Colonial Scientific Literature of the Americas


A review of Mining Empire, Planting Empire: The Colonial Scientific Literatures of the Americas, by Allison Margaret Bigelow.

Mining Empire, Planting Empire is at once a comparison of colonial scientific discourse in the Spanish and English empires as well as a study of how these empires and their most characteristic sciences — metallurgy and agriculture, respectively — were interconnected. English agronomy and Spanish colonial metallurgy had shared roots in European natural philosophy and, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were applied to similar ends: naturalizing European settlement of the New World. Similarity and difference not only structure this dissertation’s argument but were essential to how the early modern writers in Allison Bigelow’s dissertation conceived of nature, particularly their perceptions of how combining two similar or two different things could generate new matter. In the colonial context, Spanish and English scientific writers focused on producing things like silver, silk, and settlers.

Bigelow’s dissertation intervenes in a growing — and, in some ways, grown — body of literature on science and empire as well as scholarship on the roles of gender in the development of science and modernity. But what makes this study innovative is that she breaks down the mono-imperial, mono-lingual, and mono-discipline structures that have characterized so many historical and literary studies about gender, imperialism, and knowledge. She thus joins scholars such as Ralph Bauer, Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, and Christopher Iannini in emphasizing how hemispheric and inter-imperial entanglements shaped colonial scientific discourse and early modern imperialism more broadly while also demonstrating the inextricability of gender from these processes.

The theories and application of Spanish metallurgy and English agronomy were different, but they developed out of a shared European milieu during the Renaissance. Bigelow elaborates this context and its place in colonial scientific discourse in Chapters 2 and 3, the first body chapters of the dissertation. Spanish and English thinkers were exposed to similar readings and curricula through a European university system in which instructors and texts travelled between regions and kingdoms. This shared education is both important to understanding seventeenth-century scientific discourses as well as a useful thread by which scholars working in inter-imperial contexts can draw connections between far-flung thinkers. One means of analyzing nature that Spanish and English writers shared was thinking analogically, a perspective with classical origins that encouraged early modern Europeans to understand the relationship between various natural things (mercury and silver, soils and seeds) within a spectrum of similarity and difference because analogy “created relationships of similarity where there was also difference” (p. 39). For Bigelow, the shared roots of English and Spanish scientific discourses — and the colonial projects that these discourses helped structure — challenges the long-standing perspective that these empires were polar opposites of each other.

There were, as Bigelow makes clear, important differences in how Spanish and English writers employed analogical reasoning. For Spain, the primary science that informed their colonization of the mineral rich regions of Mexico, Peru, and the circum-Caribbean was metallurgy. Metallurgical terms in Spanish and indigenous languages, contemporary European natural philosophy, purification technologies developed in Europe and the Americas, and the economic and spiritual ambitions of Spanish officials and enslaved black miners all combined to make the mining-based societies of Spanish America what they were. The typifying process of Spanish colonial science was amalgamation. According to some writers in Spanish America, the friendly metals silver and mercury were attracted to each other and, through the generative same-ness of this friendship, produced a new substance that enabled the extraction of metallic silver from low quality ores. Indeed, some metallurgical authors — particularly those who did not own mines such as the Potosí priest Álvaro Alonso Barba (1569-1662) — described these affective ties through a language of desire. While Bigelow does not dismiss the essentially exploitive aspects of colonial mining, she also suggests that the relationship between the (mostly) Spanish mine owners and their (mostly) indigenous laborers could also be understood as a form of Aristotelian friendship: the mutually beneficial friendship that developed between unequals, including masters and slaves. Male and female indigenous miners were, moreover, skilled in identifying ores, practiced both traditional and colonial refining methods, and maintained significant control over semi-independent networks for processing and commercializing silver. The notion that “friendly” materials and peoples could be productive was, according to Bigelow, a new theoretical innovation that diverse European and indigenous metallurgists developed as they experimented with new amalgamation technologies in the Spanish New World. The amalgamation of American ores not only brought diverse peoples together to collaborate — willingly or not — in the extraction of wealth. Spanish terms for impure ores like casta, negrillo, and mulato derived from words used to classify ethnicities that, according to some Spaniards, were less pure than themselves. Bigelow suggests that “by tracing [such] key terms […] we see how the language instantiates the very cultural and demographic incorporations that the new technology [amalgamation] would make possible” (p. 96).

While the productive sameness of friendship developed in, and was essential to, colonial metallurgy in Spanish America, productive difference informed how seventeenth-century English men and women conceived of planting commodities and colonies. For English agronomists, it was the union of opposite forces, such as male and female, that was most generative, and writers emphasized that soils and seeds should be as different from each other as possible to produce the best plants. For example, English agriculturalists argued that “cold” seeds thrived in “hot” soil (p. 58). This theory encouraged English authors to use the rhetoric of planting in their writings about colonialism. Like seeds planted in different soils, English people would be English wherever they were planted but, by planting English people in dissimilar foreign soils, the English people and nation that grew from these productive unions of difference would be improved. Thus, for at least some English writers, “that the New English soil was worse than English varieties […] meant that the region was particularly well-suited for planting English” (p. 183). Such discourse led to new planting practices and technologies in the English world as it circulated through transatlantic networks, particularly the circle of agricultural writers associated with Samuel Hartlib (ca.1600-1662). Planting offered language through which English writers could describe their expansion to Ireland, North America, and the Caribbean in self-satisfying terms and was even a “religioscientific root paradigm” that “naturalized their settlement in the New World as so many nurseries dedicated to the propagation of the gospel and the improvement of the English state” (pp. 180-181).

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 focus more particularly on individuals and groups who applied, developed, and challenged the colonial scientific perspectives that Bigelow laid out at length in previous chapters. Chapter 4 is about gender and science in the English Atlantic, particularly the sericultural experiments that Virginia Ferrar (1627-1688) performed and wrote about in England. Her father published and disseminated her writings about silkworms among the agriculturalists of the Hartlib circle, who described sericulture as an opportunity to continue planting America while also reforming it economically and spiritually. This reform was gendered: the Ferrars’ writings — particularly the always feminine descriptions of worms and their accoutrements in Virginia’s writings — created a more femininized rhetoric of colonization in which intensive laboring in small but well-ordered spaces replaced exploitive reaping of large tracts of feminized land by male agents. Promoting silkworms over tobacco as Virginia’s commodity would also, according to the Ferrars, benefit from indigenous collaborators who, in the process of contributing to commodity production, would earn access to Atlantic markets and spiritual redemption. Bigelow reads Virginia Ferrar’s writings alongside those of male sericulturalists to argue that even though silkworm cultivation was an economic dead end, it did contribute to the cultivation of English identity as a colonizing people. In supposed contrast to Spanish colonialism, English writers argued that their brand of colonialism/planting would be based on, and generative of, industry, intellect, and improvement. This discourse further entrenched contemporary and historical perspectives about the “bipolar” (p. 25) distinction between Spanish and English colonialism.

In Chapter 5 — the strongest chapter of a strong dissertation — Allison Bigelow shifts from published to archival sources, particularly legal documents from the Bolivian National Archives. These documents reveal the presence, mineralogical expertise, and surprising legal clout of women, such as the indigenous Andean Bartola Sisa, in seventeenth-century Spanish American mining, a record that “challenges the long-standing image of colonial mining as misogynistic, violent, backwards, corrupt or corrupting, and dehumanizing” (p. 257). These women included mine owners, miners, and refiners, and metallurgical expertise — especially when it resulted in the production of taxable silver — could justify women’s legal claims of mine ownership in the eyes of male Spanish officials. Like male scientific practitioners throughout the early modern Atlantic, women in Alto Perú were part of an international scientific community driven largely by commerce, developed through empiricism, and enriched through collaborative experiments that were indicative of the productive friendship that characterized Spanish colonial amalgamation in both its metallurgical and demographic valences. These legal documents record the scientific activities of women that European males effaced from their mono-vocal texts, texts that scholars have used to argue that the mechanization and commercialization of knowledge production during the early modern period made science into something more masculine than it had been. Yet Andean women, as Bigelow demonstrates, were fully a part of the scientific and commercial worlds of seventeenth-century Spanish America.

Chapter 6 focuses on how the language and understandings undergirding metallurgy and planting shaped, respectively, Spanish and English plans and practices for peopling their colonies. Scholars of the Anglo-Atlantic have paid far more attention to peopling — and its connections to other discourses, particularly planting — than have Iberianists but, as Bigelow argues, “the biopolitical move to align population management with colonial scientific discourses of land rights and usage is a strategy employed by colonial apologists throughout the Americas” (p. 315). Although Spanish and English ideas about peopling were not the same, they were — like their colonial scientific discourses — at least as similar as they were different and each was framed by its own empire’s preeminent colonial science. While the English focused on planting bodies, Spanish peopling aimed to refine souls. For the Spanish, sympathetic affinity would amalgamate “different particles into one body” (p. 319) within Spain’s political empire while purifying them for incorporation into the Holy Roman Church. The most interesting part of this Chapter focuses on copper mining in the greater Caribbean and how the language of spiritual peopling and that of copper metallurgy overlapped to shape both state-sponsored efforts to manage mining populations — indigenous miners in Venezuela and the royal slaves of El Cobre, Cuba — as well as miners’ efforts to resist these management strategies and maintain greater control over their own lives.

Mining Empire, Planting Empire argues that the intra-imperial and mono-lingual frameworks of most previous scholarship has limited scholarly understandings of Spanish and English colonialism alike. For Allison Bigelow, bounding these empires from each other is not only historically inaccurate but effaces the inter-imperial influences, shared context, competitions, and exchanges that constituted English and Spanish colonial science while, moreover, perpetuating the perspective that Spanish and English colonialism were essentially different. This is a rich, ambitious, and bold dissertation, and it will no doubt develop into an important book for scholars of early modern literature, Atlantic historians, and historians of science.

Cameron B. Strang
Smithsonian Institution

Primary Sources

English agricultural texts, such as Samuel Hartlib, The Reformed Virginian Silkworm (1655)
Spanish mineralogical texts, such as Álvaro Alonso Barba, Arte de los Metales en que se enseña el veradero beneficio de los oro, y plata por açoque (1640)
Archivo y Biblioteca Nacional de Bolivia, Sucre
Archivo Nacional de la República de Cuba

Dissertation Information

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2012. 440 pp. Primary Advisor: Timothy Marr.

Image: “Amojonamiento de la mina del Collado de la Plata,” ca. 1791, AGI, MP-Minas, 65.

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