Contested terrain: The rise and decline of surveying in New Spain, 1500-1800

Based on manuscript and printed sources, this paper analyses the rise and decline of land surveying in New Spain, from 1500 to 1800. To do so, it describes four, closely related factors that affected colonial surveying: the ambiguity of the royal decrees intended to define land grants; a flawed system of weights and measures; the poor development of the surveying tool kit and techniques; and the predominance of empiricism in the daily practice of surveyors. Among these factors, the first three provided the contextual background for the fourth one: the surveying praxis. Thus, based on manuscripts such as the Geometría práctica y mecánica..., written by Joseph Sáenz de Escobar in the early eighteenth century, the paper documents some of the vicissitudes of surveying. It also describes how this subject became marginal and was gradually superseded by topography during the nineteenth century. It demonstrates that, notwithstanding the attempts to achieve greater accuracy, the under-development of colonial surveying accounts for the many contested surveys and faulty cartographic representations. It concludes that both the practical and theoretical development of surveying was the result of specific colonial conditions.