The Mapping of New Spain
When Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian naturalist widely considered one of the brightest scientific minds of his era, set off on a voyage to South America, the Spanish colony of New Spain (modern-day Mexico) was not high on his list of priorities. Upon witnessing the geographical and biological diversity in the region, he quickly rearranged his proposed journey of circumnavigation in favor of a comprehensive study of the social and geographic landscape of New Spain. The results of that labor, recorded in his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, comprise nearly 2000 pages of statistical analysis and some of the most comprehensive cartography in the Americas to date.
As a child of the Enlightenment, Humboldt projects into his science and cartography a strong belief in the need for a total understanding of the environment that he studies. As he explains in the personal narrative resulting from this journey, “it would hinder the advancement of the sciences to postulate general ideas by neglecting particular facts.” To that end, the Political Essay, and his “Map of the Kingdom of New Spain” in particular, includes an astonishing breadth of information about a variety of significant aspects of colonial life. Because of Humboldt’s understanding of the volume of information yet unknown about New Spain, he found himself driven to advance a scientific understanding of an important part of the Spanish Empire by observing and categorizing a vast quantity of data about life in the region.
In the “Map of New Spain” in particular, Humboldt reveals the deeply human priority of his scientific perspective. By including elements of the human landscape (cities, churches, and towns), the economic landscape (mines and military posts), and the scientific landscape (astronomical observations and mountains), Humboldt seeks to fully encompass the essence of New Spain, to understand the ways that people interact with their environment. Proceeding from the Enlightenment perspective that nature can be fully understood with the application of logic and human reason, Humboldt’s attempt to map the unknown comes in the form of broad and far-reaching scientific calculation.
- Daniel Quick, BC Class of 2016 and Spring 2014 Making History Public Student
Legitimizing New Spain
Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas was the royal chronicler of Spain and is famous for his historical account of the Spanish conquest of the Americas in what is commonly referred to as The Décadas. These maps and engravings appear in John Stevens’ translation of that work and act as reference tools for the reader. The “New Map of North and South America” is used to show much of the region that is described in The General History of the Vast Continent and Islands of America.
The “Hidrographical Draught of Mexico as it Lies in its Lakes” is a map of the Aztec capital of Mexico, Tenochtitlán. This particular map originates from a Spanish traveler named Carlos de Sigüenza Góngora who reportedly copied it from a Native American mapmaker.
In writing a historical account of this crucial era in Spain’s history, one of Herrera y Tordesillas’s tasks was to justify the conquest of an entire population of people in which Spain claimed possession of all of Mexico and Central America. One way of justifying their actions was by portraying the native people as savages or even subhuman creatures. Perhaps the most effective way of doing that was by describing the religious practices of the native people. The polytheistic worship of multiple gods and the practices of human sacrifice were extremely disturbing for many of the Catholic Spanish explorers.
An engraving in this book entitled “Vitzilipuztli, the Principal Idol of the Mexicans” shows an example of this idol worship that Spaniards found so appalling. This idol would have been located in one of the great temples of Tenochtitlán. Another engraving worth mentioning is “The Great Charnel House in ye City of Mexico,” which shows a display of human skulls from victims of the sacrificial rituals of the Mexica people. Images like these reinforced the Spanish descriptions of heathenism within the native religions. The idea that the native people were heathens was useful in justifying their conquest and solidifying their claims of possession because they could act in the name of civilizing and Christianizing the Native Americans.
Two maps were added to the translation of Herrera y Tordesillas’s work more than a century after the original Décadas was first published. They were used as reference tools in order to assist readers in understanding the historical account of Spain’s conquest of the New World. After they had already solidified and justified their possession, they were able to create these maps and include images of churches that signified the locations of towns and cities named after Spanish saints. It was clear that they claimed to control and possess this land.
- Conor Morris, BC Class of 2014 and Spring 2014 Making History Public Student
The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit Ordering the Unknown: The European Mapping Tradition from 1600 to 1860, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South. This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Sylvia Sellers-Garcia’s Spring 2014 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.