Thomas, Hugh, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton 1931–
Thomas, Hugh, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton 1931–
PERSONAL: Born October 21, 1931, in Windsor, England; son of Hugh Whitelegge (a colonial servant) and Margery Thomas; married Vanessa Jebb, May 5, 1962; children: Inigo, Isambard, Isabella. Education: Cambridge University, first class degree in history, 1952; graduate study at Sorbonne, University of Paris, 1954. Politics: Conservative.
ADDRESSES: Home—29 Ladbroke Grove, London W. 11, England. Office—Centre for Policy Studies, 8 Wilfred St., London 8W1, England. Agent—Curtis Brown Ltd., 1 Craven Hill, London W2 3EW, England.
CAREER: Writer, historian, and educator. British Government, Foreign Office, London, England, secretary of United Kingdom delegation to UN disarmament subcommittee, 1954–57; Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, England, lecturer in politics and government, 1957; prospective Labour Party candidate, Ruislip-Northwood, 1957–58; United Nations Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, London, disarmament adviser, 1960–61; University of Reading, Reading, England, professor of history and chairman of Graduate School of Contemporary European Studies, 1966–76; Centre for Policy Studies, London, chairman, 1979–.
MEMBER: Reform Club, Beefsteak Club.
AWARDS, HONORS: Somerset Maugham Prize, 1962; Arts Cnel Prize for History, 1980; Knight Grand Cross Order of Isabel la Católica (Spain), 2001; Order of the Aztec Eagle (Mexico), 1995.
Disarmament: The Way Ahead (pamphlet), Fabian Society, 1957.
The World's Game (novel), Eyre & Spottiswoode (London, England), 1957.
The Oxygen Age (novel), Eyre & Spottiswoode (London, England), 1958.
(Editor) The Establishment (symposium), Anthony Blond (London, England), 1959.
The Story of Sandhurst, Hutchinson (London, England), 1961.
Suez Affair, Harper (New York, NY), 1967, 2nd edition published as Suez, Penguin (New York, NY), 1970.
(Editor and contributor) Crisis in the Civil Service (essays), Anthony Blond (London, England), 1968.
(Author of introduction) Milestones of History: One Hundred Decisive Events in the History of Mankind, Volume VI: Our Twentieth-Century World, Norton (New York, NY), 1970.
Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, Harper (New York, NY), 1971, published as Cuba; or, The Pursuit of Freedom, Eyre & Spottiswoode (London, England), 1971.
(Author of introduction and notes) Esmond Romilly, Boadilla, revised edition, Macdonald & Co. (London, England), 1971.
(Editor and author of introduction) Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, Selected Writings, J. Cape (London, England), 1972.
Goya: The Third of May, 1808, Allen & Unwin (London, England), 1972, Viking (New York, NY), 1973.
Europe: The Radical Challenge, Harper (New York, NY), 1973.
John Strachey, Harper (New York, NY), 1973.
The Cuban Revolution, Harper (New York, NY), 1977.
A History of Wales, 1485–1660, Verry, 1977.
A History of the World, Harper (New York, NY), 1979.
The Revolution on Balance, Cuban American National Foundation (Washington, DC), 1983.
The Case for the Round Reading Room, Centre for Policy Studies (London, England), 1983.
(With Georges A. Fauriol and Juan Carlos Weiss) The Cuban Revolution, 25 Years Later, Westview (Boulder, CO), 1984.
Armed Truce: The Beginnings of the Cold War, 1945–46, Hamilton (London, England), 1986.
Central America: Can Europe Play a Part?, Alliance Publishers for the Institute for European Defence & Strategic Studies (London, England), 1987.
(Selector and author of introduction) Madrid: A Travellers' Companion, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1990.
The Real Discovery of America: Mexico, November 8, 1519, Moyer Bell (Mount Kisco, NY), 1992.
Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico, Simon & Schuster New York, NY), 1993, published as The Conquest of Mexico, Hutchinson (London, England), 1993.
World History: The Story of Mankind from Prehistory to the Present, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.
La Revolucion cubana: iberoamerica en la encrucijada, Historia 16 (Madrid, Spain), 1998.
Who's Who of the Conquistadors, Cassell (London, England), 2000.
Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire from Columbus to Magellan, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: In the New York Review of Books, C. Vann Woodward called Hugh Swynnerton Thomas "a prolific historian who is given to writing enormous books…. He is a mine of fascinating information that makes him rather fun to read." Additional praise is given Thomas by a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, who wrote that Thomas's account of the "tragic confusion" in Suez "has that gripping quality usually associated with Greek tragedy; even though one knows what the end is going to be, one still hopes against hope up to the eleventh hour that it may be averted. This quality is inherent in the drama, but it takes a true historian to bring it out." Yet, some critics see weaknesses in Thomas's depiction of the Anglo-French Suez expedition in 1956 and the Israeli invasion of the Sinai peninsula. Jeffrey St. John claimed in Saturday Review that Suez "embraces a number of dubious arguments that make the work weak and, at the same time, compromise a consistent view of the Suez crisis…. [Thomas] has not yet grasped reality; nor [does] his work … take into account the fallacies that contribute to Soviet success and Western defeat." Paul Johnson of the New Statesman shared St. John's assessment; though he called Suez "a masterly condensation of a very complex story," he wrote that "despite all his researches and interviews, Professor Thomas has not had access to the whole truth by any means: his is merely an interim report."
Thomas spent ten years researching and writing Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, an analysis of the causes of the Cuban revolution. Some critics were dismayed by the extreme length of the book (1,700 pages). Ramon Eduardo Ruiz, in the Washington Post Book World wrote: "Thomas has undoubtedly collected the largest number of facts ever used for a study of Cuba. He has probably read every book, a good share of the articles, and examined the opinions on Cuba of nearly all American and British scholars…. [However] the total results prove disappointing…. Much of the book rehashes standard American interpretations with material taken from secondary sources." Ultimately, Ruiz found this version of Cuban history unconvincing because "[Thomas's] distrust of Castro and his methods, his aversion to Marx, and his liberal-capitalist convictions are much too evident." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer claimed that though this "would have been a better book if it had been kept to half its actual length …, Professor Thomas has written an extremely useful and wideranging account of the human drama." Specifically, the reviewer cited Thomas's account of Cuba in the nineteenth century as useful, since "it describes not only the political history of Spain's most prosperous colony but also its social and economic structure, and gives a valuable account of the nature of Cuba's slave society. This is one of the more successful parts of the book, perhaps because the author recognizes the need to condense his material and present it in a succinct manner."
J.N. Goodsell, writing in the New York Times Book Review, identified the success of another aspect of Cuba. "Thomas is at his best," Goodsell wrote, "in exploring the gritty details of American expansionist and Manifest Destiny sentiment in the 1840's and 1850's…. Some of [his] most revealing comments center on the years of American occupation following the War for Independence." Yet, Adam Watson of the New Statesman saw the treatment of the United States as "the book's serious deficiency…. Professor Thomas does not have the same understanding of or sympathy for the U.S. that he does for Spain or Cuba."
John Strachey, Thomas's biography of British socialist writer and politician Evelyn John St. Loe Strachey, displays "literary facility and balanced judgment," according to J.A. Casada of the Library Journal. A writer in Economist expressed similar thoughts: "Thomas presents the story of Strachey's pilgrimage admirably. He strikes all the balances nicely: the right length, the right blend of sympathy and criticism. There are also the comic touches unavoidable with someone as honest and innocent as Strachey." John Strachey is also praised by John Gross, who wrote in New Statesman that Strachey has in Hugh Thomas "a biographer equally adept at assessing his political career and analyzing his character, at conveying the ways in which he was a representative figure of his period and the things about him which were unique. The result is an exceptionally lively and penetrating book, and (where circumstances permit) a witty one, too." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer noted, however, that Strachey "was a woefully incomplete politician" and that though Thomas's book is "sympathetic in intent, [it] does much to revive all the suspicions that [Strachey] aroused even inside the Labour Party…. [Readers] are free to take their choice. They may elect to see Strachey as a tragic figure, a characteristic man of the tortured 1920s and 1930s; or as a figure of fun, lying stretched on the analyst's couch asking for guidance about what he ought to believe and do next."
The main purpose of A History of the World, "as we are told at the outset," wrote Jonathan Sumption of the Times Literary Supplement, "was to write a history of the world on 'thematic rather than chronological lines.' However …, the rejection of chronology does not (as the blurb [from the book] proclaims) 'enable the author to cast many new and curious lights on familiar things.' What it does is to obfuscate the historical truths which are perfectly clear in the books which Mr. Thomas has read, and to obscure the insights which he is unquestionably capable of giving us. The one redeeming factor is that in the second part of his book, he concentrates so heavily on Europe and on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that he has little need of chronological framework. But that is only to say that he is no longer writing a history of the world." Mark Elvin of New Statesman also took issue with Thomas's approach: "He is lopsided in chronological coverage…. He is so Europe-centered that the book does not deserve its title as world history. The argument is decked out with names like the First Emperor of Ch'in and Hammurabi, but the structures of the non-European histories are not taken seriously." Elvin added that Thomas has "little feeling for the gulf between the thoughts and values of different times and cultures."
But in addition to claims of chronological and cultural distortion, some critics also saw Thomas's approach as too materialistic. Woodward wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "Alexander the Great rates one mention, Jesus Christ one, Hannibal none, Einstein none, but bureaucracy gets many pages and agriculture and industry many chapters in this world history. Art and architecture appear rarely, save in connection with military and domestic history; literature receives discriminating but infrequent attention, and music, philosophy, and pure science little at all. The author's special interest in technology shapes and limits his treatment of important subjects." John Leonard of the New York Times also discerned a technological bias: "Mr. Thomas is oddly indifferent to intellectual and artistic 'climates;' the angelic voices he listens to are those of the entrepreneurs. We are at the heart of the matter. He seeks not merely to entertain, but to exhort as well." P.S. Prescott of Newsweek pointed out that "Thomas never hints at the beginning of his survey what he will confess at its conclusion: that this 'has been the history, after all, of people's working hours.' More precisely, it is primarily a history of technology, commerce, and communication—history with individuals and ideas left out of it as far as practicable."
Elvin called the last third of the book a "tract for the times," and claimed that "as a tract, it is level-headed, and the judgments those of a moderate, humane, and skeptical conservative. As history, this last part is slightly slapdash." Woodward concluded his review with this assessment: "We are left with a technological interpretation of world history and a lot of implicit assumptions about 'modernization' and progress being the shared goal of mankind and the way to peace. It is doubtful how much this world view can do to bridge the cultural chasm that now yawns between the West and the peoples of the so-called third world, who have a very different history and world view."
In Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico, published in England as The Conquest of Mexico, Thomas tells the story of "the conquest of the mighty Aztec Empire by some 530 Spanish adventurers under the resourceful leadership of Hidalgo Hernan Cortes in 1519–21," commented Donald Lyons in the American Spectator. Thomas describes Cortes's upbringing and development and recounts the events and personal characteristics that led Cortes and his men to leave Spain and voyage into an unknown world of immense potential. He couches his history in a detailed history of the Aztecs, or Mexica as they were known to themselves and their contemporaries, and an in-depth description of the advanced culture and barbaric religion that Cortes and his men encountered when they landed at what is now Veracruz. Cortes, Thomas notes, gained some critical early allies in the Tlaxcalans, a group who nursed an intense hatred for the Aztecs. Sweeping across the land, the Spaniards defeated their foes with a combination of superior arms and tactical ability, overwhelming the Aztecs with terrifying and unfamiliar horses, armor, and guns. Initially well-received by Aztec leader Montezuma, who feared the Spaniards might have been gods incarnate, Cortes eventually kidnapped Montezuma, whose influence and power subsequently faded so drastically that he was eventually stoned to death by his people. After some setbacks, including a successful ejection of the Spanish by Montezuma's brother, Cortes eventually ordered the siege of Tenochtitlan. Spanish arms and ability again proved supreme in the brutal, hard-fought battle, and when Tenochtitlan fell, the Aztec empire fell with it.
"Cortes's stupendous achievements with the sword receive their complement by pen in this exhaustive history, the product of ten years' work," remarked Frank McLynn in New Statesman and Society. Thomas "has erected an awesome Teotihuacan of scholarship, drawn from archives in Seville, Simancas, Mexico and elsewhere, so massive that it seemingly overwhelms any objections by its mighty erudition," McLynn continued. In his account, Thomas displays "learning, eloquence, a compassionate liberalism leaning to anticlericalism but eager to be fair," commented Lyons. Booklist reviewer Jay Freeman called Thomas's work a "scholarly, fascinating, richly detailed history." A Publishers Weekly reviewer named it a "epic, spellbinding narrative history" and a "stunning meditation on Christian Spain's cataclysmic encounter with native American civilization." History Today reviewer Anthony McFarlane concluded: "In this dramatic reconstruction, Hugh Thomas has created a fresh and compelling synthesis of the conquest, its contexts, and its central characters."
The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440–1870 recounts more than four centuries during which thirteen million individuals were forced from their African homes to work as laborers on plantations, as slaves in mines, and as domestic servants. Tracing slavery as far back as Egypt of 8,000 BC, Thomas describes early evidence of slavery in both Christian and Islamic societies and how the Atlantic slave trade originated in Portugal in the 1400s. He notes that until the mid 1500s, slavery was most prevalent in Old World Europe, in Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere. "While he utterly condemns the West's systematic and brutal enslavement of Africans, he notes that slavery is an ancient and near universal practice which existed in Africa long before Europeans arrived on the continent," commented reviewer Steve Williams, writing in African Business. He also notes that the slave trade within Africa thrived, and that the majority of the slaves that came from Africa were purchased with European trade goods from local tribal chiefs, who had warred with and captured members of neighboring groups. Thomas discusses in depth how slavery functioned in economic terms, and how the gains made from slavery drove the Industrial Revolution. Thomas also details the lives led by slaves and the horrors they faced, from the terror of their capture to the inhuman conditions on slave ships to the brutality of slavery wherever they landed. "In a truly monumental work, Hugh Thomas has now given us the most comprehensive account of the Atlantic slave trade ever written," commented Robert B. Edgerton in the National Review. Williams called Thomas's volume "a book packed with meticulous detail that will take its place as a standard reference volume for any serious student." Winthrop D. Jordan, writing in the African American Review, stated that Thomas's book is "a sweeping and detailed survey of the Atlantic slave trade" and its history. "This monumental study" of one of history's bleakest topics "combines scholarship and good writing so effortlessly that few contemporary books can be compared to it," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
In Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire from Columbus to Magellan, Thomas explores the "conquest of the Caribbean islands and Mexico in the first two generations after Columbus," describing historical developments that "he has described as the most important phase of world history," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Thomas covers the conflicts between Spanish leaders and Muslim rulers that helped propel the Spanish desire for expansion; the voyages of Columbus and the early exploration of the New World; the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortes and his conquistadors; and other signal events that helped the Spanish forge a mighty, wide-ranging empire that lasted for more than three centuries. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called Rivers of Gold "a nuanced and much-needed survey of a critically important episode in world history."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
African American Review, winter, 1999, Winthrop D. Jordan, review of The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440–1870, p. 688.
African Business, April, 1998, Steve Williams, review of The Slave Trade, p. 41.
American Spectator, June, 1994, Donald Lyons, review of Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico, p. 64.
Antiquity, June, 1994, Cyprian Broodbank, review of The Conquest of Mexico, p. 428.
Booklist, February 1, 1994, Jay Freeman, review of Conquest, p. 992; October 1, 1997, Jay Freeman, review of The Slave Trade, p. 293; June 1, 2004, Brendan Driscoll, review of Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan, p. 1691.
Contemporary Review, May, 2004, review of Rivers of Gold, p. 313.
Economist, May 5, 1973, review of John Strachey, p. 7; November 13, 1993, review of The Conquest of Mexico, p. 105; December 6, 1997, review of The Slave Trade, p. 96.
Foreign Affairs, March-April, 1994, Kenneth Maxwell, review of Conquest, p. 156; March-April, 1998, Kenneth Maxwell, review of The Slave Trade, p. 155.
Harper's Magazine, July, 2004, John Leonard, review of Rivers of Gold, p. 83.
Historian, winter, 1994, Norman J.W. Goda, review of The Spanish Civil War, p. 435; spring, 1995, J.C.M. Ogelsby, review of Conquest, p. 616.
History Today, March, 1996, Anthony McFarlane, review of The Conquest of Mexico, p. 53; January, 1999, Marika Sherwood, review of The Slave Trade, p. 55.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2004, review of Rivers of Gold, p. 386.
Library Journal, August, 1973, J.A. Casada, review of John Strachey, p. 2272; August, 2004, Robert J. Andrews, review of Rivers of Gold, p. 95.
National Review, November 10, 1997, Robert B. Edgerton, review of The Slave Trade, p. 48.
New Leader, January 26, 1998, Roger Draper, review of The Slave Trade, p. 13.
New Republic, November 18, 1994, Enrique Krauze and Edith Grossman, review of Conquest, p. 58; December 22, 1997, Anthony Pagden, review of The Slave Trade, p. 34.
New Statesman, May 5, 1967, Paul Johnson, review of Suez, p. 620; January 22, 1971, Adam Watson, review of Cuba, p. 114; May 4, 1973, John Gross, review of John Strachey, p. 658; February 1, 1980, Mark Elvin, review of A History of the World, p. 172; February 6, 1996, Maurice Walsh, review of The Slave Trade, p. 48.
New Statesman and Society, November 12, 1993, Frank McLynn, review of The Conquest of Mexico, p. 41.
Newsweek, December 24, 1979, Peter S. Prescott, review of A History of the World, p. 72.
New York Review of Books, August 24, 1967, C. Vann Woodward, review of Suez, p. 8.
New York Times, December 18, 1979, John Leonard, review of A History of the World, p. C10.
New York Times Book Review, July 30, 1967, review of Suez, p. 3; May 2, 1971, J.N. Goodsell, review of Cuba, p. 34; January 20, 1980, review of A History of the World, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly, November 10, 1997, review of The Slave Trade, p. 67; January 24, 1999, review of Conquest, p. 44; April 12, 2004, review of Rivers of Gold, p. 45.
Research in African Literatures, winter, 1998, James Walvin, review of The Slave Trade, p. 184.
Saturday Review, July 8, 1967, Jeffrey St. John, review of Suez, p. 22.
Spectator, December 6, 2003, Jonathan Keates, "Tarnished Heroes, but Still Heroic," review of Rivers of Gold, p. 58.
Time, March 29, 1984, John Elson, review of Conquest, p. 66.
Times Literary Supplement, April 27, 1967, review of Suez, p. 347; January 22, 1971, review of Cuba, p. 81; July 9, 1971, review of Our Twentieth Century, p. 802; May 11, 1973, review of John Strachey, p. 515; January 18, 1980, Jonathan Sumption, review of A History of the World, p. 56.
Washington Post Book World, April 18, 1971, Ramon Eduardo Ruiz, review of Cuba, p. 81.