Foreign Travelers' Accounts in Historical Practice
Mentor:Maria Eugenia Vazquez Semadeni, Visiting Professor of History, University of California Los Angeles
In 1803-1804, the Prussian aristocrat and scholar Alexander von Humboldt visited New Spain. His brief visit culminated in the publication of his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, which concerned itself with the political, economic, and social characteristics of the realm. The book was the first, among many, pieces of travel literature to be written on Mexico in the nineteenth century. In 1821, independence opened the country to unprecedented foreign travel. These travelers were active participants in the construction of a foreign image of Mexico. Mexico was invented and rediscovered during the nineteenth century by a North American and a northwestern European educated urban middle-class.
Contemporary postcolonial historiography establishes that the parameters and measurements used to evaluate Mexico were based on a northwestern European understanding of the world. Mexico was not evaluated inherently or contemporarily, but in respect to foreign historical developments and ideological currents that preceded the nineteenth century. The Anglo-Hispanic Rivalry, a conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and the social construct of the Orient were developments and currents that preceded the invention and re-discovery of Mexico. This long tradition of thought and images hindered all possibilities of an objective assessment of Mexico in the nineteenth century. Accordingly, postcolonial historians maintain that travelers’ accounts are problematic sources to the study of nineteenth century Mexican history.
Despite these inherent problems, travelers’ accounts remain useful and complementary to the study of Mexico in the nineteenth century. Their historical value must uniquely be approached with caution, unlike other historical sources. Numerous postcolonial historians have established methodologies to appropriately deal with this problematic historical source. In the spirit of historical practice, this presentation examines the problematic history of foreign travelers’ accounts, and the recommended methodologies for their utilization as historical sources.