English Designs on Central America: Geographic Knowledge and Imaginative Geographies in the Seventeenth Century
- Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal
- University of Pennsylvania Press
- Volume 18, Number 4, Fall 2020
- pp. 399-460
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This study explores the relationship between geographic knowledge and imaginative geographies in the early modern English Atlantic. As is exemplified by English efforts to colonize Providence Island, the Western Design and the economic activities it set in motion, and English and Scottish plans to colonize the Darien region of Panama, everyday geographic knowledge contributed to and was informed by English imaginative geographies in ways that shaped English plans to occupy or attack Central America. Despite a maturation of governing institutions, scientific practices, and commercial networks that gathered geographic information by the last quarter of the seventeenth century, imaginative geographies obscured a more sober assessment of Central America's complex social and physical realities—especially in spaces controlled by indigenous peoples living outside colonial control. That greater geographic experience did not contribute to improved designs presents a paradox for a model that expects knowledge accumulation to advance its utility. Instead, geographic knowledge in the seventeenth century informed imperial designs via imaginative geographies built on myths, perceptions, and desires, blurring distinctions between the two.