Heart of a Continent: To Reach the Sea by John J. Fulford

To reach the Sea cover

To Reach the Sea:
The Creation of Bolivia and Its Extraordinary Struggle to Survive
John J. Fulford 
Astoria Press, 2014

3.5/5 Stars

It’s no secret that the vast majority of people in the United States have a woefully inadequate, if not laughable, understanding of geography. Peoples and places outside of our nation are rarely properly imagined or understood. Even our nearest neighbors suffer from our cultural and geographical failings. This is the challenge that John Fulford confronts in his history To Reach the Sea as he sets as this focus “the least know and least understood of all the nations south of the Rio Grande.”

And, far south of the Rio Grande it is. The nation of Bolivia is obscure to most North Americans but it is the heart of South America and its history will lead into nearly every other nation of the continent. Fulford doesn’t intended his book “to be a general history of Bolivia. Its purpose is to fill a large gap best illustrated by two questions. First, how did the Audiencia (imperial court) of Charcas, the future Bolivia, become so extremely large and powerful? And, second, how did the Republic of Bolivia, which inherited the empire that had once been the Audiencia of Charcas, lose fifty percent of its land area and all its power and prestige within the first century of its existence?” These are excellent, focused questions. In the course of addresses them, he does sketch a general history of the nation but stays on task to show how geography has shaped politics, industry, war, and independence.

There is nothing dry or exceedingly academic To Reach the Sea. It reads smoothly as Fulford has crafted short, easily digestible chapters that build on one another well enough to give a reader a sense of mastery. The wash of names and dates that tends to bog down most history in the minds of general readers is here absent. Replaced by a casual tone relating the complexities of the region’s history in an accessible manner. For example, Fulford explanation of how the Audiencia functioned isn’t some dry description but a dizzying depiction of people on the move and interrelations:

“The oidores, or members, of the audiencia went riding on circuit through their regions, but plaintiffs had to appear in person, no matter where they lived. Some cases thus took months, even years, to come to trial and judgment. Although the audiencia was the highest court of appeal in the colony, the plaintiff could appeal higher–to the Council of the Indies in Seville, to the kind in Madrid, or even to the pope in Rome. While the viceroy and the audiencia were supposed to check each other, the court probably had the greater power. The judges, usually three or four, could overrule their own president as well as the viceroy, but they could be vetoed only by the king himself. To keep them honest, they were forbidden to have commercial or social dealings with the citizens of their districts, a rule that was often ignored, and they were invariably penisulares, men born in Spain.”

Here we see just how knotted a system of relations the nation of Bolivia grew. From the first, the Audiencia of Charcas, then Upper Peru, briefly the giant Peru-Bolivia Confederation, and finally the Republic of Bolivia has been enmeshed in border disputes. Fulford doesn’t just give a series of events, a dull timeline. Rather, he peppers his narrative of the nation with tidbits just novel enough to perk a reader’s attention. There’s the famed Copacabana of Rio de Janeiro inspired by the Bolivian shrine of the same name on Lake Titicaca. English explorer Percy Fawcett’s expeditions of “the curious mountains of the Verde region” inspired his friend Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World, an iconic work of early science fiction. And the quirk of masses of Mennonites from Canada, the United States, and Europe invited and settling the barren Chaco region of Bolivia where “a fort would normally consist of little more than a cluster of adobe huts in a clearing with a well.”

These anecdotes seam together Fulford’s exploration of the significance of the silver city of Potosi “an extravagant place of cathedrals and palaces, of flamboyance and opulence, and of constant street battles between indolent, hot-blooded Andalusians and dour, hard-working Basques.” It was Potosi that feed the domain of the Audiencia of Charcas, which was “only slightly smaller than Argentina and considerably more than twice the size of France and Spain combined, and yet its population was less than the tiny Caribbean island of Hispaniola. This huge, empty land extended from the steamy rain forests of the Amazon to the dry coast of the Pacific. It was awkwardly shaped and practically roadless.” These aspects set the DNA, if you will, of the nascent Bolivia.

Fulford gives us descriptions of heroes like Andres de Santa Cruz and villains like the military monster General Mariano Melgarejo in Bolivia’s history. These portraits fill out the dramatic sounding treaties (Treaty of Mutual Benefits), wars (The War of the Triple Alliance), and armies (Army to Restore the Liberties of Peru) that shape the South America we know today. This history gives us not just facts but a sense of national character such as Chile’s annexation of the Atacama desert, essentially stealing outright Bolivia’s Pacific coast. And why? For shit, bat shit, “guano deposits of the atacama coast took on a new value to the fertilizer-hungry nations of the industrial world, which needed to increase food production in order to feed the workers in their crowded industrial cities.” 

The Atacama Desert

All of which leads us to understand that Bolivia isn’t some forgettable place. It is a nation whose people have been fighting from the first for its place, literally and figuratively. Fulford builds up to our contemporary era and is able to set readers up to not just understand but embrace the realization that “Bolivians have no wish to exchange the age of military conquest for the age of economic conquest.”

Tracking the rise of the nation from the Audiencia of Charcas during the age of the Spanish Empire where the silver wealth at Potosi made the region the greatest in the New World, to its struggles for independence and the aftermath that saw Upper Peru (or more accurately High Peru) see it’s Pacific coast bullied away by Chile, huge swathes of land stolen away through political machinations by Argentina and Brazil, and needless war with Paraguay that doubled that nation’s size while ultimately setting Bolivia’s fate as a landlocked nation high in the mountains. Fulford has assembled a history that is an excellent introduction to understanding a little known nation that is the literal heart of the South American continent.

To Reach the Sea is a superb introduction not only into Bolivia but also into the complex web of relations it sits at the center of in the history of South America. To understand how the nations of South America came about, there is no better starting point than understanding Bolivia and Fulford’s book is the best way to start doing so.

Author Bio


John J. Fulford was born in Barcelona, educated in England, migrated to Canada after a stint in the RAF, and taught in a one room school in the far north. He earned his B.Ed in Vancouver, taught in Canada then then eventually arrived in Southern California where he now resides in Long Beach, California. Fulford’s other books include The Complete Guide to English Spelling RulesHitchhiking to Serendip, Last Plane to Cochabamba, and To Reach the Sea


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This article was made possible thanks to support from my patrons:

Rachel Racicot 

Tyler Whitesides 

Patrick Casey


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