Views of Nature and Road Building in Central America, 1800–38

Monday, January 5, 2015: 8:50 AM
Central Park West (Sheraton New York)
Sophie Brockmann, University of London
When Central America declared independence from Spain in 1821, one of the key priorities of the new "Central American Federation" was the improvement of roads and trade routes in the interior of the continent. Mapping and survey projects, as in other countries, were central to defining the new nations of Central America. Debates about which routes to prioritize and how to overcome difficult mountain landscapes were, however, hardly a new development. Central American administrators and travelers throughout the colonial period complained about impassable mountain roads, and merchants from more remote provinces continually petitioned for better roads to integrate the region's economy. This paper explores the debates around planning roads, and the practicalities of surveying and building them, in Central America during the last decades of colonial rule and the first decades of independence. A study of road surveys and attempts to connect the Central American countryside shines light not just on the improvement of basic infrastructure, but also the views about landscape and local topographies which prevailed within local communities and among the scientific elite. Using survey documents from the period c. 1800-1838, this paper examines the relationship of administrators and engineers to the often difficult landscape they were attempting to traverse. Engineers’ records are contrasted with the voices of the local population (Spanish and indigenous), and merchants who relied on these routes to transport their wares. Questions of who was thought to possess the relevant expertise to conduct authoritative measurements of distances and decide on the course of a route are a central concern here. The paper will further place road-building projects in the context of a complicated political landscape in which the interests of powerful Guatemala City merchants were often opposed to those of governors and merchants from other regions.