Only a few American scholars have attempted to write a comprehensive synthesis of the republics of Central America. In the 1850s E. George Squier wrote his States of Central America, which ranks as a pioneering historical work despite emphasis on contemporary affairs and weaknesses in interpretation. Some thirty years later Hubert Howe Bancroft, after amassing a wealth of source material, including much of Squier’s personal library, systematically composed his three-volume History of Central America. Bancroft followed Squier in his undeviatingly pro-Liberal bias but far surpassed him in comprehensiveness and documentation. Next to write a general history of the region was Dana G. Munro, whose The Five Republics of Central America, published in 1918, has become a classic in the field. Munro wrote with more literary skill and a keener interpretative sense of history than either of his predecessors but with less dedication to the accumulation of statistical data.
Parker’s The Central American Republics is a comparatively thin volume to be placed alongside the tomes of Squier, Bancroft, and Munro, but it nevertheless deserves to be considered with those standard works. There are several reasons for this. First of all, within only 318 pages of text, Parker packs an enormous amount of information on Central America. From this point of view, the book, like the work of Squier a hundred years before, serves as a useful reference on contemporary Central America. Secondly, consider the variety of information to be found in Parker. Studies of Central American geology, biology, anthropology, politics, finance, and commerce, as well as general historical and other writings, have been ably digested and summarized, all properly footnoted so that the curious reader will have no difficulty in pursuing his particular interest. None of the books previously mentioned offers so much in this respect. Thirdly, Parker’s concern for scholarly accuracy and thorough documentation, evidence of which exists on every page, places him in a class with Bancroft and Munro. The extensive “Notes on Bibliography” at the back of the book, plus the separate discussions of the historical literature of each country in themselves are important contributions to the study of the region. All this assures the Parker book a permanent place among the standard works on Central America.
Admirable as is this new synthesis of the republics of Central America, the historian cannot help but note that it has been partly accomplished at the expense of history. A few words on organization and scope will reveal this to be the case. The first three chapters are concerned with the physical features of Central America—typography, flora, fauna, weather—and a history of the Indians. A concise commentary on studies of the Indians comes at the end of the third chapter. Chapter IV, entitled “The Isthmus United,” heroically compresses a section on the colonial period, including subsections on government, economy, learning, and art, with sections on the movement for independence, the Central American confederation to 1838, and later attempts to reunify the five republics. The next five chapters treat the individual republics separately, and the last combines a discussion of recent polities with the author’s conclusions. Unfortunately, the chapters on the individual countries—meant to be the heart of the book—are woefully unbalanced in their treatment of history. In each of the five chapters sections on political development in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are handled almost as introductions to longer discussions of politics since the 1930s. Separate sections on literature and art, although less contemporaneously oriented, do not make amends for the slight.
In the rush to get to the present the author neglects or ignores altogether events and persons prominent in the nineteenth century. The scant attention given to Anglo-American rivalry for diplomatic and commercial supremacy on the isthmus is scarcely commensurate with the importance of this rivalry for Central America. The index lists several references to Justo Rufino Barrios, president of Guatemala from 1873 to 1885, but a cheek of these reveals only one brief paragraph on his highly significant régime. One of the leading nineteenth-century Liberals, José Francisco Barrundia, is mentioned only in praise of his biographer. Prominent Honduran political figures not listed in the index are José Trinidad Cabañas, Santos Guardiola, Policarpo Bonilla, and Rafael López Gutiérrez. Nor did the celebrated Lee Christmas make the roster.
Doubtless the publisher’s requirements dictated the emphasis on the recent period, for other books on Latin America published under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs have a similar orientation. The usefulness of this approach may be called into question. In the case of the Parker volume the five chapters on the separate countries trace political developments only to early 1961, and the brief postscript on politics in the final chapter only to early 1962. So many important political changes occurred in Central America in the two-year interval between writing and publication that Parker’s efforts to keep the reader abreast of contemporary affairs appear to have been wasted.
A book as important as the one under consideration should be measured on the scale of readability and, regrettably, The Republics of Central America ranks low. The difficulty is partly the author’s conception of the utilization of statistics. In the preface the author states that “statistics are used profusely in the treatment of some topics,” and he justifies his inclusion of them as part of the text on the grounds that “tables are not read” and that “texts are, or may be.” I, for one, cannot agree that the author is doing the reader a service by consistently confining statistical data to the text. By the time the reader reaches the chapter on Costa Rica and comes to the fifth paragraph on the number of farm animals and barnyard fowl in a country, according to the latest census, his eagerness for such information is somewhat dulled. Fortunately, at the end of the Costa Rica paragraph, a bit of comic relief is provided by the statement that: “There were also 16,000 swarms of bees.”