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Finding “The Missing Link”: An Interview with Carmen Benito-Vessels

Carmen Benito-Vessels talks about her newest project, a StoryMap Collection entitled "The Missing Link"


Interviewer: Alice Benjamin, GIS Graduate Assistant, GIS and Data Service Center, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park


About the Researcher:



Carmen Benito-Vessels is a Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Maryland.. She is the author of several books, has published numerous articles, and conducts research in the fields of Medieval historiography and poetry, the interaction of medieval literary genres, and Hispanic Philology, among others. Learn more about Carmen Benito-Vessels and her work here:


"The Missing Link" is an interactive guide, presented in a StoryMap format, to accompany Benito-Vessels' research about early modern Spain and the early modern United States. Her work has been recently added in the Big10 geoportal. The primary goal of this project is to bring to light 16th-century colonial events that took place in the Eastern United States and shaped the history of both the US and Spain. Interact with the Missing Link Collection to learn more!


"The Missing Link" StoryMap collection was supported by the GIS and Data Service Center at University of Maryland Libraries.


How does this project intersect with your classes and curricula?


Benito-Vessels: All my classes go hand and hand with my research projects. I'm very fortunate the Department of Spanish and Portuguese has provided me the opportunity to be able to do this. The most relevant courses for this project are two undergraduate classes I taught in 2010 and 2014. 


The research I conducted for a 2010 summer class ––"Spanish Treasures in the US" –– was the point of departure for my "Missing Link Digital Collection". This class was about 15th-17th -century Spanish, literature, art history, and politics. I taught the class on campus but to provide a vivid context to the course readings, I invited my students to Washington DC's National Gallery of Art (NGA) and the Library of Congress (LOC).  Why did I do that during the weekends? The answer is straightforward: The Spanish Renaissance-Baroque collection at the NGA is an extraordinary resource for a visual understanding of Spanish Mystic, Picaresque, and Baroque literature. On the other hand, the LOC preserves one of Thomas Jefferson's copies of Quixote de la Mancha. Don Quixote was one of Jefferson's favorite books. He used the text in its original language to learn Spanish and had his children do the same. Jefferson owned a number of different editions over his lifetime.


Also at the LOC, we saw the only known copy of Martin Wandsemüller's 1507 planisphere; this is called the "Baptismal Certificate of the New World" because it is the first map bearing the name "America". Its connection with Spain is the fact that the depiction of North America was drawn following the information provided in 1500 by Americo Vespucci, who was working for the Spanish Crown at the House of Trade in Seville. Americo Vespucci's letter, also at the LOC, is addressed to King Ferdinand of Aragón, Spain. Finally, students saw that another important map for the common history of Spain and the US is Diego Ribero's 1529 map, also held at the LOC. 


The abovementioned 2014 class was a semester-long undergraduate senior seminar–– "Spain and North America's Atlantic Coast: A Common History" –– and its contents were very closely related to my "Missing Link" StoryMap project. With assistance from the UMD Libraries GIS and Data Service Center, my students and I were introduced to the storytelling capabilities of the ArcGIS StoryMap application and other techniques, such as georeferencing cartographic elements. This new venue fascinated me and –using the series of maps that I had previously found– I continued researching the history of Cartography, the complex politics that surrounded cartographers and cosmographers of Imperial Spain, the common history of my native country, and the US. The only remaining question was how to put it together.


Image 1. Martin Waldseemüller, 1529 planisphere. Depicts Americo Vespucci's description of North America.



Why did you choose StoryMaps to tell this story?


Benito-Vessels: The Spanish presence in the US has been studied for generations, especially that of the South, Southwest, and present-day Florida; however, until recently, the Atlantic Coast and the common links between Spain and North America have attracted very little attention. Since 2010 I knew I had a story to tell, and the maps and documents that I have collected were a great tool to bring to light, even if only a glimpse, a forgotten chapter in US history.  


I made several rudimentary attempts to present a visual narrative based both on historical literature and on the maps of my "virtual collection". I try to make distant history appealing and readable. Let's face it, reading, for example, the 700-page-long epic poem La Florida by Alonso Gregorio de Escobedo is very hard work and is rarely considered a relaxing enterprise, but this 16th-century narrative is the first epic poem about North America and describes the Anglo-Spanish-French rivalry in Colonial Florida. Just showing maps does not tell a story for a newcomer, but StoryMaps does.


I was introduced to StoryMaps by Janel Brennan, the head of the University of Maryland College Park's IT department at the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures (SLLC). Sometimes I think that she was probably exhausted from my almost daily inquiries; she also helped me find technical support through the Undergraduate Teaching Assistant Program at UM, and that was it. My undergraduate assistant, Isabelle Watriss, came on board, and we started "sailing" in my quest for "The Missing Link".



What role do maps play in the history that you uncover? How do the maps from the periods you examine help you understand the perspectives of the people who created them?


Benito-Vessels: Studying maps had a major impact on my career and became crucial when I realized how they helped to make the Early Modern Times appealing to 21st-century students. Technology was a challenge. Talking about colonial Florida produces a different effect than looking at a map of colonial Florida, especially because it had imprecise geographical limits; according to some cartographers, colonial Florida expanded all the way to the coast –but not the interior– of Northern Cape Cod. In that respect, Colonial Florida included the coastal region of today's Maryland, and its epicenter was in today's Georgia (see maps in "The Missing Link").


I had been interested in historical depiction since the beginning of my career, and that included "prose cartography". My first academic book (1991) is about the 13th-14th century (re)creation of writing and the politics of territoriality in Castilian History. I had studied medieval chronicles both as literary works and political narratives. In colonial times, maps were as powerful as chronicles; colonial maps were both artistic objects and historical artifacts. The combination of these three fields: history, cartography, and literary narratives helped me to examine the North American Spanish Colonial period in a transatlantic and hemispheric context. This proved to be a cohesive trajectory that culminated in my 2018 book España y la costa atlántica de los EE UU. Cuatro personajes del siglo XVI en busca de autor (New York: Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española, 2018) [Spain and the US Atlantic Coast. Four 16th century Characters in Search of an Author].


Maps were, and are, absolutely fundamental for my book. They represent the converging point of sociopolitical and cultural interests and, again "the (re)creation" of history. As an example, for the period that I study, we just need to look at John Farrer's, Pieter van der Aa's, or Giovanni da Verrazano's maps included in my virtual collection. Farrer wanted to show Drake that he could reach China through Virginia's waters, and he located an imaginary "Sea of China" in northern Virginia; Pieter Van der Aa illustrated his 1707 map of Chicora following a 16th-century Native American short story "rendered" in Spanish; Giovanni da Verrazzano needed a sea to prove his point that North America was an island, so he invented one. He did it with such convincing arguments that the Verrazzano's Sea made it to the famous c. 1550 Sebastian Münster planisphere. As Karl Schlögel demonstrated (In Space We Read Time: On the History of Civilization and Geopolitics, 2016), there is no such thing as an impartial map and all histories start with a map.  


Image 2. Sebastian Münster, 1550 planisphere showing invented Verrazzano's Sea



What do you hope this story will help people understand?


Benito-Vessels: I hope this collection contributes to a better understanding of North America's past, including the more than 300 years of Iberian presence in the entire Atlantic region. I also want to draw objective attention to the Spanish interaction with Native American, Portuguese, French, and English populations in that area. Leaving aside prejudices or rightful criticism, I would love to see the names of 16th-17th century Spanish and Portuguese explorers, cartographers, literary authors, linguist-missionaries, woman settlers, merchants, and adventurers, as well as their stories, included in the US textbooks used from elementary school to college. John Hann identified 128 missions and indoctrination centers in Florida, and this number by itself proves that there is more than just the 1565 Saint Augustine Mission.  


I also hope that the maps and data provided in "The Missing Link" help to dismantle some of the stereotypes of colonial Spanish History. Finally, I hope to encourage others to continue this multidisciplinary path of hemispheric research, ideally as a collaborative project. 



How did you find all of the maps that you included? Did you need to create any yourself?


Benito-Vessels: The Cartography department at the Library of Congress was a great start. The literature about the History of Cartography, Crucial Maps, and related bibliography, was the second step. Most of the colonial maps are digitized; you just have to know what you are looking for. This is usually solved through a study of geography based on the already mentioned "prose cartography" and through cross-referencing literary texts, historical chronicles, and other narratives.  


Luckily, I did not have to create a map! Paul E. Hoffman, the Universities of Florida, California, Texas, and Michigan, and Brown University have great digital cartographic collections. The maps were all right there in front of us. All we needed to do was narrate their story. Putting it all together only required patience and technical assistance. 

Image 3. Diego Ribero, 1529 planisphere (Source: Library of Congress )



Is there anything else you want to share about your project?

Benito-Vessels: Spanish has been spoken in the US since 1510. It is well documented that, at that time, native American speakers of many different linguistic families worked, willingly or unwillingly, in administrative positions with Spanish Representatives. I emphasize the word "administrative" because there is no question that they understood each other in a common language, which I call a hypothetical "proto-romance language". To this subject, and only referring to the Florida Timucuan tribe, I have dedicated a chapter of my unpublished next book entitled: "Otro cincel para Rosetta. España y el español en la temprana modernidad de los EE. UU" [A new Chisel for Rosetta. Spain and Spanish Language in Early Modern US"]. Again, much more work needs to be done. Although I'm not going to embark on it, a US linguistic atlas that includes the Origins of the Spanish Language in North America's history would be a dream come true.


I want to highlight that between 1521 and 1570 Pedro de Quexo, Fernando Gordillo, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés did not settle in Maryland, but they described and navigated in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. The subsequent voyages sponsored by the Spanish Crown led to the 1570 establishment of Ajacán in Kiskiak, Virginia.


I would like to conclude with a personal note that justifies the title of my StoryMap, "The Missing Link": thirty-five years ago when I came to Maryland, I didn't know that its bay, "Saint Mary's Bay", was a hydronym given and commonly used by Spanish navigators, cartographers, and settlers. Alonso de Chaves' 1520 Espejo de Navegantes [Art of Navigation] has specific data about this area (See Part III in the "Missing Link"). I also didn't know that San Miguel de Gualdape (coastal mid-South Carolina) was founded in 1526 and, as such, even though it was of short duration, was the first European colony in North America. This leads me to wonder why that information is rarely mentioned in the Spanish Colonial History textbooks most commonly studied.


Also, on a positive note, I'm glad to say that Ayllón's voyages and the establishment of San Miguel de Gualdape are included in today's pamphlets and websites of South Carolina's Georgetown County Historical Society and the Hobcaw Barony Foundation. I recently had the honor to meet with members of both institutions and I am happily reassured that my StoryMap and their record updating must keep going.