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Allison Bigelow, “Mining Language: Racial Thinking, Indigenous Knowledge, and Colonial Metallurgy in the Early Modern Iberian World” (UNC Press 2020) (2020)


Historians of Latin America have long appreciated the central role of mining and metallurgy in the region. The Spanish Empire in particular was created for and founded upon the mining and coining of silver ore from its colonies. Our knowledge about this vital industry, however, remains invariably tethered to the elite sources and perspectives that were preserved in the written record. In Mining Language: Racial Thinking, Indigenous Knowledge, and Colonial Metallurgy in the Early Modern Iberian World (UNC Press 2020), Allison Bigelow provides an important historiographical contribution by demonstrating how we can revisit these sources to trace the transmission of metallurgical knowledge from the colonized indigenous laborers who worked the ore to the metropolitan authors who codified practices and knowledge. Rather than European science diffusing to colonial outposts, Bigelow’s studies of gold, silver, copper, and iron illustrate that the technologies that sustained Iberian imperialism were amalgamations like the ores themselves. From prospecting to refining, the making of imperial wealth required learning from indigenous ways of knowing and working the earth and its resources. Moreover, Mining Language goes beyond finding hybridity in the archive by teasing out how Europeans systematically (and sometimes not so systematically) erased the indigenous roots of knowledge and practices. Bigelow shows how as information traveled from American soils to European academies through translations and retranslations, identities became reified, fantasies were confirmed, meanings were lost and occasionally pure nonsense got into the mix. Overall, Mining Language demonstrates the possibilities opened when we reconsider the history of technology to no longer center eye-popping inventions but instead the more quotidian practices that sustain life, create wealth, and enforce power. Seen thusly, the history of technology, power, and imperialism is not a story of implementation and adaptation, but rather one of syncretism and erasure. Scholars and readers interested in the social politics of knowledge production will find Mining Language a compelling and thought-provoking work that provides essential historical background to related issues in the 21st century. Allison Bigelow is the Tom Scully Discovery Chair Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Virginia.

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Authors & Contributors
Bigelow, Allison Margaret
Steele, John C.
Vasko, Timothy Bowers
Giménez-Roldán, Santiago
Spencer, Peter S.
Palmer, Valerie S.
Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Llull: Revista de la Sociedad Española de Historia de las Ciencias y de las Técnicas
Journal of the History of the Neurosciences
History of the Human Sciences
History and Technology
Galilæana: Journal of Galilean Studies
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of North Carolina Press
Rowman & Littlefield
La Martinière
Indiana University Press
Spain, colonies
Mines and mining
Indigenous peoples; indigeneity
Cross-cultural interaction; cultural influence
Barba, Alvaro Alonso
Bartolomé Inga
Oviedo y Valdés, Gonzalo Fernández
Mandeville, John
Gamboa, Francisco Javier de
Eden, Richard
Time Periods
17th century
16th century
18th century
Early modern
19th century
South West Africa Company (SWACO)

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