David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Cartography: Maps & Conquests

This week’s readings focused on mapping in the Americas, particularly in the time of Contact and European colonization. For me, this was rather appropriate, as my Latin America and the World minor field readings course addressed the topic of Conquest last week. The cartography readings nicely complemented that, and particularly showed a difference between English and Spanish colonization and conquest.

Barbara Mundy’s fascinating deconstruction of the 1524 Nuremberg map of the Mexica capital Tenochtitlan showed something about the Spanish mode of colonization. She argues that the map, European in appearance due to the styles of Tenochtitlan and other Lake Texcoco cities, actually reflects Mesoamerican influences in how it depicts the geography of the region. She speculates that the model for this engraving was a now-lost map Hernan Cortés sent to Emperor Charles V (Carlos I of Spain).

This comports with the understanding I’ve gained of the Spanish “Conquest” era from my recent readings and classes. The Conquest was not top-down and complete; as James Lockhart shows in his book Nahuas After the Conquest, Mesoamerican cultural structures (such as separate, Nahuatl-speaking courts and communities) remained for a long time after the Spanish decapitation of the Mexica Empire. Spaniards depended on indigenous geographic knowledge. Because of the nature of the Spanish conquest of the Mexica Empire–as part of an alliance with Tlaxcalans and Tarascans–then indigenous names and ways of thinking, including geographically, melded with European.

Contrast this with English colonization of, well, New England. As J.B. Harley points out in Chapter 6 of The New Nature of Maps, English colonists did a symbolic erasure of Native American names, even while incorporating Native American knowledge into their maps. This is not to say that these contrasts are absolute; after all, present-day Mexico (and more) was the Viceroyalty of New Spain for 300 years, and plenty of indigenous-named places took on Spanish names. But these two articles, read together, are further demonstrations of the general idea that Spanish colonizers sought people they could exploit, while English colonizers largely sought to displace native populations. So perhaps no surprise that not only indigenous knowledge but indigenous styles of cartography went into Spanish maps, while only indigenous knowledge went into English maps. Thus, we have another way of using maps as a primary source to illuminate the past.

Speaking of Latin America and Maps…

I remember mentioning how Peace Corps does world map projects on the first day of class. As it turns out, they have a whole website devoted to these projects now. At least from what I saw in El Salvador, maps tended to be on the sides of schools. A great way to show people the world–although sometimes people would realize just how small El Salvador actually is…


This week I commented on Amanda’s blog. Forgot to post that last week I commented on mwill4’s blog then (sorry I don’t have your name down yet!).


  1. Good catch on the difference between Spanish vs. British colonial aims and how the use (or non-use) of Indian place names and cartographic conventions reflect different imperial goals. And the parallel between the continuation of Mesoamerican institutions under early colonial rule and the use of indigenous map conventions for early maps is a very compelling insight.

  2. I echo Kirk’s sentiment that your identification of the distinctions between colonial conquests vs. appropriations through cartographic representations is a valuable point in map interpretation. In these cases, the map very much represents a world view of the colonial power and the relationship between the inhabitants. An interesting comparable terrain to observe might be the Mississippi Valley where multiple cultures laid claim in rapid succession. http://usgwarchives.org/maps/mississippi/ (scroll to the bottom) and we see that over time evidence of Amerindian, French, Spanish, then English influences on the maps. Some are more prominent, some fade out over time, yet in this website’s arrangement of maps over time, we can compare the place names in maps in chronological order and see how indigenous and settler ideas about space and function blended to create cartographic representations. David, excellent point that we should look for subtle clues about conquest, exploitation, and displacement in cartographic features.

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