The historian Andre Gunder Frank has theorized that former colonies cannot develop economically until they have overcome the legacy of their colonial past. The ways that the United States has overcome the legacy of its colonial past with Great Britain is, in many ways, unique, especially by comparison to the former Spanish Americas.
Today’s guest, Lina del Castillo, recently published a book titled Crafting Republic for the World: Scientific, Geographic, and Historiographic Inventions of Colombia, which offers a new understanding of how Gran Colombia–which split from Spain at the beginning of the 19th century, and then further subdivided into Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador–came to deal with its own past, and the role that science, geography, and history came to play alongside politics as the former colonies grew into nationhood.
- Lina del CastilloAssociate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin
- Nicolás González QuinteroDoctoral Candidate, Department of History, The University of Texas at Austin
I want to start with the first and we can say controversial line of the book: “there are no late colonial legacies in Spanish America.” As someone from Latin America, this is an astonishing affirmation. I grew up learning about colonial legacies and the impact of a Spanish colonization in our countries. Can you explain as the historical context of your affirmation, and how half the story is popular memory and how you understood this issue.
Of course, so. So it is the first line, “there are no colonial legacies in Spanish America.” And the second line is, “and this is a book about them.” So and this is to qualify, what I mean by colonial legacy, what I talk about in my book about colonial legacies, I’m thinking about them as a kind of historical category that helps us understand the past and explain the past to ourselves in the present, whichever present that may be. So for instance, Spanish colonial legacies have been invented and reinvented, ever since the period of independence. And so I’m not surprised at all that when you were in school, you were taught that there were Spanish colonial legacies, because this is one of the most weighted and repeated kinds of categories that remain with us. So for instance, and now, to be clear, I’m not saying that there isn’t, there hasn’t been a very deep Iberianization as a result of three years of colonial rule, clearly there has been.
But what is interesting to me is how different historical actors have pointed to some aspect of a deep Iberianization, and use it to explain something about their present. So for instance, in the 20th century, there were colonial legacies that were invented not just by Spanish Americans, but also by the United States, especially in the wake of the Second World War and also even a little bit before that, as the disciplines of history and Hispanic American history were starting to take off in ways that allowed the United States to present itself as different as more modern than Spanish America. So Spanish colonial legacies allow the United States to differentiate itself from the rest of the Western Hemisphere. So that invention in the 20th century by the United States, so Spanish colonial legacies of obscurantism, of caudillismo, is rooted in absolutism, those are the kinds of narratives that were increasingly highlighted in the 20th century.
Also in the 20th century, Gunder Frank and the dependiso school also generated certain colonial legacies that needed to be eradicated in order to move forward with economic development. So those are the legacies that made sense at that time. But the thing is those legacies of the 20th century tended to erase the ingenuity and creativity of the 19th century of the Spanish Americans that were themselves generating colonial legacies for different purposes. So not only do Spanish colonial legacies as historical categories flatten out the colonial period itself: they also managed – the ones that were created in the 20th century – to flatten out the 19th century. So what my book does is look into different ways in which 19th century Spanish American actors developed colonial legacy categories to try and understand their present and what they needed to do in order to move forward their project of republicanism. So what were the legacies that needed to be eradicated? And what were the sciences that could be implemented to eradicate those legacies to move forward republicanism?
Okay, so let me start asking you about the context of the book, now that you’re talking about 19th century, so while the temporality is really clear, but what region are we talking about, specifically? Why?
So I take as a case in point, Colombia, the Republic of Colombia, which itself went through significant territorial, constitutional changes over the course of the 19th century. And so the book begins with the period of the Gran Colombia, which is when Colombia as we know it today was united with Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and claimed for itself independence and republicanism and had been recognized internationally by the United States, by Great Britain, but not by all international powers. I begin there to talk about what were some of those initial colonial legacies invented by these early republican actors in order to legitimate their status as an independent nation. The book continues through the early to mid 19th century almost to the end of the 19th century, at a period when that Gran Colombia had experienced a dissolution, and Venezuela and Ecuador went their separate ways.
So New Granada, which included roughly what’s today’s Colombia, and Panama, the ways in which different writers and political officials and church members and journalists – an array of folks were grappling with what republicanism meant and what colonial legacies needed to be reared out in order to move forward with republicanism. New Granada ends up being one of the most fruitful ways to explore this precisely because of how radically republican and democratic their national project became by the middle of the 19th century.
So it seems like independence leaders tried to build a new memory about the colonial past of Colombia and Spanish America. So how did Granada’s elites attempt to control the narrative of the colonial past?
Oh, so what’s fascinating is many of the folks that were involved in the independence of Colombia, the leaders of independence, like José Manuel Restrepo, Francisco Antonio Zea. hese men had also been involved in these scientific projects that had been sponsored by the Spanish Crown during the late 18th century, most notably, the Expansion Botanica, the Botanical Expedition, and it wasn’t just in New Granada. There were Crown sponsored projects throughout the empire in the interest of producing botanical information and an array of geographical information that would benefit the Spanish Crown. So these were projects that went through the Spanish Empire, they involved thousands of folks who were very well trained in geography and natural history, in biology, chemistry – there were several actors in this line.
So you have these, all of these actors working for the Spanish Crown this way – and yet, what you see with it Gran Colombia, is this shift, this erasure of that rich and deep history of engagement with scientific practice that occurs at the moment of Independence. And the way that erasure occurs was by drawing on two very powerful narratives. One was the Black Legend of the Spanish conquest, which was readily available thanks to not just the British, but an array of European powers that really pushed for Black Legend of Spanish conquest, which was essentially a black legend that painted the Spanish Crown looking to promote ignorance and obscurantism. So that’s been a long standing legend that has, and it continues to be, with us in many ways. And another had to do with immediate events that had to do with a period of independence and the fighting that went on. One of several of the participants in Independence had themselves been executed by the forces of the Spanish Crown. And so one of the most famous individuals in that sense was Francisco José de Caldas, and so with the execution of Caldas, the independence leaders could point to how the Spanish Crown had been interested in promoting ignorance because it was killing it’s sabios, its wisemen. So it pointed to the black legend and drew on to the execution of Francisco José de Caldas, as a way of showing how the Spanish Crown was an illegitimate morally, and how Colombia itself was actually legitimate, both in terms of morality and in terms of the knowledge that it could produce for the world.
And it’s during this early period of the 19th century, that it self-engages in the hiring of Natural History Expeditions’ to do the production of maps, and scientific information for the world, in a sense, trying to create a republic that’s legitimate, that’s moral, that’s contributing to world knowledge. And that’s why it should be recognized.
So it’s fascinating how they try to create this common heritage and this common memory. But at the same time, one of the arguments raised about your book, and I think what one of the most striking ones, is the idea of New Grenada elites dealing with the colonial past, of a heritage of blockades and these connections among the country’s population. So what was the strategy of the New Granada elites to solve this problem?
Okay, so one of the things – so this is occurring after the dissolution of Gran Colombia, a new Granada political leaders from different regions, were trying to figure out how to bring New Granada, the New Grenada republic that’s left created, actually, because it and one of the things that they pointed to as well because of the blockages that the Spanish Crown created, that was the reason why Gran Colombia fragmented, and it needed to find a way of coming back together. But it had to be in a way that promoted circulation. Through circulation, that is what would generate a new national kind of republic. And so one of the things that you see that ,and actually there’s been quite a quite a bit of fascinating scholarship, is the amount of investment that the New Granada republic had made in science, again, scientific expeditions, one of the most long-lasting and nationally sponsored expeditions. It’s known as the Chorographic Commission and Nancy Applebaum has a recent book also that is specifically about the Chorographic Commission, and that commission was one that circulated through all the provinces of New Granada.
One of this major focuses had to do with figuring out where to put roads, canals that would allow for circulation around the nation. And so that kind of investment in planning for circulation also was reflected in the cartographic imaginaries of the time and the urban space of Bogotá itself. So oftentimes, a lot of the literature on Colombia and history during this time points to Bogotá that is this city that’s trying to centralize power. What I show through these projects is how it was less about centralizing power in Bogotá and more about Bogotá being a center of circulation, that would allow for the bringing of experts to Bogotá, that then would circulate out, again, out to the provinces. There would be greater roads that would allow for circulation throughout the province and also steamboat navigation that would allow for a circulation of goods and ideas and people. This was a project that was very much about internal circulation.
So it was less about plantation economies and producing commodities for export, and more about thinking about how the country itself could produce for itself through the connection of the different provinces. And so that’s why you see a new port, Porto Colombia in Barranquilla that’s set up by Mosquera, that port is for steamship navigation not so much – it’s combination of connecting with the world – but also connecting on the interior of the country. So this, this is a project that we’re very much invested in internal circulation, all with the idea of rooting out the Spanish colonial legacy of blockages and separation precisely because they’re arguing against the kind of plantation economies that created poverty within.
So it looks like the these elites have this shared republican project. It’s really interesting, because like the most common understanding, is that Latin American elites, or most of them at least, were highly divided between liberals and conservatives. So how does your research provide like a new angle to this to this issue?
So if when we think of it, if whenever we think of the 19th century for Latin America, we think liberals, we think conservatives, when we don’t think of caudillos, right? Like that’s, that’s kind of the big categories that we think of in terms of how there’s these two ideologies that are competing against each other and that was what was at stake in civil wars and state formation. What I found was definitely for the case of New Granada, during the middle of the 19th century, there was much more of a consensus among the political leaders across the political spectrum, on the kinds of measures that needed to be taken to form the state, especially engagement with science, with morality, with education. One of the ways that I’m able to point to this is there’s this Instituto Caldas. So again, pointing to Francisco José de Caldas, who is this founding father of sciences. He becomes this kind of figure that points to how obscurantist the Spanish Crown was, and he becomes the namesake for this new Institute, that I was able to trace through – thank you big data – through all the digitized national newspapers and regional newspapers, that announced the formation of this institute that started in Bogotá in 1847, and then had chapters throughout the provinces and New Granada. They were formed shortly thereafter. Each of these provinces also named the names of the men – because they’re all men who are forming these institutes -which is not surprising given the time period.
So while tracing these men and the names of these figures, I was able to also trace out where their political affiliations were. And they were all over – there were liberals or conservatives, there were the radical liberals, there were Draconianos. They were all the different members of these different political parties that were themselves in formation at the time of the creation of this Institute. So it points to how there really was a consensus among a majority of very important leaders who not only bought into this project for the creation of circulation, because it was through this Instituto Caldas, ultimately, that the Comisión Corográfica – that I talked about earlier – that’s where it came out of. And many of the people that were involved in giving information as informants to the Comisión Corográfica, were part of the Instituto Caldas. So this was the network that the Comisión Corográfica, was able to draw on when it went to the provinces. So it identified who are the people that would be most helpful for the production of information about the provinces.
So how would this shared republic project end or finish?
Well, it’s very sad. For me, I mean, I thought it’s, it’s one of those things, it’s very difficult to separate oneself out because, well, the project itself was also something that was looking toward not just benefiting the elites themselves, it was a project that was seeking to expand democracy. So this is New Granada by 1853, had passed the Constitution, that not only recognized the abolition of slavery, it had also declared universal male suffrage, across the board for all men over the age of 21, or men who are married. So folks who were just recently released from slavery, so slavery no longer existed, they could vote, not just for president. It was direct elections for president – did away with the electoral college – had direct elections for members of the Supreme Court, direct elections for members of Congress, direct elections for provincial governors, this was the most radically democratic document that is even radical by today’s standards.
And it didn’t work. So after the passage of that constitution, civil war erupted, which also helps us understand that the civil wars that were being fought at the time were less about chaos and caudillos, and more about really trying to figure out how to work out these republican projects and what that meant. There were significant civil wars that led to the rolling back of this radical democratic project that puts sovereignty less on individuals and back to the states. As that transition occurred, towards the end of the 19th century, what you start to see happen is that as sovereignty gets placed more in the states, the states start passing new constitutions, that some of them roll back the kind of political participation that individuals could have. Some maintain it. The circulation that was trying to be worked out during the middle of the 19th century, it became much more difficult because you had to have passports to get from one state to another. So it’s regulation, you start to see beginning of blockages. There were efforts to work against that through an education project and the disentitlement of church lands, which I talked about in my book.
But ultimately, by the late 19th century, what you see is that some of these provinces invest more heavily in the export of commodities, like coffee, that do bring quite a bit of wealth to certain provinces. With increasing industrialization and a kind of economy that becomes much more enticing for several regional and national elites, the kind of project of internal circulation and democracy starts taking on a very different guise. And so that project gets erased. What you see is, by the late 19th century, even some of the folks that were very much involved in the middle of 19th century project, they poo-poo it, they say, “Oh, it was like a constitution made for angels, it was never going to work. We need this other project.” Those where the same historical actors that tended to also erase and make less visible, and even ridicule, the kinds of republican experiments that were going on in the 19th century.
And to finish, I just want to ask you why does this matter to our audience? What is the main takeaway that you want to give to our listeners?
When we’re thinking about Spanish colonial legacies, they’re so easy for us to think with when we think about Latin America, in general. If you think about Latin America, you think about colonial legacies. My book goes into the creation of these colonial legacies for the 19th century, how 19th century historical actors were themselves also producing these Spanish colonial legacies. So the Spanish colonial legacies have been with us for a long time. And yet, when it comes to U.S. history, we don’t really think about the colonial legacies that the United States has. We don’t think of that because we don’t have those categories to think U.S. history with.
What I would have listeners think about why early republicans in the United States did not create colonial legacies that needed to be excised in order to practice republicanism. Why did they not think about how British colonialism may had left negative legacies, like racism for instance, or slavery, that of course the United States continued in and expanded during the second slavery. These were categories that were developed for Latin America, but a United States, if ever there is a thinking about colonial legacies, they’re very much thought of in a positive light, putting the British in a positive light. And what I’d like to read or think about is why no negative colonial legacies for the United States.