Connecting Central America: Local Cartography and Projects of Progress, 1780–1808

Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:50 PM
Columbia Hall 4 (Washington Hilton)
Sophie Brockmann, University of Cambridge
This paper examines the way administrators, merchants and ‘patriots’ in the Spanish colony of Central America described and mapped local geographies, and how they sought to alter and put to use local landscapes in the name of Enlightenment utility and progress. Special attention will be paid to projects to build roads through the mountains of Guatemala, to reinstate a disused harbour and improve Central America’s shipping connections, as well as locally-initiated proposals to build new towns on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast to improve the region’s economic potential and establish a presence in this region dominated by British settlements and independent indigenous peoples. These projects were often cloaked in the language of Enlightened utility to the state, but also in the language of patriotism towards Central America, emphasising the potential of the region’s natural resources and trade. While these rhetorics were of course not mutually exclusive, it is interesting to compare the Spanish imperial state’s overarching geopolitical policies with the necessities and realities of administrators ‘on the ground’. Many of these projects were commented on and promoted by two associations which sought to improve the economy and connectedness of Central America: the Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País de Guatemala, and the Consulado de Comercio. Publications by these societies, as well as the original survey documents, sketch-maps and official reports on the projects form the sources for this talk. In the exploration of these perceptions of geographical space, the paper will particularly focus on the authority ascribed to engineers and to local informants respectively, and the type of evidence that was trusted in descriptions of topographical features. It will also examine attitudes expressed towards the uses of mathematical measurement and internationally relevant ‘scientific’ maps.