Mapping the Country of Regions: The Chorographic Commission of Nineteenth-Century Colombia by Nancy P. Appelbaum (review)
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Mapping the Country of Regions: The Chorographic Commission of Nineteenth-Century Colombia. Nancy P. Appelbaum. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016. xiv + 320 pp. Figures, notes, references, index. $34.95 paper (ISBN 978-1-4696-2744-1).

In Mapping the Country of Regions, Nancy P. Appelbaum analyzes the literary, cartographic, and pictorial geographies produced by one of the most ambitious cartographic expeditions in nineteenth-century Latin America. A historian of Latin America at Binghamton University, Appelbaum builds upon themes explored in her 2003 book Race, Region, and Local History in Colombia, 1846–1948. In the present work she examines the geographical imaginations, the political impetus, and the visual culture that infused Colombia’s Chorographic Commission throughout the 1850s and in the turbulent years following the 1859 death of the commission’s leader, the Italian-born soldier and engineer Agustín Codazzi. The study is excellent and benefits from engagement with key works by Colombian scholars such as Olga Restrepo Forero and Efraín Sánchez. Appelbaum’s study also contributes to the rich vein of recent scholarship examining the scientific and cartographic exercises of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Latin America, from Graham Burnett’s Masters of All They Surveyed (2000) and Ray Craib’s Cartographic Mexico (2004) to Neil Safier’s Measuring the New World (2008) and the University of Chicago Press’s critical English editions of some of Alexander von Humboldt’s key works (2011; 2013).

The Chorographic Commission was formed in 1850 by the government of New [End Page 121] Granada to promote liberal economic growth, strengthen state governance, and to attract foreign investment and immigration. Having finished a similar survey in Venezuela in 1839, Codazzi was the logical choice to undertake the Colombian equivalent. Initially, the commission was composed of only Codazzi and Manuel Ancízar Basterra, a lettered follower of the Liberal party, but it grew to include illustrators and botanists, as various people cycled on and off the commission. The commission also contained numerous unnamed attendants and muleteers whose stories Appelbaum is at pains to – but, ultimately, unable to – reconstruct. The commission was charged initially with mapping each of the republic’s thirty-six provinces and, then, eight (and eventually nine) larger and semi-autonomous states. Mapping the changing political geography of the nascent country proved as challenging as traversing it. Between 1850 and the early 1860s the country experienced three civil wars, three constitutional changes, and three name changes – the Republic of New Granada became the Granadine Confederation in 1858 and then the United States of Colombia in 1863 (returning to a republic in 1886).

Codazzi’s ideas of chorography traced their inspiration to Alexander von Humboldt as well as the Colombian criollo scientist, José de Caldas, who collaborated with both Humboldt and José Celestino Mutis during his Royal Botanical Expedition (1783-1808). For these “chorographers,” chorography meant documenting not only the principal towns, mountains, lakes, rivers, and borders of each province, but also the races and customs of its people, natural curiosities, history, climate, natural resources, mines, public lands, and their potential for progress with a capital “P.” Codazzi preferred this approach to the “more scientific” topographic surveys that relied on triangulation. The idea of producing what today we might call a cultural geography of each region also fit with the commission’s implicit charge to chart provincial homogeneity and, by extension, to make the case for a federalist form of government, which Colombia duly became in 1863. The disconnect between the heterogeneity that the commission actually documented and the homogeneity that they hoped to see in the nation they imagined provides the paradox that propels Appelbaum’s study and analysis.

Part and parcel of Appelbaum’s study is an analysis of the vast production of visual culture. She shows that the many watercolors produced by the commission relied on a style—also common in countries such as Mexico—called costumbrismo: normative depictions of human tipos (types) and their costumbres (customs), rooted in specific, if stylized, natural and cultural landscapes. Appelbaum illustrates how the form “updated” the casta paintings of eighteenth-century Latin America (p. 78). The depicted landscapes often made reference to gender, whereby a...


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