Robert David Aguirre, “Mexico, Independence, and Trans-Atlantic Exchange, 1822-24″

Abstract

This entry connects the Spanish American independence movements of the 1820s to the emergence of new pathways of trans-Atlantic cultural exchange. It shows that Britain’s political recognition of the new republics opened a two-way channel in which things, commodities, persons, and ideas flowed back and forth, affecting culture and politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Focusing particularly on Britain’s relations with Mexico, this entry examines key moments in the immediate British response to Spanish American independence.

Movements for political independence swept across Spanish America in the first two decades of the nineteenth century.  A succession of New World colonies broke away, forming a string of independent countries from Argentina in the south to Mexico in the north.  In the hemisphere, only the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico remained under Spanish dominion by 1833.  The end of three hundred years of colonial rule opened not only a new epoch for the internal history of these nations but also a new set of Atlantic relationships with European states. Principal among these was Britain, which sought commercial relations with a region long storied for its mineral wealth and other rich commodities. Eventually, ten percent of British trade would be with Latin America, second in the empire only to India (Cain and Hopkins 283).  Along with political and commercial changes came increased cultural exchange, as ideas, things, artifacts, and people crossed back and forth along new pathways of interaction.  In the years after independence, one would be as likely to find Spanish-American elites residing in London as one would their British counterparts in Buenos Aires, Bogotá, or Lima.  Spanish Americans published journals in Britain such as Biblioteca Americana just as British publishers such as Rudolf Ackermann issued books in Spanish America (see Almeida, Racine, Roldán Vera, passim).  The interchanges were complex and multi-directional.

The prospect of vast wealth in Spanish America ignited a speculative boom in Britain.  British mining companies issued stock prospectuses, newspapers and magazines printed lengthy articles urging the British government to recognize and secure trade agreements with the new republics, and travelers set forth across the Atlantic to provide eye-witness accounts of the rich opportunities awaiting intrepid investors.  In 1825 the frenzied whirl swept up the future Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who argued that Mexico’s possession of “metallic depositories in a most eminent degree” made it necessarily an “object of intense interest to every Briton” (10, 12).   The 1820s witnessed full-length travel accounts of Mexico by writers such as George F. Lyon, Robert W. H. Hardy, Mark Beaufoy, H. G. Ward, and William Bullock.  Although these authors differed in their assessment of Mexican fortunes, they drove the larger process Harriet Martineau called the “spectacle of intoxication” (2: 407), a fever at once economic, political, and cultural.   In Mexico, where silver mines were concentrated, the initial boom quickly went bust, wrecking not only many British fortunes but also plunging Mexico into a century of debt crises.  Martineau called it a “collapse,” but that refers only to stock speculation, not the enduring patterns of travel, exchange, and influence that continued beyond the initial enthusiasm for a new El Dorado.

It was in this context that the museum showman William Bullock emerged to shape the rapid development of commercial, investment, and cultural relations with the new El Dorado (see Aguirre 1-34; Costeloe; Graham; Leask 299-314).  One of the first British travelers to visit Mexico after it declared independence from Spain, Bullock returned from a six-month journey to the fledgling nation and immediately applied his considerable talents to representing and promoting Mexico to the British populace.  In 1824-26, he brought together existing and emergent cultural practices (travel writing, museum exhibition, and panorama) into a compelling ensemble that represented Mexico as a land of both historical fascination and economic promise.  In Bullock’s view (one widely echoed in British writing of the day), only the pre-Hispanic era of Mexico’s history was valuable, not the colonial era ruled over by the Spanish, which he characterized as an epoch of religious fanaticism, hostility to the enlightenment, and bungling inefficiency.  His various productions implicitly divide Mexican history into three periods: the glorious, albeit bloody, era of the Aztecs, with its rich traditions of feather work, gold jewelry, and colossal sculpture; the colonial era of Spanish domination, characterized by religious intolerance and hostility to modernity; and modern Mexico, which augured increased trade and heightened technological development.  By focusing on the first and third of these eras and emphasizing the cultural treasures of Mexico’s past and the financial possibilities of its future, he neatly excises Britain’s old imperial rival, Spain, which governed Mexico as a colony during the second period.  This partition ideologically cleared the way for the advance of British interests, both antiquarian and commercial, and helped to forge strong commercial and cultural bonds across the Atlantic.

Bullock was not the first traveler to Spanish America, but he played a key role in disseminating the work of those who preceded him.  His most important precursor, whose work he repeatedly cites throughout his work, was the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, a figure of titanic energy whose travels and subsequent publications towered over all who followed.  Humboldt journeyed through South America and Mexico between 1799-1804, trekking through the jungle, climbing volcanoes, collecting reams of data and trunk loads of specimens.  In South America his interests were primarily geological and botanical, but in Mexico he also sought out pre-Columbian antiquities and publicized to European readers three large monoliths (including the famed calendar stone) that had been unearthed in Mexico City during street repairs in the 1790s.  With his geological training, he also studied the country’s vast silver mines, which at the time were under the strict control of the Spanish crown.  Humboldt’s publications, written in French, were issued in expensive large-format editions at prohibitive cost and were not widely available in English until after 1811.  In that year John Black issued an English translation of Humboldt’s Essai politique sur le Royaume de la Nouvelle Espagne, and by 1814 this comprehensive work on Mexico, including information on its fabled mines, was in a second edition.  In 1814 Helen Maria Williams also published her English translation of Humboldt’s Views of the Cordilleras. Thereafter, Humboldt’s work was more widely reviewed in the British press.

With Humboldt’s work in mind, and news afoot that Britain would soon recognize Mexico’s independence, Bullock set off for his journey to Mexico, where he spent six months making observations and collecting everything he could, from minute hummingbirds (which he preserved) to large stone sculptures, from rare codices and painted books to various articles of natural history.  Driven by curiosity, a valued scientific trait of the times (Benedict), he focused his energies on obtaining all that was rare, unusual, and curious.  His habits of collecting reflected the origins of the museum itself, which began as cabinets of wonders or curiosities, the wunderkammeren of men who in the eighteenth-century were known as curiosi.  Notable among the London curiosi was Sir Hans Sloane, who transformed his personal collection into the British Museum.  Bullock competed directly with the museum by accentuating the populist appeal of exotic curiosities.  He had sharpened his exhibitionary techniques in Liverpool, when he ran a successful museum that traded on the city’s maritime traffic.  In mounting his show, “Ancient and Modern Mexico,” he made his most significant contribution to the development of trans-Atlantic cultural relations between Britain and Mexico, for in addition to displaying a wealth of rare antiquities and modern Mexican arts at the Egyptian Hall (Fig. 1), he also issued illustrated print catalogues of these exhibitions, which disseminated his ideas to a broad audience well beyond London.  The shows themselves were covered extensively in the press and were well timed to play off the public’s exuberance for Mexican investments.  Bullock capitalized on this fervor by evoking the wealth of the Mexican mines while also appealing to the public’s taste for exoticism by featuring objects associated with the pre-Hispanic past and particularly the fabled clash between Montezuma and the Spanish conquistadors.

Egyptian Hall

Figure 1: The Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, c. 1815

The success of Bullock’s scheme can be partly assessed by the role it played in the development of British collecting of Mesoamerican artifacts.  At the time of his exhibit, the national collection—the British Museum—had no significant pre-Columbian holdings.  Knowledge of the Aztecs and Maya was slender and often erroneous.  Humboldt’s researches represented an advance, but their dissemination was hampered by the rarity and expense of the volumes themselves.  In 1822 a work on Maya archaeology appeared in London, Antonio Del Rio’s Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City, but the drawings were fanciful and the text wildly inaccurate about basic matters of pre-Columbian history; it appears to have stirred interest only among a very small number of enthusiasts.  Bullock’s exhibition, however, was something else entirely.  He wisely let the objects speak for themselves, whether originals or the several plaster casts he also produced of objects left in Mexico, including the three famed monoliths imaged by Humboldt.  Placed in an appealing and coherent museum frame, the objects conveyed the power and cultural sophistication of the cultures that produced them.  After the show concluded, much of the collection was acquired by the British Museum, and thereafter the Trustees augmented the museum’s holdings steadily throughout the century until they became one of the most important pre-Hispanic collections in all Europe.  Today, the museum’s Mexican Gallery, which opened in 1994, prominently features several items Bullock originally collected (McEwan 69-79).

Economic histories of Anglo-Latin American relations emphasize the development of an imperialism of free trade, sometimes called gentlemanly capitalism, which allowed British elites and banking interests to practice an ad hoc though ruthlessly effective form of informal imperialism.  The opening of political and trading relationships, however, did not occur in isolation from a broader web of interconnections at the level of culture.  These exchanges played their part in transforming cultures on both sides of the Atlantic.

Robert D. Aguirre is the author Informal Empire: Mexico and Central America in Victorian Culture (2005) as well as many essays about trans-Atlanticism, material culture, and travel writing in the Victorian period.  He is associate professor of English at Wayne State University, where he also serves as associate dean of Arts and Sciences.

HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)

Aguirre, Robert David. “Mexico, Independence, and Trans-Atlantic Exchange, 1822-24.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].

WORKS CITED

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