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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.2 (2003) 398-399

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Epoca temprana de León Viejo: Una historia de la primera capital de Nicaragua. By PATRICK S. WERNER. Managua: Fondo Editorial INC-ASDI, 2000. Photographs. Table. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. 177 pp. Paper.

At the edge of Lake Xolotlán, or Managua, within view of the Momotombo volcano, lies what is left of the first site of León, Nicaragua, founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. Abandoned in 1610, for centuries León Viejo lay hidden beneath earth and vegetation. Since the rediscovery of the ruins in 1967, archaeologists have gradually revealed much of León Viejo's material legacy, but historians have done little to wrest the city's story from the surviving documentary record. With Epoca temprana de León Viejo, Patrick S. Werner attempts to fill the gap.

A U.S.-born attorney and educator who has lived in Nicaragua for more than 20 years, Werner excels in the analysis of legal documents. His account depends heavily on a painstaking reading of the voluminous records of litigation found in the 17-volume Colección Somoza, published in the 1950s by Andrés Vega Bolaños. Because Vega Bolaños's compilation includes documents only through 1550, Werner's account is strongest for the first quarter century of Spanish activity in Nicaragua and considerably weaker for the period thereafter.

Rather than a history of early León, as the title suggests, Werner's book instead presents a series of episodes or issues in the history of attempts to establish law and order in Nicaragua. Werner counts among his heroes those civil and ecclesiastical officials who took their legal responsibilities seriously, while his list of villains includes the corrupt, the lawless, and the arbitrary. Occasionally, Werner's judgments in such matters challenge well-established ideas, such as when he defends the governorship of Pedrarias Dávila (1526-31), whose reputation is one of the darkest in the traditional historiography.

According to Werner, more negative in their impact than Pedrarias were Governor Rodrigo de Contreras (1536-44), his formidable wife, María de Peñalosa, daughter of Pedrarias and widow of Vasco Núñez de Balboa, and the gang of greedy, murderous allies and family members who surrounded them. In Werner's view, the nadir of the losing struggle against lawlessness came in 1550, when Contreras's sons, Hernán and Pedro, murdered the bishop of León, Antonio de Valdivieso, then set off on a mutinous expedition, apparently with the goal of seizing Panama as a base to create an independent kingdom in Peru. The Contreras boys ended badly, but their parents lived to enjoy a comfortable retirement in Lima, while Nicaragua itself fell into a slump from which it did not begin to recover until the end of the sixteenth century.

A prominent subtheme is the multiple intersections between the early history of Nicaragua and that of Peru. Some men who later participated in the conquest of [End Page 398] Peru initially sought their fortunes unsuccessfully in Nicaragua, among them Hernando de Soto and Sebastián de Belalcázar. In addition, expeditions to Peru, such as that of Pedro de Alvarado from neighboring Guatemala, drained Nicaragua of its manpower, both Spanish and indigenous. Finally, following Gonzalo Pizarro's defeat in Peru in 1549, a number of his followers sought refuge in untamed Nicaragua where, Werner argues, they inspired the Contreras brothers in their rebellion.

To anyone familiar with contemporary Nicaragua, Werner's tales of greed, treachery, and violence suggest parallels to more recent times. The author cautions against simplistic, present-minded analogies, however. For example, although he admires Bishop Valdivieso as a conscientious bureaucrat, Werner challenges the modern tendency to regard him as a martyr to human rights, on the order of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero or Guatemala's Bishop Juan José Gerardi. Valdivieso was a Dominican like his contemporary, Bartolomé de Las Casas, whom he certainly knew and whose support he enjoyed at court. Nevertheless...


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