Society for the History of Discoveries

Hall, Carolyn and Héctor Pérez Brignoli.
Historical Atlas of Central America. Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2003. 336 p. ISBN 0806130377.

     The Historical Atlas of Central America fills a need that has existed for some time in historical reference libraries. The history of North America and South America has been profusely covered in atlas form, but this is the first comprehensive atlas that presents the vitally important but little-known history of Central America. And the descriptive term “comprehensive” is in reality inadequate to describe this historical atlas of truly encyclopedic scope. One tends to think of an atlas as a collection of maps showing geographical and topographical features of the land. In this instance the key word in the title is “Historical” which denotes the make-up and thrust of the atlas. But the term “Atlas” in the title is equally appropriate as the history of Central America from prehistoric times to the present is graphically presented in over 400 full-color annotated maps. Just as an astute teacher uses visual aids, this book uses these annotated schematic maps to portray history in a lucid and understandable manner that far exceeds the spoken or written word.

     The five chapters of the book are organized by subject matter rather than following a strict chronological format; nevertheless a pattern of cultural and demographic change and progression can be followed from prehistoric and colonial times in the first chapters to the current more recent troubled times in the later chapters. For the research historian or student of history this one book can substitute for endless hours searching through university libraries for little-known or long out-of-print books, documents, and unpublished technical studies.

     The elements of history in chapters one and two are inter-dependent and somewhat repetitious. Chapter one starts appropriately with studies of the geological and tectonic plate base of the area from the Jurassic period to the Holocene (or recent) period. This is followed with detailed studies of the environmental factors of climate, weather, soils, vegetation and flora, and natural resources. All of these factors are amply illustrated with full-color annotated maps. And in that regard, no amount of words could carry the impact that would equal the color coded map showing the tracks of major hurricanes from 1871 to 1978 that had devastated the area. The chapter then jumps to the trade routes of the Spanish empire and in a series of twenty-two maps shows how the initial Spanish and British conquests evolved into the modern republics of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama.

     Chapter two then reverts back in time to the Pleistocene period migrations of peoples across the Bering land bridge from Asia. In a series of seven schematic maps, the flow of the ancient cultures of the Olmec, Teotihuacan, Toltec, and the Maya are shown with commentary and related pictorial illustrations. The maps and commentary of this prehistoric period reflect the current consensus of most archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians. But this period of prehistory is undergoing intense study and many of these views have been challenged. The remainder of the chapter is on more firm ground and moves to six maps showing Spanish conquest from Columbus’s fourth voyage (1502-1503) to the conquests and early colonization by Davila, Alvarado, Cortés, Montejo, and others in the period to 1544.  At this point the atlas enters the Spanish colonial period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The maps of this period detail the colonization pattern od settlements and encomiendas that spread from Cortés’s more northerly Nueva España throughout the Central America area. Numerous maps related to colonization show areas dominated by the several religious orders, the location, initial number, and decline of Indian population, distribution of indigenous ethnic race, culture, and language, and finally the regional variations of Spaniards, Indians, Mestizos, Ladinos, and blacks.

     Chapters three and four comprise an across the board treatment of the rise and development of Colonial societies and the later National societies. An impression of the complexity and scope of these two chapters can be gained from the fact that the text contains fifty-three sub-headings denoting separate but vitally important subjects related to history of the area. A random selection of just a few of these sub-headings will show the complete historical coverage in the atlas: - “The Power of the Church, Indian Riots and Rebellions, Commercial Networks – Routes and Ports, Pirates, Colonial wars, Rise of the Military, The Independence Crises, The Privatization of Communal, Corporate, and State Lands, and the Civil Wars of the Federal Republic.”

     Chapter five concentrates on the troubled period of the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. This period saw the rise of Anti-Imperialism coupled with social rebellion and the resulting search for Democracy. An important part of this chapter is the analysis of contemporary history related to guerrilla uprising, the Sandinista Revolution, and the Civil War in El Salvador, all centered around agrarian reform. Scholars and students alike have been fed the history of these events by politically motivated journalists rather than by professional historians. It is refreshing that we now have a dispassionate view of that history from well-qualified historians who were on the scene.

     This historical atlas was authored by Carolyn Hall, retired Professor of Geography at the Universidad de Costa Rica, Héctor Pérez Brignoli, Professor of History at the Universidad de Costa Rica, and the maps were produced by John V. Cotter, Assistant Professor of Geography at Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas. It is understandable that seven years of labor were consumed in preparation of this monumental work. The price may preclude its widespread ownership in private libraries. But certainly it should be in every public library of substance and in the libraries of all schools, universities, institutes, and organizations dedicated to higher learning.

Douglas T. Peck
Independent historian, Bradenton, Florida

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