In Search of the Heroic City: Cartagena de Indias, 1821–2021 – Winner, the Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting, 2021

The Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting 2021
The following is an abridgement of the winning essay, which can be found here.

Yvette Siegert, Merton College, Oxford
DPhil student Medieval & Modern Languages

In order to consult the historical archives in Cartagena, Colombia, you have no choice but to visit the Palace of the Inquisition. You climb a grand colonial staircase, past displays of religious iconography and authentic torture devices, to the only air-conditioned room in the building. There you meet with Don Aníbal, the archivist, who invites you to sit in front of a blinking computer screen and describe what you are looking for. Birth certificates, newspaper folios, fin-de-siècle magazines, city plans, or revolutionary pamphlets – it makes no difference: Don Aníbal can coax almost any resource out of the cumbersome digital database that only he can decipher.

The problem lies in procuring the desired item itself, since it may no longer be available. One of the obstacles to preserving materials in Cartagena is the intense year-round tropical heat and humidity. Onsite documents have suffered the effects of dampness or flooding; various irreplaceable volumes have disintegrated owing to disorder or neglect. Digitisation efforts have not been able to keep up, and many documents of national interest are stored in far-off Bogotá, the capital of Colombia.

My aim as a collector parallels my research aims as a D.Phil student: to understand how Cartagena managed to survive its century-long stagnation since Independence and become a central inspiration for important works of Spanish American political thought and cultural production.

The reason my collection keeps expanding – one extra suitcase per visit – is owing to my desire to develop my D.Phil thesis into a cultural history of the city, one that will not only trace its broader intellectual and literary currents but also incorporate details of its astonishing contradictions and inequalities, while capturing its vibrant whimsy, resilience, and creativity. This book collection is a loving act of resistance against forgetting the history of a city that is not only essential to my intellectual growth but also, I’ve discovered, a part of my family heritage.

Some items came into the collection thanks to my friendship with Ibeth, the first person I ever met in Cartagena. Ibeth – we share a name – manages Librería Los Mártires, a famous makeshift bookstall in the archway of the clock tower in the heart of the city. During my fieldwork, I’d visit her on most days and stay for a cup of hot tinto under the breezy arches.  Ibeth  introduced me to Ruby Rumié’s Tejiendo Calle/Weaving Streets, an artbook from a ground-breaking exhibition, at Nohra Haime Gallery, that portrayed fifty of Cartagena’s famous Afro-Colombian palenqueras, or street vendors, who are depicted in brochures and guidebooks in familiar costumes bearing the colours of the Colombian flag.  This exhibition called urgent attention to the women’s exploitation in a gentrifying city where they are icons of its largest economy.

My favourite workplace in Cartagena is a bookshop named Ábaco, where the shop-sellers let customers sit for hours with a book and a glass of coffee (or cocktail). There I obtained Ortíz Cassiani’s account of the Cartagena railway, a rare work of scholarship that shows how the ‘devil train’ modernised the city and connected it to the interior metropolitan centre.

One of the most unusual items in my collection is the recent full-length comic Lezo, about the blind, one-legged hero who miraculously staved off an invasion by Sir Edward Vernon, who was so confident of a victorious plunder that he had celebratory commemorative coins minted in England ahead of his sea voyage. This book, crowd-sourced and self-published in Spain, calls attention to a nearly-forgotten hero of Spanish America.

Collecting books about Cartagena is part of an attempt to resist the erasure of the city’s past while remaining hopeful about the prospect of peace in Colombia. That optimism is sustained by the friendships that make my collection possible.

Books mentioned in this extract:

Rumié, Ruby. Tejiendo Calle/Weaving Streets. Cartagena de Indias: Villegas, 2018.

Ortíz Cassiani, Javier. Un diablo al que le llaman tren. Bogotá: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2018.

Miranda, Ángel et al. Lezo, Parte I: La toma de Bocachica, illus. Guillermo Mogorrón. Madrid: Espadas de Fin del Mundo, 2020.

I am grateful to the Socity for Latin American Studies, the Clarendon Fund, and Merton College, Oxford, for research funds that made it possible to carry out my 2019 fieldwork in Colombia and acquire several items for this collection. – Yvette Siegert

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