The nineteenth century was an era of breathtakingly ambitious
geographic expeditions across the Americas. The seminal
Chorographic Commission of Colombia, which began in 1850 and lasted
about a decade, was one of Latin America's most extensive. The
commission's mandate was to define and map the young republic and
its resources with an eye toward modernization. In this history of
the commission, Nancy P. Appelbaum focuses on the geographers'
fieldwork practices and visual production as the men traversed the
mountains, savannahs, and forests of more than thirty provinces in
order to delineate the country's territorial and racial
composition. Their assumptions and methods, Appelbaum argues,
contributed to a long-lasting national imaginary.
What jumps out of the commission's array of reports, maps,
sketches, and paintings is a portentous tension between the marked
differences that appeared before the eyes of the geographers in the
field and the visions of sameness to which they aspired. The
commissioners and their patrons believed that a prosperous republic
required a unified and racially homogeneous population, but the
commission's maps and images paradoxically emphasized diversity and
helped create a "country of regions." By privileging the whiter
inhabitants of the cool Andean highlands over those of the boiling
tropical lowlands, the commission left a lasting but problematic
legacy for today's Colombians.