This website was created for classroom use by Peter Bakewell, a historian who has written several books and a textbook on Latin American history. The site has about 72 images (including paintings, woodcuts, photographs and graphs), 18 written texts (poems, letters, reports, maps) and two songs (which can be heard using RealAudio Player). There is a chronology of the period and a comparative chronology located at the beginning of the “author/creator” index. There are nine Thinksheets, webpages that link several related documents on a particular topic and pose questions, inviting students to analyze documents and develop their own interpretations. The documents are indexed by period, author/creator, and object type. The majority of the documents are from the 16th and 17th centuries and deal with contact, conquest, and colonial economic, social, and political systems. There are also three paintings of the independence leader Simon Bolivar and one of his texts, the Jamaica Letter, as well as landscape paintings by the Mexican Jo Maa Velasco (1840-1912). While most of the documents are from Mexico, the Andes, Caribbean, Central America and Brazil are also represented.

The transcriptions and translations are excellent and the quality of the images is generally good. The images and documents are not always footnoted, which will frustrate those wanting more information about a particular document. The contextualization is inconsistent, probably because the site was designed for use in college classes taught by Latin Americanists (and it is great for that setting). For example, there are two good images of Olmec heads, but their dates, location, and significance are not discussed. Some of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz’s poems are included, and the chronology lists the dates of her life, but there is no other information about the 17th-century nun-scholar. However, non-experts can remedy this situation by either consulting a textbook (Bakewell’s own A History of Latin America [Blackwell Publishers, 1997] is very good) or by consulting related websites. For example, the Mesoamerican Encyclopedia has basic information about the Olmecs and other ancient civilizations. For Sor Juana see The Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz Project (mostly in Spanish).

The nine Thinksheets, providing readymade exercises using specific documents, are useful for non-experts as well as experts. For example, the castas Thinksheet has images of 18th-century caste paintings that show different racial mixtures that were possible in the colonial period, paired with commentaries on racially-mixed people written by travelers in the Americas. In addition to the questions posed in the Thinksheet, teachers could ask students to examine the paintings and think about who their intended audience was and what ideas about racial mixing and the qualities of different groups they convey. (The paintings were produced by colonial artists for Spanish and Creole elites.)

These paintings could also be combined with other images from this site, including the de Bry paintings of Amerindians, Europeans, and Africans in the Caribbean and the Jean Lery engraving of Brazilian natives (both 16th-century) to discuss European ideas about non-Europeans. Did 18th-century Spanish American ideas about castas, with whom Spaniards in the Americas interacted every day, share any similarities with 16th-century Europeans’ ideas about the Amerindians whom they had just encountered? Teachers could ask students how historians could use these images. Can they be used to understand aspects of colonial life? Can they be used to learn about the lives or ideas of the subjects themselves (Amerindians, castas) in addition to the points of view of the European and European-American painters and patrons? Students can also compare these images with 18th-century European images of Africans and discuss the similarities and differences among the images. How are the ideas of the artist expressed? Were these images ultimately more about Europeans than their subjects? This site provides a number of opportunities for students to analyze visual and written texts, and to think about the way historians interpret documents to write history.

Reviewed by Joan Bristol, George Mason University
How to Cite This Source
Joan Bristol, Colonial Latin America in World History Commons,