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Crafting a Republic for the World Review

Updated on May 7, 2020

History, as Napoleon said, is a set of lies agreed upon. The past is something which we interpret and see through the lens of the present, and even more importantly actively shape and alter to match what we want to see and to suit our needs. This basic principle lies at the heart of the book Crafting a Republic for the World: Scientific, Geographic, and Historiographic Inventions of Colombia. Its thesis is that much of the colonial legacy in Colombia was one which was invented and formatted to respond to the needs and objectives of different political parties and voices, being recreated and modified over time.

The lengthy initial introduction to the book lays out the author's principal theory, that the colonial legacy in South America was a creation of post-independence elites, that these elites were more united in their objectives and ideas than is generally credited to them and universally desired a republican, "modern' Colombia freed of its colonial past and revitalized by a free movement of goods and ideas centered in a network around Bogota. Instead the battles and civil wars between parties were much more often fought over tactical objectives, such as control over patronage networks.

In the first chapter, the spotlight is shone on Francisco José de Caldas, an intellectual in New Granada and heralded as the founder of Colombian geography, but killed by the Spanish during their reconquest campaigns in 1816.His death was immortalized by the Republicans and used as an example of Spanish barbarism and the oppression of the enlightened Creole. It further covers the attempts at mapping the country and the credit given to Caldas by his successors for his work and inspiration.

Chapter 2 is concerned with the efforts to promote the unity, internal development, and internal movement of people, ideas, and goods in Colombia. This combined map making, but also a non-partisan effort to develop learned societies, and a focus on Bogota as the center of the Colombian Republic and revision of its history to suit new post-independence narratives.

Chapter 3 is once again about maps - although this time about the attempts to provide for map making in order to rationally and fairly divide up the native people's communal land reservations to produce private individual land plots. The elites pinned their hopes on a new scientific class of land surveyors who would enable the land to be fairly divided up, but had to deal with competing notions of how land would be distributed and to whom, and differing competing interest groups which constantly delayed the state's plans. But as Castillo points out, the state was able to emerge with a legitimate position as a negotiator and bargainer, which enhanced its legitimacy.

Dealing with local population is also the subject of chapter 4 which is about ethnography and its political components. Space was reconfigured by a commission to draw new borders for provinces - to the benefit of the Liberal Party - but even more importantly cultural and historical markers were reinterpreted with historical studies that painted the native Indians in a more positive life, such as by Manuel Ancizar in his Peregrenacion de Alpha. His works stressed too that those regions which had most fervently embraced Republicanism had developed and matured the most swiftly while those regions clinging to backwards religious practices and old colonial modes were left behind. This tradition of writing ethnographic depictions of Colombian peoples, called "costumbrismo", was used by both liberals and conservatives to laud the values of their own program for Colombia;

José María Melo, whose 1854 coup d'etat would unleash the civil war of the same year.
José María Melo, whose 1854 coup d'etat would unleash the civil war of the same year.

Previous mutual agreement between liberal and conservative factions broke down in the 1850s with the passage of universal male suffrage, which was to the benefit of the Conservatives as they were much more able to effectively mobilize public votes. The resultant instability led to a civil war in 1854 which the author endeavors to explain was a serious deal involving significant popular support. The result of the war was a move to a federal system.

The final chapter is about the religious and education battles that split Colombia in the second half of the 19th century, sparked by a Liberal effort to reform education and to bring in Protestant normal school trained teachers, which led to Conservative backlashes. This secularization program by the liberals was also predicated upon the nationalization of students through prominent display of maps of Colombia, in contrast to previous displays of the cross. However, despite differences on this matter, Castilla points out that there was a commonality of interests between liberals and conservatives over the matters of religious lands, and conservatives too backed their expropriation. The end of the 19th century also marked an increasing admiration for the legacy of Spain and an end to the previous rejection of its influence in the New World, which also helped to rehabilitate the church.

In the conclusion of the book is devoted to studying the political theories expounded in Colombia which created the idea of Colombia to reject emerging racial ideologies of the late 19th century, followed by a recap of the book's content.

Crafting a Republic for the World is a book which is focused upon theoretical concepts and the manipulation of ideas.Colombian elites in the 19th century often wrote a negative history of the Spanish colonial period and its flaws, to portray their governance as a positive benefit for the nation in comparison, or to paint their opponents as allied with a dark political history. On subjects ranging from popular religiosity, to land reform,to territorial distribution, to promotion of the sciences, battlegrounds of post-independence politics looked back to the Spanish era for fuel for their arguments.

Naturally Castillo's argument, as with most intellectuals', tends to go to excess - there were after all, clear legacies which were left behind by the Spanish colonial era, with indigenous land reservations, geographic borders, the Church, the Spanish language, etc. But nevertheless Castillo does a good job of arguing that many of the colonial "legacies", such as opposition to science, are overstated, and that they were mobilized differently over time, such as the growing dissent over the role of the Church and its relationship to modernity in Colombia.

Furthermore she should be congratulated for the breadth of the subjects covered. Every subject includes plentiful detail, and the book has plenty of details about land surveying and the intellectual background and hopes behind it for the privatization of Indian communal lands, with a healthy dose of revisionism about the structural factors being more important than the clichés of greedy and unscrupulous land surveyors oppressing the Indians. Religious matters and popular religion and its portrayal, either negatively or positively, is another intriguing subject, with an excellent cast of writers and thinkers and plenty of details about religious worship itself. There are also good photos to accompany this.

This is not a general history of Colombia, but the way in which it is written is confusing because it makes almost no reference to the events which were transpiring in the country. It mentions civil war upon civil war, but offers no general narrative of these civil wars and what their results were, it has little overview of the country. Furthermore some of its political phases really could receive some additional definitions, such as how municipal authorities being the main organizations invested with political rights worked in practice during the first part of the 18th century.

Furthermore at times the writing can become difficult to follow: Castilla makes an admirable attempt to give plenty of explanations and long summaries and overviews, but this somehow can make it even worse as it delves into theory and abstractions and it becomes extremely difficult for the average reader to comprehend.But while this can be convoluted at times, Castillo still writes with what I think is genuine emotion and passion about the subject, particularly towards the end with her discussion of the attempts by Colombian thinkers to create a narrative of their nation that rejected the racism of the United States and which aimed for a more pluralistic and progressive vision of their country and its future.

Intellectually ambitious and wide-ranging, if Crafting a Republic for the World can sometimes meander given the wide range of topics which it covers, it nevertheless is a fascinating book which lays out a very different and much more positive view of Latin America and its political evolution than is commonly the case. Most views of Latin America in the 19th century are quite openly contemptuous - backwards, poor, terribly unstable, nepotistic, and with the "progressive" liberal forces attempting to drag the country "forward" to being giant plantations for the world economic system. Instead, Castillo's book shows that the situation was much more complex than this and the political parties evolved over time, and that they often shared a joint commitment to republicanism and development. Instead of small wars between the elites, there was genuine popular engagement, and these countries genuinely saw themselves as at the forefront of international political development. It enables a rich view of the way in which the past is utilized for the present, and makes for a history which should be carefully read to understand the manipulation of historic identity and state development in Latin America - although preferably with a general history tome to enable it to be better contextualized.

4 stars for Crafting a Republic for the World

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