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  • Where Caciques and Mapmakers Met: Border Making in Eighteenth-Century South America by Jeffrey Alan Erbig Jr
  • Case Watkins
Jeffrey Alan Erbig Jr.
Where Caciques and Mapmakers Met: Border Making in Eighteenth-Century South America.
Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 2020. xvii + 259 pp. 24 halftones, 13 maps, 6 tables, notes, bibliography, index. $24.95 paperback (ISBN: 978-1-4696-5504-8); $90.00 hardcover (ISBN: 978-1-4696-5503-1); $19.99 e-book (ISBN 978-1-4696-5505-5).

The demarcation of indigenous territories remains central in the ever-urgent struggles for human rights and social-environmental justice in Latin America and beyond. Geographers and others interested in the social processes of borders and demarcation will find much to learn from Jeffrey Alan Erbig Jr.’s book Where Caciques and Mapmakers Met. While this work focuses on historical processes of imperial border-making in the eighteenth century, its relevance for contemporary legal geographies, land rights, and Indigenous autonomy are undeniable. Providing a thoughtful origin story for colonial borders in Latin America, Erbig’s book analyzes the social construction of territories and geographies of knowledge production in the Rio de la Plata region with a steady focus on Indigenous spatial imaginaries and practices of placemaking long-obscured in/by colonial historiographies.

Using an impressive array of archives and innovative GIS methods, the book examines the collaborative inter-imperial mapping expeditions set in motion by the Treaties of Madrid (1750) and San Ildefonso (1777). While the Iberian powers designed those expeditions to finally settle long-running [End Page 228] border disputes in the Rio de la Plata, Erbig’s analysis demonstrates how the region’s diverse Indigenous communities intervened in and profoundly shaped those ostensibly bilateral agreements to carve up South America. Thus, the book joins a broader approach to colonial histories and geographies that reveal Indigenous, enslaved, and otherwise sub-altern peoples as powerful cultural and economic actors in historical transformations of the Americas.

Drawing on more than seven hundred manuscripts from two dozen repositories spanning seven countries, Erbig reads against the grain of the colonial archive to emphasize the complex humanity of Indigenous communities, demonstrating how various groups incorporated the imperial processes of border-making into their own sovereignty and spaces. The analysis builds on multi-and-interdisciplinary scholarship on borderlands to evoke fluid territories of inter-ethnic exchange and creation. It relies on an accommodating concept of territoriality derived from the work of legal geographer David Delaney and expanded to include inputs from geographers and socio-spatial heavy hitters such as Ed Soja, David Harvey, and Henri Lefebvre. The explicitly theoretical discussion is limited to a single note in the introduction, still I was fascinated by the potential it holds for this study, and beyond, especially if broadened to include work and ideas by feminist and other critical theorists immersed in the geographies of social difference.

The social construction of territoriality in the Rio de la Plata builds through an introduction, five substantive chapters, and an exciting, forward-looking conclusion. The book arranges its arguments thematically, even as they unfold chronologically. The flow of the narrative remains smooth and captivating, and the prose is sharp and never pretentious. The introduction succinctly sets the stage and makes clear the book’s contributions within historical and geographical literatures. Chapter 1 maps the frenetic landscape on which the book’s actions take place, and Chapter 2 reveals how the Iberian powers weaponized maps to transform colonial territorial possession—a social-environmental process with broad and enduring implications. The third chapter details the technical logistics and social practices of the mapping expeditions, and the fourth explains how the newly drawn borders transformed the territorial dynamics and interethnic relations of the Rio de la Plata region. The fifth and final substantive chapter narrates the fallout from the dissolution of the imperial borders amid the republican revolutions of the early nineteenth century, preparing the reader for the thoughtful and far-reaching conclusion.

Throughout, the book illustrates how Indigenous communities participated in, and often profoundly influenced, imperial border mapping, as well as broader processes of placemaking around and across the resulting boundaries. Erbig demonstrates, convincingly, how Indigenous communities...