Goodwin (Spain: The Center of the World, 1519-1682, 2015, etc.), a research fellow at University College London, delivers a broad account of Spain’s North American empire and its key players.
The events and people who figure in these pages of centuries-spanning history are mostly well-known, from Cortés and Cabeza de Vaca to the Alamo, but the author’s great strength is to give them layers of meaning that warrant a fresh look. It’s not a standard question in a standard history, for instance, to wonder how Spain gave the conquistadors more or less free rein to act as individual agents while at the same time reining them in to serve the interests of the Spanish Crown. To this end, writes Goodwin, who divides his time between London and Seville, Spain established the office of the Adelantado, which means something like the person who goes ahead against any opposition, an office that “perfectly reflects the individualism that was the foundation of the whole imperial enterprise.” Against this understanding of the “imperial enterprise,” in which a wide array of characters served God and king while seeking to grow rich, individual figures such as De Soto and Coronado stand out, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. The author’s description of the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez is a case in point: Though Bartolomé de Las Casas depicted him as a murderer, he grudgingly allowed that Narváez had manners, a way with words, and a sparkling intelligence, which makes Goodwin’s account of his demise all the more poignant as, shipwrecked on the coast of Texas, “a north freezing wind blew the pitiful invalid out to sea, never to be heard of again." The author packs a huge amount of information and observation into a relatively small space, though the last couple of dozen pages gallop heedlessly from the Alamo to San Juan Hill; it might have been better to end with Mexican independence, though one hopes that the cursory overview signals a more circumstantial book to come.
Recommended for any student of American history.