An ambitious book about Bolivia chronicles the nation’s rise and fall.
Born and raised in Spain by British parents, Fulford (Last Plane to Cochabamba: An Extraordinary Journey to the Five Corners of Bolivia, 2014, etc.) traveled extensively and became fascinated with Bolivia, “among the least known and least understood” of Latin American nations. Rather than writing a complete history of the country, he attempts to answer two questions: how the Charcas Empire (present-day Bolivia) became so large and powerful in its colonial days, and how it lost half its land and much of its wealth and prestige after declaring independence. Fulford starts, briefly, with pre-Incan Indians and subsequent conquests by the Inca and Spanish empires. The discovery of a huge lode of silver changed the course of history, Fulford writes, stimulating more exploration, settlement, and conflict with Indians and neighboring countries. Opening a route to ship silver to Spain, Bolivia fed Spanish coffers for three centuries until the ore became scarce. Neighboring countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile vied with Bolivia for land, resources, and trade routes, and battled over borders. In 1825, Bolivia declared independence following a 16-year war between republicans and royalists, but its neighbors’ expansionary efforts continued. The nation lost land and resources, often because corrupt Bolivian leaders handed them over to other countries for, the author writes, “a handful of dollars and a trainload of promises.” Fulford creates a useful sketch of this overlooked and landlocked nation, spicing it with lively battle descriptions and colorful cameos of historical figures, such as Lt. Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett, an English adventurer who disappeared mysteriously with his son after crossing the Rio Paratinga in 1925. Many of Fulford’s sentences begin with the qualifier “unfortunately,” and the modern history of this resource-rich but cash-poor country indeed seems to have been a series of unfortunate events. Some of the well-written chapters are too short to fully explain the multitude of conflicts and personalities. But Fulford succeeds in explaining how Bolivia lost much of its wealth and power, although he doesn’t offer deep insights into the more difficult question of why. Maps help chart the country’s evolution through the centuries, but the addition of an index would have been helpful.
A well-researched, vibrant primer on the history of a largely overlooked country.