Novelist who loved geography set a story in Mexico, which his publisher labeled South America

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Sep 082016

Several famous writers wrote about Mexico despite having no direct geographic experience of the country.

One of the most famous was  Jules Verne. Verne (1828-1905) popularized geography and was one of the pioneers of travel stories and science fiction.

Many his works have undeniably strong connections to geography, including:

  • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a submarine voyage with Captain Nemo as the enigmatic hero
  • A Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which Prof Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel descend into an extinct volcano in Iceland and discover an underground world
  • From the Earth to the Moon, a vivid forerunner of future space travel
  • Around the World in Eighty Days, where eccentric Englishman Phileas Fogg races round the world to try and win a bet
  • Five Weeks in a Balloon, in which the heroes drift across unexplored areas in Central Asia and The Mysterious Island

Curiously, one of Verne’s first published stories, was set in Mexico, despite the fact that he had never visited the country. The original title Verne gave the story was North America. Historical studies. The first ships of the Mexican Navy. Meticulous as he was in regards to his geography, Verne was understandably aggrieved when the publisher changed North America to South America without even asking him! The story was first published in 1851, and later reworked as A Drama in Mexico.

The Asia; oil on canvas

The Asia; oil on canvas by Angel Cortellini Sánchez, dated 1896

The plot is set in 1825, shortly after Mexican Independence from Spain (1821). Mexico needed a strong navy to protect its extensive territory, which then stretched as far south as present-day Costa Rica. Antonio de Medina, the first Secretary of War & Navy, had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He persuaded the Mexican Congress to give high priority to the formation of a navy. Foreign interventions later in the century showed how prescient de Medina had been.

Verne’s story tells how the Mexican Navy obtained its first two warships, the former Spanish vessels Asia (later renamed the Congreso Mexicano) and Constanzia, following a mutiny by their crews.

The locales used in the story include:

  • four Pacific coast ports: Acapulco, San Blas, Zacatula and Tehuantepec
  • the villages or towns of Cigualan [Cihuatlán], Chilpanzingo [Chilpancingo], Tasco [Taxco] and Cuernavaca,
  • the caverns of Cacahuimilchan [Cacahuamilpa]
  • the pre-Hispanic site of Xochicalco
  • Popocatepelt [Popocatepetl] Volcano

Read the original: Complete 1876 text in French as a webpage or Alternative complete text in French

If he had never visited Mexico, how did Verne acquire the range of geographic knowledge displayed in this story? Like many other geographers before and after, he relied on qualitative fieldwork—gaining his knowledge by talking to seafarers in his native port of Nantes, and through conversations with Jacques Arago, a Parisian friend who had fought in Mexico’s War of Independence.

Verne’s failure to visit Mexico certainly did not mean that his works had no significance to the people there. Indeed, as social historian William H. Beezley reminds us:

“His novel Around the World in 80 Days, published in 1873, had great popularity in Mexico, where many writers made comparisons between the characters in the novel and the nation’s first international scientific expedition in 1874 that also circumnavigated the globe…”   Mexican National Identity: memory, innuendo and popular culture).

The main purpose of Mexico’s first international scientific expedition in 1874 was to observe, from Japan, the transit of Venus across the Sun.

Verne became the most widely read French author of all time, and one of the most translated authors anywhere in the world.

And what became of the Mexican Navy?

Today, the Mexican Navy (Secretaría de Marina) has over 55,500 personnel, 300 ships and 70 aircraft. Its main tasks are to protect oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, assist in the fight against drug traffickers, and aid in hurricane relief efforts.

Original article as it appeared on MexConnect

Sep 012010

Several famous writers wrote about Mexico despite having no direct geographic experience of the country. In an earlier post, we looked at the case of Jules Verne. This time, we look at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

There is some sound historical geography in the famous poem The Bells of San Blas, yet author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had never ever visited the town.

The San Blas referred to in the poem is on the Pacific coast, in the state of Nayarit. It is a small town with several good hotels and restaurants, and a birding “hot spot”. The variety of habitats around the town, ranging from sandy beaches and luxuriant mangroves to palm plantations and tropical swamps, have attracted more than 500 different bird species, or about half of all the bird species known in Mexico.

The town’s economy was not always geared to tourism. For more than a century, San Blas, founded in 1768, functioned as an important port and boat-building center. The vessels built in San Blas included those used by Junípero Serra to establish missions in California. To ensure that taxes were paid on imports, an imposing customs house was built on the shore. To guarantee safe passage, a church dedicated to “Our Lady of the Sailor’s Rosary” stands atop the steep-sided Cerro de San Basilio which overlooks the town. In the church hung the famous bronze bells.

San Blas Customs House

The former Customs House of San Blas in the evening light, 1989. Photo: Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Time conspired against the port of San Blas. The harbor silted up, the coastline gradually inched its way further west. Over the years, other ports such as Acapulco and Mazatlan became more important. San Blas declined. The customs house and church were abandoned, transformed from bustling buildings into evocative ruins. By the end of the 19th century, the port was very much a “has been”.

In March, 1882, far away from Mexico, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (best known for Paul Revere’s Ride, The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline) lay on his deathbed. Longfellow, born in 1807, was a prolific poet and accomplished linguist. After a long and illustrious career, which included teaching at Harvard College, his life was now drawing to a close, even as the distant port of San Blas was falling into disuse.

By a happy coincidence, the March 1882 issue of Harper’s new monthly magazine (Volume 64, Issue 382) contained an article by William Henry Bishop, entitled “Typical Journeys and Country Life in Mexico”. Bishop’s article described several Pacific coast ports, including San Blas:

“Acapulco has the most complete and charming harbor, and an old fort dismantled by the French, of the order of Morro Castle. Manzanillo is a small strip of a place on the beach, built of wood, with quite an American look. The volcano of Colima appears inland, with a light cloud of smoke above it. San Blas, larger, but still hardly more than an extensive thatched village, has, on a bluff beside it, the ruins of a once more substantial San Blas. Old bronze bells brought down from it have been mounted in rude frames a few feet high to serve the purpose of the present poor church, which is without a belfry, and this is called in irony ‘the Tower of San Blas.'”

The article was accompanied by an illustration showing four bells swinging from a rickety wooden frame.

The Bells of San Blas, the illustration that sparked Longfellow's poetic imagination.

The article and its accompanying illustration prompted Longfellow to write what would prove to be his last poem, entitled The Bells of San Blas.

Like the port at that time, Longfellow saw the bells as relics from a byegone age:

They are a voice of the Past,
Of an age that is fading fast,
Of a power austere and grand;
When the flag of Spain unfurled
Its folds o’er this western world,
And the Priest was lord of the land.

The chapel that once looked down
On the little seaport town
Has crumbled into the dust;
And on oaken beams below
The bells swing to and fro,
And are green with mould and rust.

Several days later, Longfellow penned the last stanza, with a suggestion of optimism for the future:

O Bells of San Blas, in vain
Ye call back the Past again!
The Past is deaf to your prayer;
Out of the shadows of night
The world rolls into light;
It is daybreak everywhere.

On March 24, Longfellow, who had never had the good fortune to visit San Blas in person, passed away.

Should you visit San Blas today, spare a thought for this genius of a poet who was able to capture so eloquently the declining fortunes of this once-great port.

What further stanzas remain to be written in the story of San Blas, now revived by its important naval base and ornithological tourism?

Original article on MexConnect.

The development of Mexico’s transportation system is discussed in chapter 17 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…