Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala: A Historical Geography of the Cuchumatán Highlands, 1500-1821


254 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-0433-8




Reviewed by Ashley Thomson

Ashley Thomson is a full librarian at Laurentian University and co-editor or co-author of nine books, most recently Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide, 1988-2005.


Stop. If you’re skimming CBRA and you’re tempted to skip this book because of its title, read on.

True, the Cuchumatán highlands located to the northwest of present-day Guatemala City are not well known. Moreover, historical geography is not, as Lovell concedes in his introduction, part of the mainstream of the discipline. Nonetheless, Lovell, currently a member of the Geography Department of Queen’s University, has given us a study whose significance should not be overlooked.

Based on his own Ph.D. research at the University of Alberta as well as on subsequent archival work, Lovell’s study focuses specifically on the changing nature of land-life relationships and on the evolution of the Cuchumatán cultural landscape from the period just before the Spanish conquest until the independence of Guatemala a little more than 300 years later.

The book is divided into three major sections: the first examines the current regional setting; the second, the period of Spanish contact and conquest (1500-1541); and the third, by far the longest, the Colonial experience (1541-1821).

It is Lovell’s view that the impact of the Spanish conquest on the natives of this region was different from what might be supposed by someone familiar with studies on less peripheral areas of the Spanish empire, such as Mexico and Peru.

To be sure, the conquest was a bloody one, shortly thereafter to be followed by a policy of Congregación, whereby, in the interests of secular and ecclesiastic efficiency, natives were herded together into little settlements. Once relocated, most natives were exploited, as they were in more central parts of the Spanish empire, as sources of labour.

And yet, because of the region’s limited economic potential, the natives of the Cuchumatán highlands were able to survive as indigenous groups, being allowed by their conquerors to live as groups within each settlement, to drift off the settlements back to their original homes, to retain their religion, and to use Spanish law to protect themselves against the conqueror.

The real threat to the survival of the natives as indigenous people, Lovell suggests, was created not by Spanish depravity and greed but inadvertently through the introduction of many old world diseases to which the natives were immunologically defenseless. During the period of study, such diseases decimated the native population.

While one regrets that Lovell did not look at other factors that may well have affected the survival of native culture — I do not know how, as a Canadian, he could have ignored the role of language — one can still appreciate this study, written in such a graceful style (complete with excerpts from the poetry of T.S. Eliot), with accompanying maps, photographs, and a glossary of Spanish terms.

Lovell’s book is then not only informative but enjoyable, deserving much more than a casual examination from any reader.


Lovell, W. George, “Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala: A Historical Geography of the Cuchumatán Highlands, 1500-1821,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 21, 2024,