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Book Review


Aguirre, Robert D. Informal Empire: Mexico and Central America in Victorian Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). 296 pp, $67.50 cloth, $22.50 paper. 


     This is a strong, tightly written narrative, employing theory and documentation in search of the elusive imperial quest into cultural expropriation. Robert D. Aguirre succeeds in bringing light to a largely untapped area: Latin American inclusion in the circle of European imperial ambition in the nineteenth century. The British Empire itself has been written about in relation to its economic ties (and domination) over the economies of Latin America. In Mexico, British investment in mining and oil kept the "informal empire" in sound financial condition through the start of the Revolution of 1910. Here, author Aguirre effectively taps a varied pool of documents and early accounts, arguing that early British appropriation of pre-Columbian artifacts from Mexico and Central America demonstrates a concrete design for empire in the region.

     In a "big picture" account, the author also describes the enterprise of British adventurers, writers, and impresarios in bringing the exotic world of Mesoamerica to the Victorian public. From the exhibitions of artifacts and replicas beginning in the 1820s, to popular panoramic displays, to the "freak show," the author looks into different facets of the British imperial mindset as it related to Latin America. Without the collections of documents that highlight, say, British involvement in Africa, this is an ambitious work. The historical record of "informal empire" remains more nebulous. As a result, generous amounts of theory are woven into the chapters, as well as anecdotal evidence in the form of statements made by those involved.

     The book's four chapters delve into varied aspects of the informal empire, each its own story. It starts with the travels and appropriations of ruins, notably in the explorations of William Bullock, who staged the first London exhibitions of Mesoamerican artifacts, which in turn were sold to the British Museum. His show, presented in his Egyptian Hall, drew sizable crowds of patrons. Another exhibit he created featured a panoramic Mexican landscape, dwellings, artisan products, and an actual Mexican in traditional clothing.

     The next three chapters deal with the panorama phenomena as it applied to Mexico and other regions; the "plot" among high-level British officials to extract ruins from Central America; and exhibitions of Central American indigenous children, a British example of exotic "others" on display for an eager public—and the Queen. In his epilogue, Aguirre describes the nineteenth-century work of British author H. Rider Haggard, creator of the Victorian-era tale Montezuma's Daughter and other novels of the genre–bringing the exotic to the public.

     The overriding theme of this work is the perception of things Latin American, though the lens of empire expressed by British participants in these various endeavors. William Bullock, in his popular travel account of Mexico (1824), described the vast mineral wealth of the country, peppering it with the language of empire, where "the eye takes in the greater part of the vale (sic) of Mexico" and "commands" of its plains (21). This statement, designed to promote British investment, correlated with Bullock's Mexican exhibitions, the intent of which was to present a geographic product wipe for plucking, as it were. The theme is followed up in the next chapter, where panoramic exhibitions of the Mexican landscape demonstrate aspects of "visually imagined subjugation" (43). In the latter two chapters, the anecdotal evidence is used to place such exhibitions and shows into a wider scheme of British Empire in the Americas.

     The difficulty, again, in capturing the phenomenon of "informal empire" is that there is no hard-and-fast body of evidence to support the author's argument. Questions inevitably arise. There is no doubt that drawing the interest of potential investors was part of Bullock's design in Mexico. In detailed descriptions of Britain's panoramic displays of Mexico, created for the benefit of the public, the use of imperialist language is palpable: In one section, the Valley of Mexico is a "vast amphitheater." However, whether a panorama "retroactively commemorates" a "second conquest," as Aguirre argues in one passage, is a leap of faith, as actual documentary proof is elusive. Is Bullock simply an example of the individual British adventurer in Mexico, perceiving, along with others, a potential for untapped wealth at the expense of a poorer nation? Were panoramas of the nineteenth century simply a popular phenomenon onto itself, since such displays depicted both the European and non-Western worlds? The answer—without theoretical underpinnings—is "yes" to both depending on who is interpreting the material.

     Plentiful background information is also presented in this book. For example, the author describes how Mexican politicians, increasingly aware of the cultural expropriation taking place, condemned such actions and took legislative steps against them. This is an area that begs for further study, and it is largely unexplored. And, although not capturing "voices" of the Indians, Aguirre notes how people who lived among the ruins remained unresponsive to European inquiries. (Their own histories relating to the artifacts are perhaps still unrevealed to outsiders, as were the Mayan "books" of the Chulam Balam until fairly recent times.) The fourth chapter, on the career of two (microcephalic) children from El Salvador, billed as the "Aztec Lilliputians," in many ways highlights the growth of "scientific" racism. A fascinated public lined up to see them (as did Queen Victoria), and men of universities poked and prodded them. But it is hard to argue that this case, though tragic, is more than "freak show" exploitation, albeit along racist lines.

     The book's important historical contribution is contained in the third chapter, where the author presents a case study largely ignored in previous scholarship. This uncovered paper trail entails some sixty documents, now housed in the British foreign and colonial office archives. It outlines the "plot" instigated by Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston and British Museum officials to coordinate the excavation and shipment of Mayan ruins from northern Central America–hopefully before Americans counterparts lifted them. In an effective analysis, the author also describes the overextended nature of the Empire, the imperial obsession with paperwork, and the incestuous nature of British imperial bureaucracy, an upper-class institution made up of individuals familiar with one another. In the end, this attempt at cultural expropriation failed to pick up momentum, mostly because of slow-moving bureaucracies. Here Aguirre presents a fascinating account of "informal empire," from beginning to end a solid account.

     This work is well-suited for courses in world history or modern imperialism, either in senior undergraduate seminars or at the graduate level, and it is written in accessible narrative form; not simply a dry presentation of "evidence." Technically rooted in imperialism studies, the fragmentary record of "informal empire" also makes the book an excellent account of trans-Atlantic relations in the nineteenth century. It brings Latin America—especially Mexico—firmly into the Western sphere of economic and political dominance that accelerated in the mid-nineteenth century. In addition, the thematic approach of this book provides a panoramic view of the British imperialist mind as applied to the Americas.

E. Mark Moreno is a Doctoral Candidate in History at Washington State University. He has published research on Latino street gangs in the Pacific Northwest, and is currently writing his dissertation on Mexican nationalism and warfare during the French Intervention (1862–1867). He teaches world history and courses on Latin America at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, WA. He can be reached at


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