Dispersed nation

Mapping the Country of Regions: The Chorographic Commission of Nineteenth-Century Colombia
Nancy P Applebaum
2016, University of North Carolina Press
320 pages, plates, paperback

IF SCHOLARS of nationalism have been divided about the nature of nations between those who accept that these are imagined communities and those who situate their existence in a primordial ethnic origin, this fascinating book by Nancy Applebaum certainly won’t help them to reconcile. Mapping the Country of Regions explores the conundrum facing those proto-architects of nationhood, the geographers and surveyors dispatched throughout Colombia to map its physical and social landscape as part of the nascent state’s great nation-building endeavour. As the author highlights, what they encountered was a diversity that did not sit easily with the narrative of a unified and racially homogeneous population that was necessary for national integration and modernisation. This portentous tension between the vast diversity they encountered and the vision of sameness that they were expected to deliver is one that has bedevilled Colombia – and most of Latin America – ever since national independence. The book traces the story and role of Colombia’s “Chorographic Commission” that began in 1850 and lasted a decade, whose role was to define and map the young republic and its resources with a view to the modernisation cherished by liberal elites. Applebaum shows that, by privileging the whiter peoples of the Andean highlands over those of the tropical lowlands, the cartographers bequeathed problems of integration that have endured to this day, yet even so recorded a diversity that established the notion of a “country of regions”. Such dilemmas are at the very heart of nationalism as an ideology, and can only ever be solved by dispensing with ethnic references. Perhaps, then, it would enlighten some contemporary politicans to read this fascinating book. – GO’T