Spanish Bluecoats: The Catalonian Volunteers in Northwestern New Spain, 1767-1810 By Joseph P. Sanchez. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 196 pages. $30.00 cloth, $15.95 paper.
Reviewed by Janet R. Fireman, Chief Curator of History, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Author of The Spanish Royal Corps of Engineers and articles on exploration in the Spanish Southwest.
Following the Seven Years’ War, military reorganization in North America was high on the Spanish king’s administrative priority list. Attention was addressed toward enhancement of the military in New Spain, and particularly along the northern frontier of what by then had become Spain’s richest American colony. East of the Mississippi, Great Britain’s very presence offered one threat to the Southwest. From within, some Indian populations attacked Spanish property and persons. Commercially driven British seamen, and Russians as well, approached Pacific shores from the East.
The Free Company of Catalonian Volunteers was one element of the grandiose design set in place in the last third of the eighteenth century, meant to address these exterior and interior threats to empire. Here, as in others of the Bourbon Reforms, the administrators’ thinking was Eurocentric and metropolitan: certain troops, raised from a particular region and named to reflect pride in that patria chica, would be designated as an elite unit, trained in the homeland, and seasoned by European campaigns. So prepared, they were sent to the broad expanses of northern New Spain, and assigned to hot spots that would benefit from their superior skills.
The military managers’ dream was not altogether successful. The landscape was too large, the international problems too complex, the logistics too labored, the supply lines too long. These were not solely the problems of the Catalonian Volunteers; they were daily troubles for all administrators across the Borderlands. The Volunteers acquitted themselves well enough whether in Sonora fighting renegade Indians, as escorts in the founding of permanent settlements in San Diego and other parts of Upper California, in important explorations of San Francisco Bay and the San Joaquin Valley, on the Colorado River at the site of the Yuma Uprising, at New Spain’s most northerly limits on Nootka Sound (in British Columbia), or in early battles of the Mexican War for Independence. The Catalonian Volunteers served their purpose and their obligations, sometimes with distinction and apparently without disgrace. If their presence in the western borderlands did not bring to reality the ideal of a consolidated empire, it was not because the Volunteers’ were at fault. It was an impossible dream.
In Spanish Bluecoats, Joseph P. Sanchez has collected all the components of the Catalonian Volunteers’ exploits. For the first time, a single volume contains the complete compendium of both published and archival sources, a number of them in print for the first time. An appendix provides a useful listing of all known Catalonian Volunteers by name and assignments. Sanchez has served the reader every bit as well as the Catalonian Volunteers he eulogized served their nation and their king.