Until the 1850s very little scientific mapping had been conducted in Nicaragua, due to the frequent bouts of political instability, as well as a lack of government initiative and funding. While the southern and western parts of the county were populated and relatively developed, the Mosquito Coast (the vast region along the Caribbean Sea), the ownership of which was long disputed with Great Britain, was sparsely populated and covered with dense jungle.
Growing interest in the possibility of constructing an inter-oceanic canal across Nicaragua motivated foreigners to create maps of that depicted the populated part of the country with a basic measure of general planimetric accuracy (until the 1890s Nicaragua was considered to be the most promising location for such a world-changing route, until it lost the ‘canal race’ to Panama). The best of these maps included Fermin Ferrer’s Geographical Map of the Republic of Nicaragua with Three Plans and Views (1855) and Auguste Myionnet Dupuy, Union des deux océans Atlantique et Pacifique, par le transit ouvert à travers la République de Nicaragua: Carte détaillée des Cinq Départements avec indication des principaux tracés du Canal Interocéanique (1855). However, these works were not predicated upon surveys and had little utility for engineering or infrastructure development purposes.
During the latter part of the Nicaraguan Civil War of 1854-8, President Tomás Martínez Guerrero realized the urgent need to create a broadly accurate official national map that focused upon the populated western part of the country (the Mosquito Coast being too vast and vacuous to be worth the effort, at least initially).
In 1855, Maximilian von Sonnenstern, a recent German immigrant from a noble-military background, became a consultant engineer to the Nicaraguan government. He introduced the latest German mapping techniques to Central America, and in addition to mapping Nicaragua constructed the first official maps of Guatemala and El Salvador. Over the next two years, he had the opportunity to conduct itinerary surveys of the major transport routes of western and southern Nicaragua, as well as to make some skilled, albeit unscientific, renderings of the surrounding topography.
The result was the present work, the Mapa de la Republica de Nicaragua levantado por orden del gobierno 1858, which showcases the country in great detail, to high degree of planimetric accuracy. It marked a dramatic improvement over all previous endeavors, providing the first map that would be truly useful and reliable for strategic administrative planning, while lending credibility to Nicaragua’s desire to host a possible future interoceanic canal. Even if Sonnenstern’s surveys had not been systematic, and while the map intentionally omitted most of the Mosquito Coast, President Martínez rightly hailed the map as a triumph.
The map embraces the western and southern three-fifths of Nicaragua, intentionally omitting the northern Mosquito Coast, which lay beyond the line marked on the map as the ‘Territorio ò linea despoblado y desconocida de la republica’ (Line of the Unpopulated and Unknown Territory of the Republic). The map shows the country in great detail, including the entire Pacific littoral, the great interior seas of Lago Managua and Lago Nicaragua, and the San Juan River that runs down to the Caribbean Sea, along with the southern Mosquito Coast, up to Bluefields. Nicaragua’s mountains are show by hachures, notably including the chain of volcanos the run down the western side of the country, creating great islands in Lago Nicaragua.
The country is shown divided into its departments, with its rival ‘capitals’ of Granada and León prominently labeled. Managua is also marked, but not with any prominence, as while it was chosen as the permanent national capital in 1857 (due to a compromise between the two main cities), this decision may not have been finalized by the time Sonnenstern sent his manuscript to New York to be published.
The map features a wealth of information, all from official sources, as the ‘Explicacion’ identifies the symbols used throughout to locate departmental capitals, villages with churches, farming valleys, haciendas (rural estates), ruins, fortifications, mines, political boundaries (national, departmental), the lines of projected railways, wagon roads, the camino real (main old royal highway), shipping lanes, and quays.
In the upper right, are three large insets, featuring detailed plans of León (with a key labeling 24 sites), Granada (with a key labeling 10 sites), as well as a map of the new agrarian colony planned for the site of Viejo León (at the abandoned location of the old city of León, originally founded in 1523).
In the lower left corner are 4 topographical cross-sections that cut through different parts of the country. No. 1 shows the line from the Pacific up to Segovia, in the north of the country, while No. 2 cuts through the volcanic peaks that run down the western side of the country. The third and fourth profiles are directly relevant to the vision to one day build an interoceanic canal to Nicaragua, as they show two different cross-sections of possible routes for the canal. No. 3 crosses the route from the Pacific through Lago Managua and then through Lago Nicaragua, while No. 4 shows a more direct route from the Pacific through Lago Nicaragua then down the San Juan River to the Atlantic.
President Martínez ordered another edition of the map to be issued by Kraetzer in 1859, which is identical to the first, save for the change in the date in the title.
Maximilian von Sonnenstern: The Father of the Modern Mapping of Central America
Maximilian von Sonnenstern (1819 – 1895) was a towering figure in civil engineering and the modern mapping of Central America. He was born in Stuttgart, allegedly the illegitimate son of a member of the royal family of Württemberg, although it seems that great efforts were made to cover up this ‘scandalous’ detail. After excellent training, he served as a military engineer in his native country but, in 1855, he decided to leave the stifling formality of Germany to find his fame and fortune in Central America. While rife with civil unrest and corruption, men of Sonnenstern’s abilities were immensely valued in the region, and he was only one of a succession of German engineers who attained great prominence in Latin America during the 19th Century.
Basing himself in Nicaragua, Sonnenstern quickly managed to set himself up as a high-priced engineering and surveying consultant. He was responsible for introducing the highest standards of German precision and excellence to surveying and civil engineering in Central America. The rise of national identity, the advent of a period of relative peace, and an infrastructure boom, necessitated the creation of official accurate national maps in a region where such projects had never been seriously attempted.
Sonnenstern was duly hired by the governments of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala to construct each of these republics’ first official national maps. All these endeavours resulted in folding maps which were well beyond the technical capabilities of publishers in the region, so they were lithographed and issued by G. Kraetzer in New York. These included the present map of Nicaragua, Mapa general de la Republica de Nicaragua (1858, with the 1859 edition following); the Mapa general de la Republica de Salvador (1859) and the Mapa General de la República de Guatemala (1859). His map of the greater region was published in London shortly thereafter, as the Mapa de las Republicas de America Central (1860).
In 1858, following the Nicaraguan Civil War, President Martínez appointed Sonnenstern as the official engineer and surveyor general of the republic. His first priority was to conduct advanced surveys of Nicaragua the well beyond the remit of his 1858 map, including the depiction of the Mosquito Coast, resulting in his Mapa de la Republica de Nicaragua levantado por orden de su Ex.a el Presidente Cap.n General Martinez por Maximiliano de Sonnenstern 1863 (Paris: Broise & Tiheffry, 1863).
Please see a link to this map, courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection:
Sonnenstern became Nicaragua’s point man in the ongoing saga of the interoceanic canal. His presence lent great credibility to the nation’s position, and he represented Nicaragua during high-profile deliberations in Washington in 1874. Sonnenstern preferred a canal route that ran from Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific, via Charco Muerto Bay, the Río Ochomogo, and then the Río Escalante to its mouth on the sea.
During the 1870s and 1880s, he oversaw an infrastructure boom in Nicaragua, which resulted in the building of numerous new roads, bridges, port facilities and railways.
Sonnenstern served in office until his death in 1895, at the age of 76, whereupon he was eulogized as one of the greatest Nicaraguans. It is thought that his passing was one of the factors that led Nicaragua to lose the ‘canal race’ to Panama.
A Note on Rarity
The map is very rare. We can locate only 4 institutional examples of the present first edition of 1858, held by the Library of Congress; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign; and the University of Texas at Austin. Moreover, we cannot trace any sales records for any other examples. Of the 1859 second edition, we are aware of 7 institutional examples.
The present example of the map was recently officially deaccessioned from the Valentine Museum (Richmond, Virginia), and bears the earlier ownership stamp of a ‘M. Lienau’. This would almost certainly refer to Michael Martin Lienau (1816 – 1893), a German-born immigrant to New York, who owned M. Lienau & Company, a successful wine importer.
References: Library of Congress: G4850 1858 .S6 TIL; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee: 226 B-1858; University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign: G4850 1858 .S6 TIL; University of Texas at Austin: G 4850 1858 S655; OCLC: 641279070, 820965814; O. Bolivar Juarez, Maximiliano von Sonnenstern y el primer mapa de la República de Nicaragua (Managua, 1995); Michel Gobat, Empire by Invitation: William Walker and Manifest Destiny in Central America (Cambridge, MA, 2018), fig. 7.3. Cf. [Re: Sonnenstern’s Biography] G. von Houwald, Los Alemanes en Nicaragua (Managua, 1975), esp. pp. 67-9.