Culture & History Digital Journal, Vol 4, No 1 (2015)

Scylla and charybdis 2.0: reconstructing colonial Spanish American territories between metropolitan dream and effective control, historical ambiguities and cybernetic determinism

Werner Stangl
University of Graz, Historical Institute, Economic and Social History, Austria


This paper tries to outline the main methodological obstacles that have to be addressed and overcome at reconstructing late colonial Spanish American territories and their development by means of a historical Geographic Information System (HGIS). First we try to show how historians with a broad gamut of research interests could profit from such a territorial HGIS infrastructure for that time and space. In a second step we try to show how certain aspects complicate the task. These include: vernacular concepts of territory (definitions of what actually is a “province”); the quality, focus, and methods of data gathering in contemporary geographic descriptions, cartographies, and other sources; the lack of definition of interior borders; the sometimes contradictory divisions in military, civil, ecclesiastical, and financial districts; as well as the general discrepancy between administrative control and political claims. And as if these aspects were not enough, there are the competing claims on territories of sovereignty in Latin America, which —by applying the uti possidetis juris principle— are largely based on colonial territories. In the last part, we outline the basic concept of a spatial database which tries to respond to the raised issues and furthermore incorporates a chronological axis. The model is illustrated by giving the example of the Puno-region.


Historical GIS; WebGIS; vernacular GIS; database design; colonial administration; socioeconomic history; bourbon reforms

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