This beautifully designed and colourful bilingual map depicts Bolivia on the eve of the Chaco War (1932-5), a bizarre and bloody conflict fought between Bolivia and Paraguay instigated by multinational oil companies, the result of which Bolivia lost is south-eastern quarter while nobody ended up scoring much oil! The map was published in New York by Richard Mayer, an Austrian specialist in the economic cartography of Latin America. It was thus intended to inform prospective European and American investors as to Bolivia’s dramatic geography, transport routes and its vast natural resources wealth.
In a grand format, Bolivia and adjacent lands unfold, with its radical topography extending from the heights of the Andes, which are expressed by careful shading, down to the lush Amazonian lowlands, in
the north and east, and Chile’s Pacific coast, to the west. The country is shown divided into its various departments, sectioned by orange lines, while every city, town and village of any import is labelled, as beautiful colours distinguish the boarders of neighbouring states.
The legend, in the bottom centre, identifies the vast amount in information featured on the map. Notably, the map extensively details Bolivia’s railway system, the lifeblood of its economy. It employs pattern coding to show railways ‘in operation’, ‘in construction’, or ‘proposed’, while using colour coding to distinguish 21 named railway lines which traverse one of the globe’s most rugged regions.
The map labels the world’s greatest nitrate deposits (mainly located in neighbouring Chile), along the railway sidings that provide access to the sites; as well as nitrate deposits; and mines (variously labelling whether they yield bismuth, silver, gold, copper or tin).
Also noted are oil pipelines, water pipelines, air mail routes, sites of radio stations (shown with electric sun symbols), and navigable rivers, while the elevations of major centres are noted in metres (important information where many places are at ultra-high altitudes, including the country’s main city, La Paz, which sits at 3,630 metres!).
Bolivia’s vast mineral wealth was for centuries both its economic sustenance and a curse. During Spanish colonial times, the Potosi area was home to vast silver deposits, including the Cerro Rico, the most productive silver mine in world history, that floated global trade, while enslaving its indigenous people. More recently, during the Pacific War of 1879-83, Chile conquered Bolivia’s coastal areas, in good part in order to take control over its nitrate deposits.
In 1930, when the present map was issued, the Gran Chaco region (known in Spanish as the Chaco Boreal), occupying the south-eastern quarter of Bolivia, was thought to be home to vast petroleum resources. While shown to be entirely within Bolivian territory on the present map, the region was disputed between both Bolivia and Paraguay. Also depicted on the map are both Bolivian forts (marked as bold stars) and Paraguayan forts (crossed stars), indicating that the area was in reality divided between two zones of control.
While the conspiracies behind that lay the brewing conflict remain a source of academic debate to this day, what is clear is that Paraguay was encouraged to go to war over the Chaco by an alliance of Argentina, Italy, France and, most importantly, the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company. On the other side, Bolivia was supported by Chile and Germany, as well as the Standard Oil Company. Various American interests backed either side, while some hedged their bets by supporting both! The dark forces behind the conflict were later immortalized by Pablo Neruda’s poem Standard Oil Company (1940).
The result was the Chaco War (September 9, 1932 – June 12, 1935), which was by far and away the bloodiest and, in some ways, most surprising conflict in Latin America during the 20th Century. While the Bolivians were far more powerful on paper, the Paraguayans mastered guerrilla and bush warfare tactics that eventually won the day. A 1938 treaty awarded virtually all of the Grand Chaco to Paraguay – Bolivia’s curse had struck again!
Richard Mayer was an Austrian cartographer who specialized in the economic mapping of Latin America. He benefitted from the fact that since the mid-19th century a tremendous amount of trade was conducted between South and Central American and Germany and Austria, in part facilitated by the large and influential German immigrant communities in those regions. Meyer had offices in both Vienna and New York, and in the late 1920s founded the G.G. & G. Research Company as a banner for his publications.
From around 1916 to 1935, Mayer published a series of excellent maps of various Latin American countries and regions, all in his lovely, brightly coloured signature style, like the present work. He published ‘commercial maps’ of Paraguay (1916), Peru (1916), Chile (1917), Colombia (1917), West Indies (c. 1919), Nicaragua (1928), Bolivia (1930), and Ecuador (1931). He also produced railway maps of Honduras (1917) and Guatemala & El Salvador (1917), was well as a general map of Venezuela with Trinidad and British Guiana (1917). He also made a special map of the aforementioned Gran Chaco ‘oil’ region (1931).
The present example of the map of Bolivia was published in New York under the G.G. & G. Research Company label; however, Mayer simultaneously printed an edition of the same in Vienna, which is almost identical, save for having slightly different print and paper qualities and colour shading, along with a line in the bottom margin that reads ‘Printed in Austria’.
While we can trace around a dozen examples of the map, in either the New York or Vienna editions, in libraries, it only very rarely ever appears on the market.
References: Staatsbiliothek zu Berlin: 8″ Kart. R 18647; OCLC: 13436681, 743238407.