The Cartographic Journey of Lieutenant William H. Armstrong / El viaje cartográfico del teniente William H. Armstrong, 1908–1912 , by Lanny Thompson & María Dolores Luque (eds.)

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Joaquín Villanueva Gustavus Adolphus College Geography Department U.S.A. Saint Peter MN

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Lanny Thompson & María Dolores Luque (eds.), The Cartographic Journey of Lieutenant William H. Armstrong / El viaje cartográfico del teniente William H. Armstrong, 1908–1912 (2 vols.). San Juan: Centro de Investigaciones Históricas & Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades, 2021. xii + 740 pp. (Cloth US$ 100.00)

This impressive archival collection chronicles the journey of a military official stationed in Puerto Rico a decade after the U.S. occupation of the archipelago, who was commissioned to sketch strategic sites across the main island. William H. Armstrong’s field notes, systematically ordered by the editors, transport readers to early twentieth-century colonial and cartographic practices. As Lanny Thompson puts it in his excellent introduction, “Armstrong participated in and documented, by means of cartographic techniques, the creation of a colonial space” (p. 61). Readers will be rewarded with the rare opportunity to see/feel/read the intricate ways in which the “military gaze” perceived, conceived, and produced colonial geographies in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. The photographs, sketches, maps, and descriptions of Puerto Rico that were made by Armstrong during his cartographic journey, 1908–12, are not to be seen/felt/read passively, but rather contextually and critically.

To help us tactically read this collection, anthropologist Lanny Thompson, from the University of Puerto Rico, wrote an extremely valuable introduction that succinctly contextualizes the life, career, and contradictions of this otherwise-forgotten military official. In 1908, Armstrong was assigned to produce a topographical map known as the “Progressive Military Map of Porto Rico,” part of a larger military ambition to “produce an interconnected series of tactical maps of strategic areas of the United States” (p. 55). The map is included in this collection in digital format. Armstrong’s field books (12 in total) served as the raw data for the completion of the map.

Aided by a wagon that “carried the cartographic instruments, camping gear, rations for the men, and feed for the mules and horses” (p. 56), the image of Armstrong traversing the colonial landscape parallels the cultures of exploration and empire that propelled the discipline of geography and the British Empire in the nineteenth century. Commenting on those cultures, Felix Driver suggests in Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire (2001) that the wagon, “represented the explorer as the embodiment of scientific reason.” In his journeys across Puerto Rico, Armstrong described the landscape, subjects, and strategic sites from the vantage point of a military official who embodied scientific reason and military control. The mapping of Puerto Rico, Thompson argues, was an exercise of power and governmentality, “of the description of the relationships of ‘men and things,’ of the ‘imbrication’ of the character of the population and the specific qualities of the territory” (p. 59).

The collection includes 11 of the 12 original field books created by Armstrong between 1908 and 1912. Perfectly digitized, the field books are in their original hand-written form and accompanied by an excellent Spanish translation at the bottom of each page. They include Armstrong’s sketches, maps, photographs, and descriptions. His descriptions are colored by the field of visuality that shaped his landscape reading. In other words, when commenting about gender, sexual, class, and race relations, Armstrong speaks from the position of a colonial official within the military institution. They are not to be read literally or simply descriptively, but rather as narratives that form part of a larger field of colonial and imperial power. This collection is not a window into Puerto Rico’s colonial society at the dawn of the twentieth century, but, more accurately, a portrayal of the field of representation that captured (colonized) Puerto Rico and its people after 1898.

The collection requires time, attention to detail, and a great deal of critical inquiry to understand how empire saw, spoke, felt, and judged its colonial possessions at a specific time and place. The editors have performed a monumental task by compiling the field books, digitizing them, and providing the sociohistorical context to understand the intimate ways colonial power was exercised and represented. After reading the acknowledgement, translator’s note, and introduction to the collection, one can immediately appreciate the labor, time, and resources dedicated to this project. The value of that labor is reflected in the high price of the collection. It is mainly intended, I can only speculate, for university, public, and private libraries that can assume that cost. I highly recommend librarians across the Caribbean and the United States to acquire this collection as its value is unmeasurable for scholars from a wide range of disciplines. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, cartographers, and literary scholars will find endless inspiration to understand how colonial spaces were produced, represented, and portrayed by/for colonial officials. Because some of these colonial geographies are still effectively operative across the Caribbean, understanding their origins and production becomes paramount to their undoing.

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