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


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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.

Lance C. Thurner teaches history at Rutgers Newark. His research and writing address the production of knowledge, political subjectivities, and racial and national identities in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Mexico. He is broadly interested in the methods and politics of applying a global perspective to the history of science and medicine and the role of the humanities in the age of the Anthropocene. More at

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