Review: The Mapping of New Spain

    • Barbara E. Mundy, University of Chicago Press, 1996.

The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geográficas, covers a subject I never would have dreamed of exploring on my own: indigenous American mapmaking and the coming of the Spanish. This book held me captive and is, in my opinion, a must read for anyone interested in early modern cartography.

Ms. Mundy begins with a description of the State of European mapmaking and King Philip II of Spain's grandiose scheme to record the first global empire, his own. His project came to be called the Relaciones Geográficas or geographic reports and was a printed questionnaire sent to government officials.

Of interest to cartographers, several of the questions required maps to be made to accompany and illustrate the answers. Of the 69 maps completed in New Spain (Mexico) 24 maps were made by 15 non-indigenous artists and 45 maps by 32 indigenous artists (p. 30). These maps represent a fascinating study of the collision between scientific European cartography and indigenous (primarily Aztec) artistic tradition.

Ms. Mundy presents this story in a pleasant prose style accompanied by 8 full-colour plates and over 200 illustrations. The only technical problem I had with the book was my own linguistic limitation: I do not read Aztec. After a while, the names of the towns such as Guaxtepec, Teozacoalco, Gueytlalpa and Jujupango (given in their sixteenth century Spanish spellings) tended to be glossed over.

The maps themselves range from coastal charts to city plans to purely indigenous art, yet all were attempts to answer the same questions and all succeeded in different ways. The artists were also a diverse group including native artists, Spanish officials, clerics (ie: Los Penoles, 1579, p. 25) and even travellers. In one case the local mayor engaged a passing Spanish mariner to create a map for the Relaciones which he did using nautical instruments. Unsurprisingly his map is basically a coastal chart as used by sailors. He did such a good job however, that the next two mayors hired him to do their maps as well.

This book gives us a glimpse into sixteenth century cartography with a sampling of every style of map imaginable. There is also no attempt to claim one style or group is superior. Indigenous artists and amateur Spaniards are all treated with respect. Thus we have a mix of city views, itineraries, sea charts and topographic maps in indigenous, Spanish, and blended styles.

The indigenous maps often show a combination of obedience to the the Spanish Crown and the survival of pre-contact artistic tradition. For example p. 96 shows the Map of Tetlistaca from 1581. Settlements are symbolised by churches but indigenous pictorial toponyms define the region. (Of special note: the native plants are depicted with the roots as was traditional.)

An interesting side-note: several of the Spanish contributors knew maps only from printed sources and consciously mimicked the printed style (Tescaltitlan, 1579-1580, p. 45). It makes me more comfortable in doing the same, to know that amateurs were copying in manuscript the printed map in period!

Ms. Mundy is a part of the University of Chicago Press team working on the History of Cartography Project. She is a contributor to Volume 2, Book 3 and I look forward to whatever she would care to write about. I enjoyed The Mapping of New Spain and cannot recommend it highly enough to students of cartography and history.