Cooley on Flint and Flint, 'A Most Splendid Company: The Coronado Expedition in Global Perspective'

Author: 
Richard Flint, Shirley Cushing Flint
Reviewer: 
Mackenzie Cooley

Richard Flint, Shirley Cushing Flint. A Most Splendid Company: The Coronado Expedition in Global Perspective. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2019. Illustrations, maps, charts, tables. 464 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8263-6022-9.

Reviewed by Mackenzie Cooley (Hamilton College) Published on H-LatAm (November, 2019) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54184

“People of ambition were attracted to a very ambitious plan” (p. 321). So Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint characterize the fateful story of the so-called Coronado expedition. When don Antonio de Mendoza started gathering resources, people, animals, and information for a three-phase approach to Asia, he captured the imagination of the young men of New Spain, eager for glory and riches. The expedition to this Tierra Nueva north of New Spain was meant to realize the original goals of Christopher Columbus’s project by establishing a direct route to Asia. The resulting company marched northward on the advice of native guides, with livestock, friars, and various specialists in tow, relying on corn tortillas for sustenance and disrupting the lives of indigenous Tierra Nuevans despite the leadership’s unsuccessful attempts to improve their treatment. With a focus on a flurry of activity from 1539 to 1542, Flint and Flint reveal a history of bold-faced hope followed by doubt, destruction, and disintegration of the expedition, which located neither Asia nor the seven cities rumored to tower over the North. The ambition that had fueled the set of plans then started to crumble as the era of exploration gave way to the sobering development of bureaucratic colonialism in New Spain.

A Most Splendid Company: The Coronado Expedition in Global Perspective is committed to demystifying the Coronado expedition. Over eighty-nine chapters, the authors organize a colossal amount of archival research into four chronological sections: “Essential Background: Prior to 1530,” “Before the Expedition: 1530-1539,” “During the Expedition: 1539-1542,” and “After the Expedition: After 1542.” This study explores the many intersecting stories that came together in this expedition. Flint and Flint seek to capture the perspective of their historical actors by emphasizing their words, worldview, and the contingent nature of their actions to pin down in exacting detail the nature of the expedition and the logistics that made it possible.

New archival research from Spain and Mexico, maps from the John Carter Brown collection, and other primary source material underpin this analysis. Flint and Flint triumphed over a considerable archival challenge: not only was the Coronado expedition remembered “as a colossal fiasco” in colonial New Spain but there is also no comprehensive list of its participants (p. 329). Flint and Flint have accumulated a wide array of data through which to understand expeditionaries’ ages, diverse occupations, reliance on local guides, and preexisting social connections. Such careful data collection will doubtless provide the empirical backbone for a new generation of scholarship committed to the history of colonial Latin America and centuries of migrations across what today are the US-Mexico borderlands. The authors supplement their litany of archival discoveries and informative charts with archaeological remnants of the voyage, including slingshot stones used by indigenous allies, Murano and Spanish beads, horseshoe caret-head nails, and crossbow bolt heads. This rich integration of archaeological evidence highlights the expedition’s material constraints and forces the reader to grapple with the logistics of the expeditionaries’ achievement.

Flint and Flint provide a comprehensive timeline of the events and a succinct summary of hierarchies involved in executing and planning the expedition. One of the central interventions of this study is a revision of the expedition’s leadership from viceroy to companies and calpollis. Though the expedition was named for its young captain general, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, the authors posit that, were the expedition named for the driving force behind it, it would have been called the Mendoza Expedition after its organizer and principal investor, don Antonio de Mendoza. An alternate name would be the Tierra Nueva expedition. The book’s title sits somewhat awkwardly with this revisionist position.

A Most Splendid Company is filled with rich charts, appendices, and lists built on years of research. The authors have organized and quantified expeditionaries’ previous fighting experience, highlighting the many conflicts from the Italian Wars to Tunis to Chontales that prepared the young men on this voyage. The appendices are a strength of the volume, as they include a list of signatures that not only reveal the paleographic difficulty of the research but also bring the signatories to life through their unique hands. The authors’ coverage of animal involvement in this expedition—from the similarities between bison and yak to the use of livestock on the expedition—is already fueling new scholarship. Finally, in line with a commitment to open-source historical data, Flint and Flint have generously published the troves of research on which this book is based at https://coronado.unm.edu/. This is a highly usable database that would be excellent for both research and teaching US borderlands and the sixteenth-century history of colonial Latin America and is a true service to the field.

A few key figures emerge. Mendoza, his ambition curtailed by rising doubt, is one of the most interesting. He had been writing to the Spanish Crown since the mid-1530s to learn more about what lingered beyond the boundaries of New Spain and had been preparing reconnaissance and conquest missions to the North. However, by 1539 he seems to have questioned fray Marcos de Niza’s wondrous reports about Cíbola. Yet, if one thread of the expedition led to failure, then another led to lasting results in the form of contact with Asia. One of the greatest archival accomplishments of this volume appears in chapter 70, “International Trade,” where the authors discuss the involvement of Guido de Lavezariis using documents found in the Archivo General de Indias. Born to a family of Genoese booksellers resident in Seville, Lavezariis worked as a bookseller and merchant banker in Mexico City as the expedition was in the planning phases. Through his keen interest in Mendoza’s attempts to reach Asia, Lavezariis invested more than twenty thousand pesos in the Tierra Nueva expedition. Upon its failure, he became invested in the Villalobos expedition across the Pacific to the Islas de Poniente, which departed immediately after the return of the Tierra Nueva expedition in 1542. While half of his company died in the voyage, Lavezariis survived with a book of navigation in hand. He cultivated connections to Asia with a ginger plantation outside of Mexico City and eventually became governor of the Philippines.

While the underlying research is impressive, the volume is marred by editorial weaknesses and might have benefited from improved graphics. Similarly, the book suffers from some unresolved tensions between its lengthy presentation of background information and its cutting-edge research. The authors attempt to deliver both facets of their title by providing a global perspective and detailing the “splendid company” who constituted the Coronado expedition. It succeeds in the latter but struggles with the former, the case of Lavezariis notwithstanding. That said, the sheer breadth and depth of the research collected in this volume makes it a must-have for any scholar of colonial Latin America, the US borderlands, and exploration history.

Citation: Mackenzie Cooley. Review of Flint, Richard; Flint, Shirley Cushing, A Most Splendid Company: The Coronado Expedition in Global Perspective. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54184

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.