This spectacular wall map of Bolivia is one of the great landmarks of the cartography of Latin America. It represents the first accurate general survey of Bolivia and is by far the largest and most detailed map of the republic produced during the 19th Century. Interestingly, it also shows Bolivia with its territory at its maximum historical extent, before it ceded vast amounts of its landmass following wars and, in some cases, ‘bizarre’ diplomatic incidents involving its neighbours.
Printed by the leading American map publisher, Joseph Hutchins Colton, it is also the first national map produced in the United States at the behest of a foreign government (a practice that would become common later in the century). The story behind the map’s production is a carnival of extraordinary events. It involves a dangerous 11 year-long reconnaissance of a one of the world’s most rugged landscapes, the hindrance of the dissemination of the map by military coups and earthquakes, and a process that resulted in the bankruptcy of America’s leading mapmaker.
Bolivia was then a vast, geographically diverse and, in many parts, inhospitable land that spanned from the peaks of the Andes to the coastal Atacama Desert (the world’s driest region) to the plateau of the Gran Chaco to the Amazonian Rainforest. The dramatic topography is vibrantly expressed through the use of hachures and shading, and the landscape is replete with details as to the locations of cities, towns, mines, rivers, roads, post offices, mountain ridges and other features. The republic’s various departments are distinguished in full regional colours typical of the productions of the Colton firm, while the great Andean lakes of Titicaca and Poopó and the shores of the Pacific are coloured in brilliant blue. In the lower left corner of the map are detailed insets of La Paz (the main commercial centre of Bolivia), labeling 18 key sites and Sucre (the national capital), labeling 27 sites, along with a table noting the heights of the nation’s major Andean peaks. In the upper right, the map features a large inset of South America, placing Bolivia within its greater geographical context. The title, in the upper left, is surmounted by the national coat of arms, while the map features an elegant border of spiraling acanthus scrolls, containing roundels featuring picturesque Bolivian scenes. The map is signed by Juan Ondarza Lara and his assistant Juan Mariano Mujia, in the lower left.
The Bolivia portrayed on the map is far more expansive than it is in its current form. While the centre of the country as shown here, remains Bolivia today, the extremities on north, southeast and southwest are today all part of neighbouring countries. The northern Amazonian portion, along with a sliver of the Mato Grosso in the east, was ceded to Brazil in parts, in 1867 and 1903. The Coastal Atacama region was lost to Chile, following the War of the Pacific (1879-84) and the Gran Chaco region in the southeast was lost to Paraguay following the Chaco War (1932-35).
Since Bolivia was declared an independent republic in 1825, it had suffered from extreme political instability. Traditionally a part of the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru, referred to as “Upper Peru”, its birth as a nation had more to do with its remoteness from Lima than any coherent socio-political purpose. The country had no natural governing elite or institutions and was subject to especially severe social and economic inequality. What followed was a seemingly endless cycle of military dictatorships and popular revolutions that had almost fatal consequences for the republic. That being said, a small coterie of enlightened scientists, statesmen and military officers fought tirelessly against these currents to undertake projects that would advance Bolivia.
The enlightened elements of Bolivia’s power structure recognized that creating an accurate general national map would be absolutely critical for the purposes of civil administration, military planning and economic development. As of the mid 19th Century, Bolivia was very poorly mapped compared to other South American nations.
The man selected for the task was Juan Ondarza Lara (1827-75), an officer and military engineer in the service of the Bolivian Army Topographical Bureau (Topografica del Ejercito). Ondarza commenced his epic survey in 1842, assisted by Juan Mariano Mujia and Lucio Camacho. Meanwhile, in 1843, a French immigrant and surveyor, Felipe Bertres, issued the first large-scale map of Bolivia, entitled Mapa Corografico de la Republica de Bolivia (1843) published in London by John Arrowsmith. Unfortunately, this map was not based on actual surveys and was in many places was so inaccurate as to approach a work of fiction. Berthes’ map did little to inform Ondraza’s work and was merely an elegant diversion. Curiously, Berthes had once been Ondarza’s tutor in surveying.
Ondarza and his men were absolutely zealous in their task and their experience can only be described as one of outrageous difficulty. They spent eleven years conducting a meticulous reconnaissance of the countryside, taking astronomical observations and land measurements, followed by another three years compiling their field sketches and data into a fair copy of a general map.
Ondarza vividly recounted that the survey was:
“Full of immense, colossal and terrible dangers, having to cross the country from one end to another, through virgin forests, desert, vast and unhealthy plains, high inaccessible mountain ranges and frigid, torrential rivers and finally compromising life, apart from the wild tribes against whom were daily engaged in open struggle.”
Fortunately, in 1857, José María Linares Lizarazu became the President of Bolivia following a coup d’état. Linares was a relatively enlightened figure who was a strong supporter of Ondarza’s survey. Ondarza’s manuscript was so large and grand that only select publishers in the United States and Europe had the technical ability and experience necessary to print such a map. Linares sponsored Ondarza and Mujia to travel to America, Britain and France in order to find the right publisher and negotiate a deal on behalf of the Bolivian government.
While abroad, the two Bolivians were wined and dined by the elite of the science community in Paris, London, Washington and New York, who were transfixed by their stories of exploring and charting such a vast and exotic land. Ondarza was inducted into the American National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Geographical Society and the Société de Géographie.
Ondarza finally settled on the firm of J.H. Colton of New York, the leading map publisher in America, to produce his map. Joseph Hutchins Colton (1800-93) established his company in 1833, hiring the highly talented cartographer David Burr to devise some of his maps. The firm grew quickly, fulfilling the need amongst the American public for regularly updated and attractively engraved and lithographed railway maps, pocket maps and guidebooks, especially those relating to America’s rapidly growing western territories. As represented in its grandest form on the present map, Colton developed his own style for his cartography which evinced careful and exacting printing, the use of bright wash colours and signature borders bearing spiral motifs. With the assistance of his sons, George Woolworth and Charles B. Colton, the firm became the first American enterprises to rival the great European map publishers. Colton’s Atlas of the World, first issued in 1855, developed into one of the most popular cartographic productions in American history.
Colton offered Ondarza shockingly generous terms that, as it would be revealed, turned out to be dangerously naïve. On September 21, 1858, Ondarza and Colton singed a contract under which Colton agreed to publish 10,000 copies of the map “artistically and in the best manner” in exchange for $25,000 dollars, with $2,000 to be paid immediately as a deposit, with the balance to be settled by the Bolivian government upon delivery of the maps in La Paz. Colton was injudicious in accepting such a modest advance, as he would have to spend a much larger sum up front before any possibility of being paid in full.
Colton showed exceptional enthusiasm for the project and his draftsmen were assisted by Ondarza, who remained in New York to ensure the quality of the production. Completed in 1859, The result was a real tour de force, a gargantuan map which showcased Bolivia in amazing detail, very attractively rendered. A shipment of the first 2,000 copies reached La Paz where it was greeted with great acclaim, with copies quickly selling out at $12 each, an impressive sum for the time.
Ondarza agreed to personally shepherd the remaining 8,000 copies back to Bolivia. The quickest route upon reaching the Pacific Coast of South America was to land at the Peruvian port of Tacna, and then take the maps overland to La Paz. Unfortunately, the Peruvians, who maintained a ‘complicated’ relationship with Bolivia, decided to impound the maps, locking them in the town’s customs house. The appeals of Ondarza and the Bolivian government fell on deaf ears, and the maps languished in Tacna until the town (and the maps) were destroyed in an earthquake in 1868. Thus, it seems that only around 2,000 copies of the maps ever made it into circulation. Given that the survival rate of large wall maps is extremely low, this would account for the great rarity of the Ondarza-Colton map today.
Nevertheless, the Bolivian government agreed to pay Colton his balance, but only in installments. Unfortunately, these installments were not forthcoming. Meanwhile, Colton, who had over extended himself on other projects, had spent thousands of dollars of borrowed money on the production of the Bolivia map. Colton essentially went bankrupt (although may have technically avoided the ignominy) and in 1861 he had to be financially “bailed out” by the rival firm of Alvin Jewett Johnson and Ross C. Browning who, in return, gained the rights to use much of Colton’s intellectual property. The Colton firm spent years suing both the Bolivian and Peruvian governments and eventually received a settlement, the size of which is today unclear. The Colton firm continued to operate in its own right until 1897, although the ‘Bolivian Fiasco’ destroyed its market dominance. In a cruel twist of irony, what was likely Colton’s finest work proved to be his professional downfall.
In 1864, Bolivia came under the rule of Mariano Melgarejo, an intellectually incurious brute, who set his nation on a road to ruin. Melgarejo exiled Ondarza was said to have had little interest in his map, although apocryphally, he was responsible for one of the most curious recorded uses of the map. The story goes that a Brazilian minster sent Malgarejo a gift of white horse. The president was so pleased by this gesture that he pulled out a copy of the Ondarza-Colton map and placed it on the ground. The horse laid one hoof on the map, and tracing around it, Malgarejo agreed to cede to Brazil all of the territory encompassed by his tracing. Unfortunately, this included most of
of the Bolivian Amazon, which became the Brazilian state of Acre. Later revealed to be rich in rubber, the cession came to be considered to be one of the most impetuous and foolhardy acts of ‘diplomacy’ in South American history.
The Ondarza-Colton map of Bolivia is very rare; we are aware of examples appearing at auction or in dealers’ catalogues on only a handful of occasions during the last generation.
References: P. Phillips, Check List of large scale maps published by foreign governments (Great Britain excepted) in the Library of Congress (Washington, 1904), p. 54; OCLC: 319714359; A. Costa de la Torre, Hombres celebres de Bolivia: Juan Ondarza, autor del mapa de Bolivia (La Paz, 1970).