Insular Visions: Cartographic Imagery and the Spanish-American War

Article excerpt

This year, 1998, marks the centennial of the Spanish-American War or, as Secretary of State John Hay called it, "that splendid little war." The war's events have long since evaporated from popular memory, leaving only a few images such as Teddy Roosevelt rampaging up San Juan Hill or the cry of "Remember the Maine!," a U.S. battleship sunk in Havana harbor. For the United States, however, the 113-day confrontation marked an epochal shift in the national identity. U.S. forces sent a European power skittering for cover and acquired for the United States the widely separated territories of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Cuba. An enthusiastic jingoism, fed by political rhetoric and strident journalism, recast the United States as an ascending imperial force.

This photo essay examines American imperial aspirations during and after the Spanish-American War through the maps and geographic imagery that helped construct the popular conception of the "American empire." Our aim is to show how images of the once-Spanish possessions were produced and to explore the ways in which the Insular Territories acquired in the wake of the conflict came into the U.S. popular imagination. A newly imperial power demanded a colonial empire that could be presented on paper for domestic browsing; this meant putting these places on the map. An inquisitive public, an expansion-minded government, and an eager private sector all demanded visual instruments to domesticate and incorporate the foreign. Maps dramatized the country's new imperial stature, and fixed the new acquisitions on the pages of atlases and on the expanding fields of U.S. territorial hegemony.

Although the most immediate images were of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, expansionist U.S. policies had nibbled away at the once vast Spanish acquisitions in the New World for nearly a century. As early as 1819, the United States had forced Spain to cede Florida, while the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in December 1823 left little doubt as to U.S. hemispheric ambitions. Indeed, the principal author of the Monroe Doctrine, John Quincy Adams, averred that Cuba and Puerto Rico were "natural appendages to the North American continent."(1) In asserting a "ripe apple" policy, which assumed that Spanish possessions in the Caribbean would fall naturally into the orbit of the United States once the right conditions prevailed, Adams revealed his firm conviction that the annexation of Cuba and Puerto Rico would be both indispensable and inevitable, a conviction born of a geographic imaginary that equated proximity with destiny.

In 1834, a European traveler in the service of the Spanish government, one Colonel Flinter, pronounced with a prescient speculation that the "safety [and] salvation of the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico, depend," among other things, "upon the cultivation of a good understanding with the United States of America."(2) This conclusion was based in part upon a recognition of the changing political, economic, and intellectual order of the nineteenth century. "Comparative Hemispheres," Figure 1, representing the apex and nadir of Spanish influence in the Americas, emphasizes the point and shows that by 1898, Spain's base of operations in the Caribbean has been reduced to a pair of lonely Outposts.


Cartographic determinism permeated nineteenth-century thought. Referring to the acquisition of Texas, for example, businessman and Democrat John O'Sullivan stated in 1844 that anyone "who cast a glance over the map of North America" could see that Texas was "a huge fragment, artificially broken off" from the continent to which it naturally belonged.(3)

As the map of Cuba shown in Figure 2 dramatically demonstrates, geographic determination punctuated the styles of cartographic representation of the Caribbean, suggesting Cuba would inevitably be subsumed into the U.S.. The text in the lower right corner emphasizes the multiple links between the "Gem of the Antilles" and Florida's peninsula, the southern extremity of the U. …