THE SPANISH CONQUEST of the Indies was one of the most important events in history, leaving an ineffaceable impression on global politics, language and culture. Yet among English speakers it is a strangely neglected subject. We know about Pizarro and 'stout Cortez' (whom Keats confused with Balboa), and, of course, Columbus. But that is all. The Times Historical Atlas devotes only two pages to Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, though they extended throughout the world. Moreover, there is a general notion that the conquest was easy, effected by a combination of bluff, ruthlessness and cruelty.
In fact the colonisation of the Indies was never easy. Sir Walter Ralegh, who hated the Spaniards, paid a remarkable tribute to them in his History of the World, praising the courage, resolution and persistence which they brought to their immense task, refusing to be deterred by setbacks and pressing