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Across South America: A Look into the Beginning of the American Century in South America

Updated on November 29, 2019

Hiram Bingham is perhaps the most famous for his discovery of Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas high up in the Andes, the romantic destination of hordes of tourists every year. It is this perhaps which made him into the inspiration for Indiana Jones, and which definitively carved him into the annals of history. But before that, he had already traveled across South America, writing a lengthy travelogue of his voyage. It has been more than a century since Hiram Bingham penned his travel book, "Across South America", covering his expedition to and from the Santiago Pan-American scientific congress of 1908. Much has changed in Latin America since then, even while some aspects of Bingham's work remains the same. Much has changed too in the country that sent Bingham across South America: in the United states the book which Bingham wrote would nowadays be found to be racist, prejudiced, bigoted, and written in a style far too slow and contemplative, too factual and insufficiently fast for today's world. But Across South America is still a book which can make a book which is an interesting and important read, both for its exploration of South America and for its exploration of the United States and its role there. For those interested in the history of American influence in Latin America, it is one which merits being read.

It is a long voyage which was undertaken by Hiram Bingham, starting with an ocean liner down the coast of Brazil, a railroad trip across Uruguay and Argentina, and then a great deal of travel in more railroads, by pack animals, in stagecoaches, and occasionally by ship once more along the Western part of Latin America - travelling through Bolivia and its badlands, through Chile and the deserts there, up through the endless rivers, mountains, highlands of Peru. The people he meets along the way are varied, although most of the time they are more observed than interacted with - urbanites from Buenos Aires, peasants in Bolivia, scientists in Santiago, Indians in Peru, and a thousand other categories of people, of such a tremendous variety that it can boggle the mind.

A common mode of transport in the Andes, going on mule back.
A common mode of transport in the Andes, going on mule back.

This can make it rather hard to relate in full detail what happened on Bingham's voyage, since it covers such a vast amount of territory. It also isn't aided by the fact that Bingham's book is written for a scholarly audience and is academic in its nature - it can be impressive that he can take a subject which is inherently so romantic, so vast, so fertile, and make it into a rather hum-drum travel narrative, sidelining dramatic and beautiful descriptions of the country and the people in preference of much more analytical and broad characterizations, seeking less to relate the nature of travelling across the huge continent of South America, and more the racial theories of the author, transport, and economic development.

Some of the artifacts that Bingham saw, which inspired him to go search for Machu Picchu.
Some of the artifacts that Bingham saw, which inspired him to go search for Machu Picchu.

But there are sections which do stand out in memory and which are fascinating to have read, tales of great adventures. Crossing over chasms in Peru, over the raging rivers below, trying to coax mules out onto the raging waters. The storms which dogged their voyage through the Andes. Travelling along railroads through perilous mountains, where locomotives routinely came undone and crashed to their doom. Even a bit of humor can come through nicely here, such as the interaction of the Peruvian people with the trains - unused to strict industrial time, they would show up late for the trains and crowd on to them, being dropped off on the outskirts of cities when they insisted to stay on to say goodbye to their relatives, and charged for the expense! Perhaps Bingham was loosened up a bit after a while of voyaging, because most of the memorable elements of the book come near the end, during the time spent in Peru, and not in the beginning - not in the more refined and developed Pampas of Argentina or the ports of Brazil, but rather in the high up mountains of the Andes, and during expeditions after lost Inca treasures and ruins. This is another element of the book which shines through - the inspiration which it held for Hiram Bingham to later go on to look for and ultimately "find" (for Euro-American civilization at least) the city of Machu Picchu.

"Across South America" is not very useful to portray South America, beyond the most vague outlines. It is the account of a traveler, without much grounding in the actual customs and culture of the people of the region, and which is heavily circumscribed by Bingham's own prejudices. But these prejudices themselves do much to reveal American world views and assumptions in this period of the early 20th century. Consider for example, a scene where a Bolivian postal officer began to whip a Quechua - not only does Bingham not express any opposition to it, but he even goes on to justify it by noting the racial characteristics (ie. inferiority) of the Quechua, which requires such a way of administrating them. The same can be said about governments, where the undemocratic nature of most of the regional governments was justified to him by the racial stock of the populations over which they ruled, with the Indians perceived as being unfit for citizenship in most places. And simple usage of racial characteristics to explain away history and justify different historical results is pervasive throughout the book, such as his negative portrayals of the people who made up the former Incan empire, in contrast to the indigenous people of Chile who he saw as of a more noble stock.

The focus of the United States in South America is also easily revealed: the constant emphasis on trade, commerce, and investment in South America, and the rivalry between the US and European nations in the eyes of eyes of the educated, Latin America-focused, commerce-minded US elite. Constantly the lack of US shipping and trade is decried, and various deficiencies in US trade underlined. While the book is rather useless for examining the little people of the land, seeing them mostly in caricatures if it looks at them at all, it does have a more interesting glance at the elites of South America whom Bingham meets with constantly - again, the viewpoint of an elite American traveler in South America on semi-official purposes, which grants him meetings on many occasions with local administration and government elites. That there is little interest whatsoever in the local people and what focus there is on culture is to create essentialist portraits that would characterize races in the region and then serve to ascribe behavior to it is also symptomatic of early 20th century elite American thinking: he went to see countries, he went to see races, but he didn't go to see people.

There is a tremendous element of conceit which is present in the book in regards to its comparison between the United States and South America during the final chapter. Consistently, the defaults which he was in South America were explained away by saying that the United States was after all, very much the same 50 years prior. This may seem like a pardoning of them for their sins and a humbling of the US, as well as a rejection of some of the racial inferiority theories of the Latin Americans - and it would be impossible to utterly exclude these - but it also carries within a key assumption: that South America was just the United States of 50 years ago, and which was bound to follow the same path as the United States, that the United States was the clear and logical future for South America, that they would be Americanized in time and become like the US. In a sense, it is the ultimate expression of the logic of American-backed pan-Americanism.

Is it a book which one should read? Probably not for the vast majority of people. It endeavors to make an inherently fascinating subject rather bland, it belongs to an outdated period, it doesn't say much about South America itself - but for those interested in American foreign policy in South America and the history of American influence there, it is a book which is a valuable working tool.

3 stars for Across South America

© 2019 Ryan C Thomas


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