The mid-nineteenth-century Colombian Chorographic Commission drew on geology, archaeology, and history to project a patriotic past onto the Andean landscape of the young republic then known as New Granada. This geographic expedition, led initially by Agustín Codazzi and Manuel Ancízar, explored and mapped the country from 1850 to 1859. For the commissioners and their associates among the creole elite, the history of past epochs was “written” on the mountainsides for scientific travelers such as themselves to “read.” They portrayed disparate historical and prehistoric events as overlapping and interrelated. The commission’s texts and images linked a catastrophic interpretation of geologic origins to historia patria (patriotic history). The commissioners merged the wars of conquest and independence into a two-act drama enacted on a singular territorial stage. Their reading of geologic, archaeological, and historical evidence endowed the impoverished young Republic of New Granada with a grandiose territory, a great precursor civilization, and a legacy of patriotic resistance to imperialism. Their interpretations, however, would prove controversial. During the second half of the nineteenth century, debates over geology, archaeology, and history reflected conflicting Liberal and Conservative political projects. Moreover, the midcentury intellectuals failed to incorporate contemporaneous indigenous and poor citizens into an imagined national community based on the ideal of a shared historical memory embedded on a readable landscape.

The research for this essay was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and Binghamton University. For crucial improvements, the author would like to thank the editors of HAHR and the three peer reviewers, one of whom was Raymond Craib. The author is also grateful for helpful insights provided by Fa-ti Fan, Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, and the participants in the 2010 conference on “Mapping the Nation: Cartography and Politics in Spanish America,” held at the University of the Andes in Bogotá.