Mapping the Country of Regions: The Chorographic Commission of Nineteenth-Century Colombia

Mapping the Country of Regions: The Chorographic Commission of Nineteenth-Century Colombia

Mapping the Country of Regions: The Chorographic Commission of Nineteenth-Century Colombia

Mapping the Country of Regions: The Chorographic Commission of Nineteenth-Century Colombia

Synopsis

The nineteenth century was an era of breathtakingly ambitious geographic expeditions across the Americas. The seminal Chorographic Commission of Colombia, which began in 1850 and lasted about a decade, was one of Latin America's most extensive. The commission's mandate was to define and map the young republic and its resources with an eye toward modernization. In this history of the commission, Nancy P. Appelbaum focuses on the geographers' fieldwork practices and visual production as the men traversed the mountains, savannahs, and forests of more than thirty provinces in order to delineate the country's territorial and racial composition. Their assumptions and methods, Appelbaum argues, contributed to a long-lasting national imaginary.

What jumps out of the commission's array of reports, maps, sketches, and paintings is a portentous tension between the marked differences that appeared before the eyes of the geographers in the field and the visions of sameness to which they aspired. The commissioners and their patrons believed that a prosperous republic required a unified and racially homogeneous population, but the commission's maps and images paradoxically emphasized diversity and helped create a "country of regions." By privileging the whiter inhabitants of the cool Andean highlands over those of the boiling tropical lowlands, the commission left a lasting but problematic legacy for today's Colombians.

Excerpt

At the beginning of each year throughout most of the 1850s, a small government-sponsored commission departed from the high Andean city of Bogotá with scientific instruments strapped to the backs of mules. Year after year, the commissioners would travel through a different section of the young republic of New Granada, today known as Colombia. Led by a Europeanborn military officer, Agustín Codazzi, they made their way over the country’s three Andean mountain ranges and across its savannahs and rainforests by mule, foot, and boat, and even occasionally on the backs of other men. They camped at night on the ground in lean-tos constructed by the team of workers that assisted them. When they were lucky, they slept on beds or floors of local residents’ homes (where the laborers stayed on those occasions, we do not know). Their scientific instruments constantly broke down; they were chronically short of funds. They depended heavily on the knowledge, hospitality, and physical labor of locals, not all of whom welcomed the imposition. After months of research, they would return to Bogotá, where they would turn their notes and sketches into reports, maps, and watercolor illustrations. They often took ill from tropical “fevers” contracted en route, and several of the commission’s support workers died. Their travels ended abruptly in 1859, when Codazzi himself took ill on the trail. He expired in a village near the Caribbean Coast, leaving his life’s greatest work unfinished.

This incomplete project was the Chorographic Commission of New Granada, one of nineteenth-century Latin America’s most extensive and ambitious cartographic expeditions. Founded in 1850 by the government of New Granada in order to promote economic growth and strengthen the state, the commission was officially composed of Codazzi and anywhere from one to three additional members contracted by the government to accompany him in different years, including writers, illustrators, and a botanist. Numerous other men and some women also participated in the commission, contributing their labor and knowledge. Most of the officially appointed commissioners and other participants were born in New Granada, though others hailed originally from Venezuela or Europe. Although the commission’s work was never quite concluded, and it is little known outside of Colombia, it had a . . .

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