Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 8, 2024
Juliet B. Wiersema The History of a Periphery : Spanish Colonial Cartography from Colombia's Pacific Lowlands Austin: University of Texas Press, 2024. 256 pp.; 66 b/w ills. $60.00 (9781477327746)

In her illuminating new book, The History of a Periphery: Spanish Colonial Cartography from Colombia’s Pacific Lowlands, Juliet Wiersema shows us how a selection of manuscript maps and their accompanying archival documents simultaneously communicate the disjunctures and contradictions in the Spanish Crown’s colonizing project and, in some cases, reveal the agency, resilience, and resistance of the people they sought to subjugate and exploit. Principally among her aims, Wiersema demonstrates how these maps and documents together upend long-held assumptions about the Pacific Lowlands (located along the coastal border of present-day Colombia), also known as the Greater Chocó, a place commonly regarded as “the periphery of the periphery” of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (6). After surveying dozens of hand-drawn maps created from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, Wiersema focused her analysis on four manuscript maps (made between 1759 and 1783) that she could reunite with their corresponding archived case files (termed legajos, expedientes, or signaturas). As each chapter reveals, the maps and their accompanying documentation illuminate the fraught nature of the Spanish viceroyalty’s attempts to colonize the Chocó and the complexity of the interactions that ensued among the region’s multiracial local populations.

As Wiersema explains, viceregal officials considered the Greater Chocó as completely peripheral to the major urban centers of Cartagena, Santa Fe de Bogotá, and Tunja, and subsequently tended to avoid substantial administrative decisions in this region. Because of the viceroyalty’s relative inaction here, the history of the Greater Chocó is one that is often overlooked. In publishing these manuscript maps and their accompanying analyses, Wiersema aims to “resurrect forgotten places of economic possibility and unlock as-yet-untold narratives about individuals, ethnicities, provincial industries, and local politics in this peripheral area of the Spanish empire” (2). As the author demonstrates clearly and compellingly throughout each chapter, the places within the Greater Chocó depicted in these maps were “dynamic, multicultural spaces of ingenuity, opportunity, and adaptation” (4).

In the introduction, the author delves into important material and conceptual differences between manuscript and printed maps, as well as theorizations of the notion of both “periphery” and “frontera” to anchor how she will read these maps against dominant narratives about these alleged hinterlands. Wiersema situates the reader within critical debates in the history of cartography, foregrounding her analysis of these maps as social constructions. She also emphasizes the necessity of interpreting the maps along with their corresponding archival documents to locate instances of agency and adaptation among the region’s Indigenous and African populations.

In chapter one, Wiersema establishes the Viceroyalty of New Granada as “categorically different” from the Viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru, both because of its later establishment and its markedly different climate, topography, and demographics. This distinction is also important given the historic emphasis in art historical literature on the Viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru. Then, chapter two elucidates the historical circumstances that might have led to the lacuna of printed maps of the region, especially in comparison to the region’s many manuscript maps. With these two introductory chapters, Wiersema makes clear that the manuscript maps created by local individuals are vital sources for reconstructing the geography, society, and economy of the region. And even more crucially, as Wiersema points out, some of these documents are our only extant records of the short-lived or previously unknown Indigenous or free African settlements, whose histories challenge deeply entrenched narratives of colonization and destruction in the region.   

Chapter three focuses on The Map of the Atrato River and Pueblos of Cuna Indians. Wiersema’s visual analysis underscores the uneasiness the Spanish colonizers might have felt at the number of autonomous Indigenous Cuna settlements depicted along the shores of the Atrato River. She highlights the vulnerable position of the Vigía, a Spanish defensive outpost constructed along the Atrato. Reading the map alongside its case file, Wiersema elaborates on the history of the Murindo reducción (a Spanish resettlement of local Cuna) and the Vigía, demonstrating how, through their ongoing dealings with Spanish authorities, the Cuna of Murindo negotiated with both the Spanish and other European officials for mutually beneficial arrangements—vital resources for themselves and increased protection for Spanish settlements. Equipped with the case file, Wiersema argues that the Vigía, although a meager Spanish defensive post that repeatedly failed in its intended function, became “a space for dialogue and mediation between Spanish, Cuna, and other nations” (54).

In chapter four, the author interrogates the notion of “periphery” and debates its relevance when applied to an analysis of the Map of the Chocó, Panamá, and Cupica. Wiersema’s argument is straightforward—the Bay of Cupica (the focal point of the map) might have been on the physical periphery for the viceregal administrators based in the capital of New Granada, but its geographic location as a nexus between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea made its economic potential quite apparent to local residents. In many ways, this argument models Wiersema’s approach towards reading all the maps featured in each of the chapters. Her careful visual analysis coupled with the hundreds of legajo pages reveal these various depicted sites to be of paramount importance to the daily lives of the map’s creators and users and continually demonstrates “how representations of geographical space were conceived, manipulated and deployed . . . to serve colonists’ ends” (4).

Chapter five focuses on the Map of the Dagua River Region, where Wiersema notes, much of the commerce and labor that took place in the region was dependent on enslaved African labor. Because of its journey from Colombia to a rare-books store in Pennsylvania and ultimately, the Library of Congress, the map itself is divorced from its accompanying archival records. The author, however, skillfully reconstructs some context using archived case files from other repositories. Wiersema explains the environmental condition of the two settlements situated along the dangerous Dagua River, the decimation of its local Indigenous population, and the forced migration of the African occupants ordered to work in the region’s gold mines. Paying close attention to how key iconographic features of the map dialogue with the contextual history Wiersema has pieced together, she compellingly argues that specific visual elements on the map allude to how African settlers in New Granada contended with Spanish colonialism.

Chapter six focuses on a manuscript map of the Yurumanguí Indians (1770) as well the author’s extraordinary discovery of its never-before-linked corresponding documentation. The documents illuminate the violence of what transpired to the Yurumanguí people in the area despite the map’s attempt to portray the region as peacefully colonized. Wiersema points out that it is only in uniting the analysis of both the map and its corresponding documents that the contemporary viewer can learn what transpired in this region. Wiersema’s visual analysis guides readers through how to read the map, which represents the region as an abundant source for placer gold mining. Simultaneously, through the inscription of local Yurumanguí settlements, the map highlights what colonists perceived as a viable source of labor to help exploit these mines. In attempting to subjugate the Yurumanguí people for their own economic gain, however, the Spanish officials instead eradicated this Indigenous group. In turn, this violent result rendered the colonial project a failure. Yet, in one of the many cruel paradoxes of colonization, the map and its case file provide some of the best information we have of this region and its Indigenous nation.

Wiersema’s book is a remarkable study of the long-overlooked narratives that these select manuscript maps and their documentation provide, through their collective marks, purposeful omissions, and discordances. The illustrations throughout the book are in black and white but the center plates fully represent the painted maps in all their chromatic splendor. The book includes a helpful glossary of Spanish terms frequently used in eighteenth-century New Granada. Two appendices include transcribed text from the legends of the maps analyzed as well as a fascinating technical study of the Manuscript Map of the Dagua River conducted by a team at the Library of Congress. The book’s impressive interdisciplinary scope makes it of interest to students and scholars of art history, history, cartography, anthropology, and archaeology alike. 

Collectively, the maps Wiersema chose to elucidate in this impressive study foreground the actions of Indigenous, and enslaved and free Black and mixed-race communities. The maps highlight the failed aspirations of Spanish colonial vecinos (residents), the intrusions of other enterprising European colonists, and the importance of these so-called peripheral sites in the Iberian transatlantic world in the everyday lives of the maps’ creators and interlocutors. As Wiersema deftly evinces, the maps argue that these supposedly peripheral places were crucially central in the lived experience and imagination of their makers. Through an interdisciplinary methodology—visual and textual analysis coupled with significant attention to the region’s environmental and demographic history—the author takes us with her on a journey to renavigate these spaces and reconstitute what these maps (and the places they depict) meant to the various individuals who experienced them. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, Wiersema reveals aspects of the region’s colonial history that its mapmakers likely did not intend.

Jennifer Saracino
University of Arizona