One of the most controversial periods of Latin American History is the age of the conquistadores. Historians have been attracted to sixteenth-century conquests for over a century, but they frequently become preoccupied with individuals and not with the relationship of the man to his environment and age. Furthermore, they either endorse or attack the leyenda negra and focus repeatedly upon the same figures, thereby failing to discover new individuals and fresh material from archival sources. Even those unfamiliar with Latin America can recount some of the events and figures of these conquests. But who has heard of Juan Vázquez de Coronado? It is safe to say that not many professional historians have or else they confuse him with Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, the famous explorer of the southwestern United States. Yet Juan Vázquez de Coronado succeeded as a colonizer where his better-known uncle failed.

The obscure conqueror of Costa Rica emigrated to New Spain in 1540, when only fifteen years old, and served mostly in Nueva Galicia for the next eight years. Thereafter he occupied posts in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua before initiating the pacification of Costa Rica in 1562. Three years later, at age forty, he had completed the “conquest” and colonization there before returning to Spain. He died at sea in the same year en route to Central America where Philip II had appointed him perpetual adelantado and governor of Costa Rica.

Victoria Urbano’s book is a well-written, thoroughly researched biography of this lesser-known conquistador. It derives from her doctoral dissertation with Mario Hernández Sánchez-Barba of the University of Madrid. Urbano demonstrates historical perspective, balance, and knowledge of her subject, as well as the period in which he lived. Her thesis is that Vázquez de Coronado applied ethical standards in the pacification of her native land. He bartered with the Indians, would not allow goods to be seized from them, carried on infrequent, “just wars” within legal limitations, allowed the natives to remain under the control of their own caciques, and never considered them as natural slaves. In short, he “saw and judged the Indian as any other man, capable of having defects and virtues . . .” (p. 271).

The work’s nine parts analyze the methods, problems, and sources of the author’s study; historical antecedents; the early life of Vázquez de Coronado, his residence in Nueva Galicia, and the conquest of Costa Rica; his return to Spain and death; and his application of ethical practices in Costa Rica. There are two informative appendices, a glossary of geographical terms, an unclassified bibliography, and footnotes at the end of each chapter. Sources used are basically manuscripts from Madrid, Seville, and Costa Rica. However, a map depicting prominent locations and routes would have been useful.

This thoughtful study is a first step in revealing the importance of a figure little known outside of Costa Rica. It highlights errors of fact and interpretation advanced by previous authorities, supports new contentions with documentary evidence, and raises questions about the possible influence of Pedro de Alvarado and Cristóbal de Oñate on Vázquez de Coronado during the Mixton War in Nueva Galicia. This reviewer has felt since he was in Costa Rica two years ago that Vázquez de Coronado deserved serious study. The present work accomplishes that objective and reveals that the “conqueror” of Costa Rica might more properly be called its “ pacificador.” Historians should be more aware of his methods; perhaps this study would bear translation into English