The breakpoint between the pre-Columbian and post-Conquest worlds in the Western Hemisphere is a fuzzy one at best. Historians of the period, concerned with art, society, and culture, are always looking for the boundaries and discontinuities to indicate the changeover between the native and the European, the here and the there, that which came before and that which came after. What they are seeking in fact is a kind of mental map, a layout of the differences between the New World and the Old, and the roads and intersections leading from one to the other.
In this case more than a metaphor, maps are expressions of space, direction, and contiguities, as real as the lands they aim to represent. And colonial cartographies, like colonial lands, are the physical meeting places of the colonized and the colonizers, where the versions of history and reality of the one can be erased, overdrawn, or remapped by the other. What is a better way of seeing the colonial encounter, then, than by looking at the real maps they drew together?
On May 25, 1577, King Philip II of Spain signed a royal decree attached to a fifty-item questionnaire. It was sent to all his jurisdictions in the New World by Juan Lopez de Velasco, appointed the official cartographer of the Council of the Indies in 1571. He asked for a detailed narrative report on each community, native and Spanish, in his new domain. This was hoped to complement a very precise mapping project he had commissioned for the Netherlands and Spain, with fixed elevations, grids, and exact linear distances all duly recorded.
The questions directed to the New World concerned all aspects of their economy, history, and natural resources. Fruits and grains, gold and silver, salt and precious stone. Water and land routes, ports and landings, mountain passes and rivers. Native languages, native rulers, and native chronologies--"Who were their rulers in heathen times?" asks Item 14.
The information was to be returned in standardized, systematic, and collatable form. And a map was to be attached to each report. "Describe the sites upon which each town is established," reads Item 10 of the questionnaire. "Is each upon a height, or low-lying or on a plain? Make a map of the layout of the town, its streets and plazas and other features, noting the monasteries, as well as can be sketched easily on paper."
According to the instructions, "in the town and cities where the governors, corregidores, and other officials reside, they are to write the reports themselves or they may encharge them to intelligent persons with knowledge of the area." Who exactly might be these "intelligent persons" is never stated explicitly, but we do know that of those who drew the maps, almost two-thirds were native artists.
Of the unknown number of questionnaires dispatched to the New World, we know that 167 reports were returned to the king from Mexico and Guatemala, 40 from South America, and 1 from the Caribbean, which covered about 400 different communities. Accompanying the reports from Mesoamerica were sixty-nine maps, some of native communities and some of new Spanish settlements. These reports and maps are known today as the Relaciones Geograficas, and collectively they represent that blurry break between two worlds at its most clearly focused point in time.
This body of graphic art has recently been the subject of a pioneering study by art historian Barbara Mundy, published as The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geograficas (University of Chicago Press, 2000). Mundy looks at the maps themselves as a contested land of identity and ownership. Her study transcends the usual disciplines of art interpretation and historical analysis, reading the maps as both expressions of contrasting world view and illustrations of comparative iconography.
Ironically, Item 10 requests that maps be drawn only of Spanish communities. …