- Distance and Documents at the Spanish Empire’s Periphery by Sylvia Sellers-García
“The workings of empire,” asserts Sylvia Sellers-García at the outset of this captivating monograph, “depended on the flow of paper.” Her fundamental argument, succinctly put, is that “documents were an essential tool in the workings of empire, and particularly [End Page 151] long-distance empire.” The composition of documents, the means by which they were dispatched, and how (after being read, acted upon, or ignored) they were eventually filed and stored “therefore reveal much about how distance was mediated, if not always overcome” (p. 16). Colonial Spanish America is the orbit of Sellers-García’s embrace, and the part of it that interests her most is the region governed as the Audiencia de Guatemala. A “periphery of empire” (p. 5) in the global Hispanic scheme of things, the Audiencia de Guatemala was certainly not imperial Spain’s most lucrative asset, nor the largest territory it administered. However, stretching as it did (in present-day geography) from the Mexican state of Chiapas in the north and west to the border between Costa Rica and Panama in the south and east, the Audiencia de Guatemala was most decidedly far-flung, thus affording Sellers-García ample space to advance her case, which she does to striking effect.
The book has three parts that consider (in turn) “the creation, movement, and storage of documents” (p. 19). Chapter 1 concerns document genres, with Chapter 2 showcasing Sellers-García at her very best: analyzing the jewel of colonial Guatemalan historiography, the “geographic-moral description” (the title is inspired by the genius of Immanuel Kant) penned and mapped by Archbishop Pedro Cortés y Larraz (1712–1786). Chapter 3 examines how the mail system operated. In 1599, a typical letter sent by the Audiencia of Guatemala to Spain, took about a year to arrive (p. 81). Chapter 4 invokes the lives and livelihoods of the intrepid correos, often of ill repute, “who covered hundreds of leagues on foot and on horseback” (p. 103), carrying mail from one remote corner of the Audiencia to another. Sellers-García offers insightful reflection on what constituted a league, which could be either a temporal measure (“the distance walked in an hour,” p. 95) or a spatial one, “in most of the empire … roughly 2.6 miles” (p. 96). Chapters 5 and 6, assiduously undertaken but somewhat less riveting than the chapters preceding them, discuss the role of the diligent officials (escribanos) whose “methods of organizing document storage echoed methods of organizing document travel” and show how the inventories made by them proved “essential organizational tools for document preservation” (p. 21) when former colonies became independent republics during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.
My rationale for singling out what Sellers-García has to say about the pastoral tour of inspection conducted between 1768 and 1770 by Cortés y Larraz is not mere subjective preference. Although the archbishop’s depictions are detailed in Chapter 2, these valuable records inform the entire text. To his “notion of distance as pejorative” Sellers-García returns time and again to emphasize or throw into relief the prelate’s visceral antipathy toward the un-Christian anarchy of Maya life all over Guatemala: “the great burden of his concerns for the archdiocese’s spiritual and moral health hanging over him” (p. 75). Distraught and perplexed, Cortés y Larraz throws up his hands in despair. “It causes one horror,” he writes, “to even contemplate having to penetrate such a great gathering of mountains” (p. 62). The mindset with which the prelate ghosted through town after town the length and breadth of his domain, shocked if not repelled by what he encountered, contrasts with how statesman and writer Antonio José de Irisarri (1786–1868) perceived matters. Whereas the former saw “scandals” [End Page 152] and “perilous distance at the end of difficult routes” plagued by misery and hardship, the...