Barbara E. Mundy

Indigenous Sovereignty Out of Time

With the overthrow of Mexica monarchs of Tenochtitlan in 1521, Spanish conquistadors declared victory over these Indigenous rulers and claimed the territory that we know today as Mexico as the domain of Charles V, King of Spain. In setting up this territorial claim, they negated the considerable assistance of other Indigenous groups, eager to throw off the Mexica yoke. In the following decades, Spanish sovereignty largely consisted of the ability of crown and conquistadors to extract tribute from Indigenous communities; nonetheless, a staggering amount of Indigenous wealth was transferred to Europe. In this, Spaniards capitalized on pre-existent tribute networks, compelling Indigenous lords to deliver tribute, punishing those contesting their sovereignty with spectacular shows of violence. Through such means, over the course of the century, Spanish sovereignty evolved from de jure to de facto.

The three maps in this mini-essay were all created outside of Mexico, and show how maps help visualize, as well as contest, claims of sovereignty over territory. The earliest, showing the capital city of Tenochtitlan, sets up a visual contest between the flag of the Spanish king, prominently placed at the top of the map, and the architectural presence of the Mexica temple precinct, which dominates the map’s center. The second map, likely from the eighteenth century, reveals how historic Indigenous sovereignty, embodied by the two anachronistic “Mexica” figures, was still imagined as a feature of Mexico by its British creator. The third map comes from an atlas of North America produced in the United States; soon after it was made, US forces would invade Mexico and claim much of the land that the map documents as Mexican national territory, including California and the Southwest.

Map of Tenochtitlan and the Gulf of Mexico

Unknown author


Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Providence, R.I.

This map depicts the great Mexica, or Aztec, city of Tenochtitlan, today Mexico City, before its fall to Spanish forces. At center is the island city; around the edge of the lake other cities are shown at smaller scale. Historians estimate that the region may have had a population of 250,000 people, equal to Europe’s largest cities at the time. The map was created as part of the publication of one of the letters that the conquistador Hernán Cortés sent to his monarch, Charles V, ruler of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire in 1520, describing the then-autonomous city. But in the middle of the sheet, along the top edge of the map, the mapmaker has set a large flag bearing the double-headed eagle, symbol of the Holy Roman Empire, perhaps because the Mexica had lost their sovereignty by the time the map was published.

Collage map of Mexico City, with “Mexica” inhabitants

Unknown author

Possibly 18th century

Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

This is a unique collage. To make it, its creator pasted an eighteenth-century etched map of Mexico City onto the sheet and then added, in tones of brown wash, somewhat fanciful “Aztec” or “Mexica” figures to the left foreground. It thus compresses time, because the Mexica would have last been sovereign rulers of the city in early sixteenth century. It was inserted as an extra-illustration, meant to personalize a published copy of the letters of the British writer Horace Walpole (1717 – 1797). We do not know who the creator of the illustration was but the fabrication of such anachronous imagery shows a kind of imaginative violation—just as Mexico was emerging from the eighteenth century as a sovereign nation, this British creator was restoring ancient Mexica rule.

Mexico, Central America

Samuel Breese (1802-1873) and Sidney E. Morse (1794-1871)


David Rumsey Map Collection

Part of a larger atlas, this sheet map of Mexico captures the extent of the country during the brief period (1821-1846) after its independence from Spain and before the start of the Mexican-American war. Its northern border once extended to the forty-second parallel, which today marks the divide between California and Oregon, and the Bay Area is visible in the upper left of the colored area marking Mexico’s territory. When compared to present-day boundaries, the map reveals Mexico’s dramatic loss of territory and reminds us that territorial sovereignty was in flux across the American continents during the nineteenth century. It also provides a historical dimension to present-day contests over the Mexico-US border, a battleground for questions of national sovereignty.

Barbara E. Mundy (Tulane University) is a historian of art whose scholarship dwells in zones of contact between Native peoples and settler colonists as they forged new visual cultures in the Americas. She has been particularly interested in the social construction of space and its imaginary, which was the subject of her first book, The Mapping of New Spain (2000). Her most recent book, The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City (2015), draws on Indigenous texts and representations to counter a colonialist historiography and to argue for the city’s nature as an Indigenous city through the sixteenth century. She completed her PhD in Art History at Yale University.