David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
A Description of the Kingdom of New Spain. By Pedro Alonso O’Crouley. Translated and edited by Sean Galvin. San Francisco: John Howell Books, 1972. Appendices. Bibliography. Glossary. Illustrations. Index. Maps. Notes. 148 pages. $10.00.
Reviewed by Iris Wilson Engstrand, Associate Professor of History, University of San Diego. Dr. Engstrand’s scholarly contributions have been in the area of Spanish scientific activity in the New World. She recently translated and edited Noticias de Nutka: An Account of Nootka Sound in 1792 (1970), by José Mariano Moziño.
Pedro Alonso O’Crouley’s Description of the Kingdom of New Spain of 1774 is a rare, exciting, and colorful addition to the field of Hispanic literature. The original Spanish text, entitled Idea compendiosa del Reyno de Nueva España, is here translated into English for the first time and brings to the reader many historical and social aspects of colonial Mexico. Seán Galvin, translator and editor, has demonstrated his talent and skill by making the work a pleasure to read while maintaining the style and flavor of eighteenth century prose. The fine design and flawless printing of Lawton and Alfred Kennedy have contributed to making this book a unique combination of beauty and interest.
O’Crouley’s manuscript, which lay known only to scholars in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, covered a variety of absorbing subjects. These have been rearranged by editor Galvin into a thematic scheme of twenty-nine chapters and four appendices. The first eight discuss ancient Mexican chronology, including an illustrated explanation of the Aztec calendar stone; a brief history of the conquest by Cortés; and descriptions, with colored sketches, of the trees, fruits, birds, and animals of New Spain. A carefully detailed review of the many racial mixtures which comprise Mexican genealogy is informative and strikingly presented in a series of color plates.
Chapters 9 through 21, also with maps and drawings, describe principal cities and seaports of central Mexico and key presidios of the northern frontier. Two chapters, based primarily upon Father Consag’s travels and accounts by Venegas and Ducrue, are devoted to voyages up the Gulf and mainland of Lower California.
The final chapters concern a variety of subjects. The apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe is recounted with vivid clarity. Under “Remarkable Curiosities” are listed unusual medicinal springs, transparent marble, a woman with forty-eight children, and a flea leashed on a tiny gold chain. The contemporary condition of the Indians and New Spain is also given. The four appendices list all principal cities and towns, give short biographies of viceroys and archbishops, and list the “better-known” Indian tribes. To all of this (since the original accompanying map mentioned by O’Crouley could not be located) editor Galvin has added a spectacular map drawn in 1768 by José Antonio Alzate y Ramírez.
Author O’Crouley, an Irishman born in Cádiz in 1740, has a personal history no less interesting than his work. As a merchant and general observer, O’Crouley made numerous trips to Mexico between 1764 and 1774. During that time he gathered and compiled the history, statistics, and illustrations for his “Idea compendiosa.” Unfortunately, some questions remain unanswered — such as how O’Crouley collected so much information, what places he actually visited, and in which cases he relied on other authors rather than first-hand knowledge. He gives credit to the histories of Solís, Herrera, Acosta, Archbishop Lorenzana and others, and to the botanical work of Dr. Hernández, but indicates no sources for his statistics. No mention is made of the artists of the various color plates.
These omissions from O’Crouley’s personal experiences detract little from the work’s value. Its wealth of information and remarkably beautiful format make its price of $10.00 seem incredibly low. This publication will surely enhance the libraries of all those interested in the history of colonial Hispanic America.