This ebook of named 'Invention of a Colonial Territory' has some really old maps of Belize and a few will show the extent of the various mahogany plantations.

Odile Hoffmann. British Honduras: The invention of a colonial territory. Mapping and spatial knowledge, 2014
in the 19th century. Cubola-IRD, 2014. hal-01287334


This is an important and thought-provoking book. The author’s purpose is “to recount the invention of a colonial territory”, chiefly through the interpretation of maps. She aims to show the role played by cartography in the different time-spaces experienced by the land that is now Belize and the people who inhabited it, by showing the different ways in which a space can be created or used for administrative, political or other purposes.

Many if not most of us–myself included–can find maps daunting, even intimidating: hard to decipher, difficult to read or understand. We are, as Gilbert Ryle wrote in his The Concept of Mind (1949), “like people who know their way about their parish, but cannot construct or read a map of it, much less a map of the region or continent in which their parish lies”. And so we need someone like Odile Hoffmann, who guides us through the maze of dusty old maps and helps us to give them meaning.

She organizes her study within four themes: territorial disputes between colonial powers, the establishment of property, administrative control and the expression of scientific or commercial interests. She treats the maps not “as isolated products, but as constructions providing information in both their content and their form and workmanship”.

Maps speak louder than words–they give the impression that they are authoritative, that the illustration you see represents the real in a certain time–but they can be just as deceptive, as Hoffmann adeptly shows. Maps were often made at the request of settlers or colonial authorities precisely to reflect not necessarily what is, but what they would like it to be. Thus she comments on Du Verney’s map of 1814 (Figure 9a): “The map is performative, and its very existence proves the de facto possession of the territory by British subjects beyond the limits granted” (emphasis added). Perhaps more pointedly, she reminds us that “maps recount and accompany phenomena of domination and resistance, which they sometimes also guide”.

Most of the maps reproduced here are to be found in the compilation by Breton and Antochiw (Cartographic Catalogue of Belize, Mexico 1992) which published 76 maps dating from 1511 to 1882, and which was done as a contribution to the very ambitious and worthy project to create a magnificent Museum of Belize, which unfortunately never came to fruition. That publication, however, is not readily available to Belizeans, and the particular value of the present work is not only that it reproduces the maps in full colour (and often the colours are important to one’s understanding of the maps), but more especially, that the author puts the maps in context and explains them within a framework of interpretation which allows us to reach a clearer understanding of what the maps mean; no mean feat, given what I have said about how difficult it is for many of us to “translate” maps into meaningful concepts.

One such map, for example Figure 8, is full of written texts and colours and is carefully described and explained by the author, including comments on an insert on the Mosquito Shore, leading her to conclude that “this document is a kind of ‘mapped history’ . . . designed as a text to support a detailed explanation which provides arguments” for an “extension of settlers’ rights”.

Every section of this book is valuable and interesting, but each reader will have her or his favourite; mine is the section “maps and war”, wherein she unearths a map of 1886 (Figure 17a and transcription 17b) of British Honduras ... showing areas in the Yucatan occupied by different native American nations, which to my knowledge has never been published before. She provides a detailed description of it, enriched by historical citations and interpretations, and concludes that although the map clearly provides an Anglo-centric vision with clear military and strategic objectives, it is also “truly a vision of an ‘Indian space’ or at least an ‘Indian question’, which exceeds national divisions and was of concern to the English colonial power”.

In her conclusion, Odile Hoffmann makes the very interesting and original observation that “the territory was imperial before becoming colonial”, and that “this evolution accompanied changes in the ways spaces were represented as well as the techniques used to render it”. She also throws down the gauntlet to other scholars to do further research with some rather provoking questions, such as whether 20th century developments in cartography resulted or not in “democratization of access to land and to its representations”, or whether we will be able to speak of “the ‘decolonization’ of cartography in the 21st century.”

After reading this excellent monograph I felt tempted to immediately take myself to Belizean, Spanish, British, Mexican and Guatemalan archives in search of more maps to decode and help explain our history and that of the region. Alas, I must leave that exciting work to younger Belizeans who will hopefully be enticed after reading this book to do just that. We must all be grateful to Odile and her publishers for making this delightful book so attractive and available to us.

Assad Shoman Havana,
April 2014

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