Interview with Lina Del Castillo, author of “Entangled Fates: French-Trained Naturalists, the First Colombian Republic, and the Materiality of Geopolitical Practice, 1819–1830”


Lina Del Castillo is assistant professor of history and Latin American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is author of Crafting a Republic for the World: Scientific, Geographic, and Historiographic Inventions of Colombia (University of Nebraska Press, 2018). You can read her new article “Entangled Fates: French-Trained Naturalists, the First Colombian Republic, and the Materiality of Geopolitical Practice, 1819–1830” in HAHR 98.3.

1. What got you interested in independence-era Colombia as an area of research?

My interest in independence-era Colombia developed after I completed my doctorate and moved toward revising my dissertation into a book. This process benefited tremendously from the suggestions and input from an array of colleaugues, most notably my partner in life and history, Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra. What emerged from that process became, in effect, two distinct book projects. My first book, Crafting a Republic for the World, explored the mid-nineteenth-century intellectual and political environment in Colombia that fomented innovative contributions to social sciences, geography, cartography, political ethnography, constitutional science, history, and the calculation republican equity through land reform. That book dealt only tangentially with the period of independence.

My second book project, now under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press, is provisionally titled Colombia’s Paper Empire and focuses squarely on the Age of Atlantic Revolutions. The inspiration for many of the themes I consider in this second monograph project emerged out of conversations with colleagues in Colombia during the bicentennial of independence celebrated in 2010. At the time, I was on a Fulbright to conduct research and teach at the Universidad Nacional, and I participated in an exciting project to curate an exhibit on print cartography produced during the period of Colombian independence. This project and my conversations with colleagues including Sebastián Díaz, Santiago Muñoz, Mauricio Nieto, and Lucia Duque helped me delve more deeply into the archive of geographic, political, and social information contained (and partially erased) by maps as they transitioned from manuscript to print form. I came to see how the boom in transatlantic print culture starting the 1810s–1820s rendered imagined projects for independent republics in Spanish America visually striking and potentially realizable. This perspective allowed me to begin to see the significance of Colombia’s first nationally sponsored scientific expedition, one that took place in the 1820s, a generation prior to the relatively more well-known Chorographic Commission. Still, the Colombian expedition of French-trained naturalists that I examine in my article for HAHR was by no means an easy expedition to reconstruct precisely because of the transatlantic precariousness of independent republican projects at the time.

Jean Baptiste Boussingault. Wellcome Library no. 1303i, licensed under CC BY 2.0. (Find the original here.)

2. The scientific expedition that you discuss in this article, as you mention, had been subsequently forgotten due to the vicissitudes of politics, as “no one was willing to memorialize the expedition. No one comprehensively curated and compiled its archives.” How did you first come across the expedition, and what research challenges did you face due to this official erasure? Did this change your thinking about archives, and if so how?

Although I was aware of the different individuals involved in this expedition, it took me a long time to realize how each of these individual actors actually formed part of a larger, coherent, and impressive expedition of French-trained naturalists hired by the Colombian government. For instance, individual names pop up in assorted primary sources, yet these primary sources tend to shy away from presenting participating individuals as part of a coherent team. The most striking source in this sense was the 1827 Atlas printed in Paris that illustrated José Manuel Restrepo’s Historia de la Revolución de la República de Colombia. The Atlas’s lengthy introduction, which serves as a kind of cartouche, credits the maps and scientific contributions of José María Lanz, Mariano de Rivero, and Jean Baptiste Boussingault. The Atlas does not identify these three individuals as forming part of a team of naturalists hired to form part of Colombia’s first scientific expedition. Similarly, by 1849, military engineer and historian Colonel Joaquin Acosta had complied and translated the scientific articles published by Boussingault and François Désiré Roulin in France. Acosta also did not frame the work that these men did in terms of the first Colombian-sponsored endeavor, either. Findings by Campeche-born José María Lanz or Arequipa-born Mariano de Rivero did not make it into Acosta’s 1849 memorialization efforts. Boussingault’s diary of travels through Colombia, which was not made public until after his death in the 1880s, helped fill out a bit more of the experiences and social network of the expedition’s members, including ties to Humboldt and other members of the French Academie. In this sense, there was partial memorialization of the expedition that emerged out of the paper trail left behind by the achievements of individual members. This paper trail was therefore helpful as I tried to reconstruct the scope and breath of the endeavor but also difficult to work with precisely because it was so fragmented.

Subsequent recent scholarship, especially biographies detailing the work of the distinct members of the expedition, helped me track down the scope of the project from the time of its inception in Paris in the 1820s. Reading these works in tandem allowed me to see who collaborated with expedition members in South America and in Europe. María Paola Rodríguez Prada produced an excellent book in France documenting the foundation of the National Natural History Museum in Bogotá. After all, the expedition drew from Zea’s social and scientific network that could connect Colombia to powerful Parisian naturalists. Rodríguez Prada’s book includes reproductions and transcriptions of several primary sources that helped me target my exploration of national French archives for traces of the members of this expedition. And yet, because her book focused on Colombia’s museum, other aspects of the expedition, most notably José María Lanz’s participation, did not fit her book’s narrative framework. Manuel Lucena’s biography of José María Lanz was most useful for my research on the expedition because he was able to identify the array of people hired by Francisco Antonio Zea in Europe to work with Lanz. Tracking down Lucena’s footnotes brought me to the Archivo General de la Nación in Colombia, where I found contracts, correspondence, and scientific findings related to the expedition’s work. Archival manuscript sources, together with printed cartography produced as a result of the expedition’s findings, allowed me to grasp the tremendous scope of active work carried out by the expedition’s members.

In short, printed and manuscript traces, memoirs, and archival sources as well as the valuable work of other scholars allowed me to piece this story together, allowing me to see an interesting dimension to the production of historical memory. It is easy to forget historical events, and their significance, especially if the political and/or economic cost of memorializing that event is too high for the individuals involved.

Adrien-Hubert Brue, Carte generale de Colombie, de la Guyane Francaise, Hollandaise et Anglaise, 1826. From the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0. (Find the original here.)

3. Part of your article’s argument derives from a close reading of maps of Colombia as they evolve over the years. What particular challenges did dealing with such visual evidence pose, and how did you address them?

In many ways, each map can function like a specialized archive. A map can bring together onto one visual space the work conducted by countless invisible technicians who recorded locations, coastlines, roadways, water depths, and/or mountain heights. Unlike state-sponsored or otherwise well-endowed archives, individual maps unfortunately can live precarious lives. Sensitive information can make a map vulnerable to destruction. The rarity of certain maps also elevates their value as artifacts, which often makes specific maps difficult to find in publicly available archives. An added challenge to this dynamic emerges when one wishes to reproduce images of rare maps held by specialized collections.

For the purposes of this article, I needed a publication-grade reproduction of an 1823 edition of the Brué map held by the National Library in Colombia. I had built part of my argument out of a close reading of that map, which is titled “Colombie.” As fortune would have it, carrying out the image reproduction process when I was not physically in Colombia became too time consuming to meet the deadline for publication of my article. I therefore had to scour the collections of maps held in other archives and found a copy of Brué’s 1823 map at the American Geographical Society Library’s Digital Map Collections. After taking a closer look at their map, I realized that Brué had printed maps of Colombia in 1823 with alternate titles. Some were titled Colombie, others were titled Colombia. This finding, in part helped along by Sean Mannion’s careful editorial work for HAHR, allowed me to fine-tune my argument about the geopolitical significance of representing Colombian independence and republicanism before French audiences in 1823. As the article argues, the 1823 meaning of a republican Colombia shifted significantly for the French after 1826, as illustrated by Brue’s reedition of the “Colombie” map that took place that year.

4. One of the many fascinating aspects of your article is that many of the actors discussed consider themselves as part of a transnational community, scientists part of a republic of letters, and yet act for distinctly national ends. What can be learned from this overlap?

The answer to this question depends on how we define—or, rather, how we should redefine—the Age of Revolutions. Several scholars have rightly criticized R. R. Palmer’s classic two-volume comparative study, Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800, for overlooking an array of significant factors contributing to the dramatic transformations of this period. Most notably, Palmer’s 1960s study wholly missed discussing the Haitian and Ibero-American revolutions, which occurred after Palmer’s somewhat arbitrary 1800 cut-off date. A wide body of scholarship has also dug into the array of gendered and racial components to the era’s political changes that fell outside of Palmer’s purview. More recent scholarship has begun to consider the transnational connections that made the era’s revolutions an interconnected phenomenon, and my article for the HAHR is an attempt to contribute to that body of work. This approach is by no means an easy one to take. To explain why, I must briefly return to the question of archives and their formation.

An integral component to the rise of nation-states over the last 200 years was the parallel rise of nationalist historiographies. The nationalist imperative of these takes on history shaped official archives along with the narratives that emerged out of them. A resurgence of nationalist historiography occurred in the wake of World War II, as the United States expended significant resources to separate itself off from the other countries in the Western Hemisphere as part of the “First World” that was distinct and far more developed than the “Third World.” One legacy that still lingers from this way of organizing archives and history is the difficulty we have in being able to imagine a world where the birthplace of people, even if they are well-educated, wealthy white men, posed little obstacle to their ability to connect to a larger network of lettered elites. Men born in places we might now consider on the periphery of knowledge production, such as Campeche, Arequipa, Bogotá, or Caracas, do not usually make it into stories about global political revolution or scientific endeavors. What I try to show is how the Age of Revolutions was decidedly helped along by improvements in the printing press, which increasingly and exponentially accelerated the pace at which networks of association formed and functioned. The people connected to these networks crossed unstable, shape-shifting imperial and national borders. They did so at the same time that their scientific work sought to shape what those borders would look like while also contributing to experiments seeking to figure out how people contained within those borders would be governed.

5. Read anything good recently?

I have, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Age of Revolutions. I recently read the anthology of autobiographical sketches edited by Roxane Gay, with the searingly painful title, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. This book might not be related to Colombian independence, but it is related to the theme of memory and forgetting.

Before Not That Bad came along, many of the stories it contained dangerously verged on being or ignored or even forgotten. This is not because those stories were not significant, but rather because memories of those histories can be so difficult for the people involved.

Carefully collected and arranged, the overwhelming message of each individual story, when taken together, powerfully gives lie to the common phrase that titles the book. Not That Bad is a phrase that survivors of sexual abuse too often hear as a form of well-meaning yet toxically false comfort from their loved ones or even from their own inner voices. Not That Bad is not only good, it is a book that we all need to read.

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