very outset, the local populations were identified as potential slaves. Violence quickly became standard. On the island of Cuba in 1513, villagers who arrived to present the Spanish with gifts of food, fish and bread ‘to the limit of their larder’ were massacred ‘without the slightest provocation’, in the words of one dismayed observer. This was just one atrocity among many. ‘I saw . . . cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see,’ wrote the Spanish friar Bartolomé de las Casas of his experiences in the earliest days of European settlement, in a horrified report designed to inform those back home of what was happening in the New World.44 What he saw was just the beginning, as he reported in his coruscating account of the treatment of the ‘Indians’ in his Historia de las Indias.

The native populations in the Caribbean and the Americas were devastated. Within a few short decades of Columbus’ first voyage, the numbers of the indigenous Taíno people fell from half a million to little more than 2,000. This was in part due to ferocious treatment at the hands of those who began to style themselves as ‘conquistadors’ – or conquerors – such as Hernán Cortés, whose bloodthirsty expedition to explore and secure Central America resulted in the death of the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma, and the collapse of the Aztec Empire. Cortés stopped at nothing to enrich himself. ‘I and my companions’, he told the Aztecs, ‘suffer from a disease of the heart that can be cured only with gold.’45 Rest assured, he purportedly promised Moctezuma, ‘have no fear. We love you greatly. Today our hearts are at peace.’46

Cortés exploited the situation perfectly – although stories that his successes stemmed from the Aztecs’ belief that he was the manifestation of the god Quetzalcoatl were later inventions.47 Striking an alliance with Xicoténcatl, leader of the Tlaxcalan, who was keen to profit from the demise of the Aztecs, the Spanish set about dismantling a highly sophisticated state.48 As became standard in other locations in the Americas, the locals were treated with contempt. The native population, wrote one commentator in the mid-sixteenth century, ‘are such cowards and so fearful that the sight of our men alone strikes them down with fear . . . causing them to flee like women simply because of a small number of Spaniards’. In judgement, wisdom and virtue, he wrote, ‘they are as inferior as children are to adults’. Indeed, he went on, they were more like monkeys than men – that is to say, they could hardly be considered to be human.49

Through a combination of ruthlessness that stands comparison with the great Mongol invasions across Asia, Cortés and his men seized the Aztec treasures, pillaging ‘like little beasts . . . each man utterly possessed by greed’, according to an account compiled in the sixteenth century from eyewitness testimonies. Exquisite items were looted, including ‘necklaces of heavy gems, anklets of beautiful workmanship, wristbands, ankle rings with little golden bells and the turquoise diadem that is the insignia of the ruler, reserved only for his use’. Gold was stripped from shields and mountings and melted into bars; emeralds and jade were looted. ‘They took everything.’50

That alone was not enough. In one of the great atrocities of the early modern period, the nobility and priesthood of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, were massacred during a religious festival. The small Spanish force went berserk, chopping off the hands of drummers before attacking the crowds with spears and swords. ‘The blood . . . ran like water, like slimy water; the stench of blood filled the air,’ as the Europeans went from door to door looking for new victims.51

It was not only the use of force and fortunate alliances that shattered the indigenous population. So too did the diseases that were brought from Europe.52 The inhabitants of Tenochtitlán fell in huge numbers to highly contagious outbreaks of smallpox, to which they had no resistance and which appeared for the first time around 1520.53 Famine followed. With mortality rates among women particularly high, agricultural production, for which they were largely responsible, collapsed. Matters were made worse because, as people fled to get away from the disease, there were fewer still to plant and harvest crops, so it was not long before the supply chain broke down completely. Fatalities from disease and hunger were catastrophic.54

A calamitous outbreak, perhaps of influenza, but more likely smallpox again, accounted for a large proportion of the Cakchiquel Mayan population of Guatemala in the 1520s, where the stench of the rotting corpses hung heavily in the air as dogs and vultures devoured them. Then, a few years later, another pandemic struck: this time, measles. The old populations of the New World did not stand a chance.55

The sea lanes to Europe now became thick with heavily laden ships from the Americas. This was a new network to rival those across Asia, in both distance and scale, and soon surpassed them in value: scarcely imaginable quantities of silver, gold, precious stones and treasures were carried across the Atlantic. Stories of the riches of the New World were heavily embroidered. One popular account in the early sixteenth century told of large nuggets of gold being washed from hillsides into rivers where they were then gathered in nets by the locals.56

Unlike the tales told in Columbus’ first reports that flattered to deceive, precious metals really were now flowing homewards. Albrecht Dürer was stunned by the quality of the craftsmanship of Aztec treasures he saw exhibited in 1520. ‘Nothing I have seen in all my days rejoiced my heart so much as these things,’ he wrote of objects that included ‘a sun entirely of gold’ and a silver moon, both six feet in width. He was transfixed by ‘the amazing artistic objects’, marvelling ‘at the subtle ingenuity of the men in those distant lands’ who had created them.57 Boys like Pedro Cieza de León – who grew up to be a conquistador of Peru – stood on the quayside in Seville, staring in astonishment as they watched ship after ship being unloaded and treasure being taken off by the cartload.58

Ambitious men raced across the Atlantic to take advantage of the opportunities that the New World presented. Armed with contracts and concessions from the Spanish crown, hardened figures like Diego de Ordás, who accompanied Cortés in Mexico and later led expeditions to explore Central America and what is now Venezuela, made vast fortunes for themselves, milking the local population for tribute. This in turn created a surge in the royal coffers back in Spain, as the crown took its cut.59

It was not long before systematic approaches to information-gathering were being formulated at home, resulting in reliable maps being made, new finds being charted, pilots being trained and, of course, imports back home being catalogued and correctly taxed.60 It was as if a highly tuned engine had been switched on, pumping the riches from Central and South America directly to Europe.

In addition, serendipity of timing, marriage ties, failed pregnancies and broken betrothals had produced a single heir to the kingdoms of Naples, Sicily and Sardinia, as well as to territories sprawling across Burgundy and the Low Countries – and Spain. With seemingly unlimited funds flowing back across the Atlantic, the Spanish king Charles V was not just master of a new empire in the Americas but the dominant figure in European politics. Ambitions were recalibrated accordingly: in 1519, Charles moved to strengthen his position further, using his extraordinary financial muscle to ensure his election as Holy Roman Emperor.61

Charles’s good fortune was disruptive for other European leaders, who found themselves outgunned, outmanoeuvred and outjostled by a ruler determined to expand his power ever further. His wealth and influence stood in sharp contrast with those of figures like Henry VIII of England, whose income was positively embarrassing compared with that of the church in his own country – to say nothing of that of his Spanish peer. Henry – a highly competitive man who in the words of the Venetian envoy to London had ‘an extremely fine calf to his leg’, combed his hair short and straight ‘in the French fashion’ and had a round face ‘so very beautiful that it would become a pretty woman’ – could not have chosen a worse moment to try to shuffle his domestic arrangements.62

At a time when Charles V had become the puppet-master of much of Europe and of the papacy, Henry’s insistence that he wanted his marriage annulled so that he could take up with Anne Boleyn – a woman who, in the words of one contemporary, was ‘not one of the handsomest women in the world’ but was blessed with eyes that were ‘black and beautiful’ – was reckless in the extreme given that the wife he was abandoning was none other than Charles V’s own aunt, Catherine of Aragon.63 In the upheaval that followed the Pope’s refusal to sanction an annulment, the King of England was not just taking on the papacy; he was picking a fight with the richest man in the world, and a man who was the master of continents.

Spain’s growing importance in Europe and its rapid extension in Central and South America were little short of miraculous. A remarkable shift in wealth, power and opportunity had resulted in Spain’s transformation from a provincial backwater at the wrong end of the Mediterranean into a global power. For one Spanish chronicler, this was nothing less than ‘the greatest event since the Creation – other than the incarnation and the death of the one who created it’.64 For another, it was clearly God himself who had revealed ‘the provinces of Peru, from which such a great treasure of gold and silver had been concealed’; future generations, opined Pedro Mexía, would not believe the quantities that had been found.65

The discovery of the Americas was soon followed by the import of slaves, bought in the markets of Portugal. As the Portuguese knew from their experiences in the Atlantic island groups and West Africa, European settlement was expensive, was not always economically rewarding and was easier said than done: persuading families to leave their loved ones behind was hard enough, but high death rates and testing local conditions made this even more difficult. One solution had been to send orphans and convicts forcibly to places like São Tomé, in conjunction with a system of benefits and incentives, such as the provision of a ‘male or female slave for personal service’, to create a population base on which a sustainable administrative system could be built.66

Within three decades of Columbus’ crossing, the Spanish crown was already formally regulating the export and transport of slaves from Africa to the New World, awarding licences to Portuguese traders whose hearts and minds had been hardened by generations of human trafficking.67 Demand was almost insatiable in a region where violence and disease reduced life expectancy. Just as had been the case when the Islamic world boomed in the eighth century, a surge in the concentration of wealth in one part of the world meant there was a sharp rise in the demand for slaves from another. Wealth and bondage went hand in hand.

It did not take long before African rulers began to protest. The King of Kongo made a series of appeals to the King of Portugal decrying the impact of slaving. He protested about young men and women – including those from noble families – being kidnapped in broad daylight to be sold to European traders who then branded them with hot irons.68 He should stop complaining, the Portuguese sovereign replied. Kongo was a huge land that could afford to have some of its inhabitants shipped away; in any event, he went on, it benefited handsomely from trade, including that of slaves.69

Some Europeans, at least, were anguished by the plight of slaves and the seemingly relentless focus on extracting rewards from newly discovered lands. Although the prospect of recovering Jerusalem had slipped into the shadows, the idea of evangelisation as a Christian duty quickly emerged in its place.70 The European settlers in South America, one senior Jesuit wrote angrily in 1559, ‘fail to understand’ that the purpose of colonisation ‘was not so much to obtain gold or silver, or to people the land or to build mills, or . . . bring wealth [home] . . . as it was to glorify the Catholic faith and save souls’.71 The point was to spread God’s word rather than to make money. It was a clear echo of the protests of Christian missionaries travelling along the burgeoning trade routes and settlements on the steppes of southern Russia and Central Asia centuries earlier, who likewise complained that a fixation with trade distracted from matters of higher importance.

In the case of the New World, there were good grounds for complaint about the disregard for the benefits of spiritual rewards. Gold was heading back to Spain in such volume that by the middle of the sixteenth century some were describing the era as surpassing the legendary age of Solomon. So much treasure was being shipped, Charles V was told in 1551, that ‘this period should more rightly be known as an era dorada’ – a Golden Age.72

Not all the riches extracted from the Americas made it back to Spain. Almost as soon as fleets began to bring treasure home, sharp-eyed adventurers and pirates based in ports in France and North Africa could be found trying to cut them off and seize the spoils for themselves – either lying in wait on the final approach to the mainland or, as time went on, venturing into the Caribbean to intercept fat targets further afield.73

Accounts of the prizes on offer drew in opportunists from far and wide. ‘The reports of the great riches and glory’ that could be gained off the Atlantic seaboard of North Africa, wrote one contemporary despairingly, lured men there ‘with the same excitement that spurred the Spanish on to the mines in the Indies’.74 These included Muslim raiders, who as well as setting about capturing inbound ships laden with produce also turned their attention to ravaging ports and towns on the coast of Spain, carting off thousands of prisoners in the process, who were ransomed or even sold on as slaves.

The raids were dressed up as being religiously motivated, although this was a heavily idealised way of seeing things. But even in the case of European piracy there were political points to be made. Attacks on Iberian vessels became a regulated industry, with licences known as lettres de marque being issued by Christian rivals to the King of Spain. The latter in turn promptly issued heavily incentivised pirate-hunting contracts, known as contra-corsarios, to bring the worst culprits to justice. Those that were successful found rich rewards from the crown, and also considerable fame – such as Pedro Menéndez de Avilés who notched up his prey in the manner of a wartime fighter pilot chalking up kills.75

A New World had been discovered overseas, but a new world was also being created at home, one where vibrant new ideas were encouraged, where new tastes were indulged, where intellectuals and scientists jostled and competed for patrons and funding. The rise in disposable incomes for those directly involved in the exploration of the continents and the wealth they brought back funded a cultural transfusion that transformed Europe. A swathe of rich patrons emerged in a matter of decades, keen to spend on luxury. There was an increasing desire for the rare and the exotic.

Europe’s new wealth gave it swagger and confidence, and also reinforced faith in a way that the recapture of Jerusalem had been expected to do. To many, it was entirely obvious that the seemingly limitless fortune yielded from the Americas was an affirmation of God’s blessings and had been ‘ordained by the Lord on high, who both gives and takes away kingdoms from whomever and in whatever way he wishes’.76 The dawn of a new era, a veritable Golden Age, caused the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, which had prompted wailing, breast-beating and tears in the streets of Rome, to be forgotten.

The task now was to reinvent the past. The demise of the old imperial capital presented an unmistakable opportunity for the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome to be claimed by new adoptive heirs – something that was done with gusto. In truth, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal and England had nothing to do with Athens and the world of the ancient Greeks, and were largely peripheral in the history of Rome from its earliest days to its demise. This was glossed over as artists, writers and architects went to work, borrowing themes, ideas and texts from antiquity to provide a narrative that chose selectively from the past to create a story which over time became not only increasingly plausible but standard. So although scholars have long called this period the Renaissance, this was no rebirth. Rather, it was a Naissance – a birth. For the first time in history, Europe lay at the heart of the world.