The Ground Below and Above: New Directions in the Study of Mining in the Colonial Americas

AHA Session 207
Conference on Latin American History 40
Labor and Working Class History Association 5
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Petit Trianon (New York Hilton, Third Floor)
Allison Bigelow, University of Virginia
Mining Exploration and the Limits of Empire in Colonial Brazil
Hal Langfur, University at Buffalo (State University of New York)
Revisiting Silver Mining and Its Many Societies in New Spain
Dana Velasco Murillo, University of California, San Diego
Kris E. Lane, Tulane University

Session Abstract

The search for metallic wealth, and its subsequent exploitations or unrealized prospects, holds a deep place in colonial Latin American historiography. The centrality of metals and mines to European exploration and colonization of the Americas is so widely accepted that it has often been reduced to an alliterative formula of glory, gold, and God (Quinn 1977). In this tripartite system, most often associated with imperial Spain, weapons made of copper and iron enabled the conquest of the New World, where precious metals were melted into objects that elevated the preparation of the sacrament, refined the textures of ordinary acts of consumption, and produced staggering shipments of bullion to Europe. Since the 1990s economic historians have shown how this bullion integrated supply channels and remapped distribution routes within the early modern global economy, as favorable exchange rates in Asian markets allowed Habsburg traders to traffic American silver to China and Japan in exchange for peoples and goods bought and sold in Africa and Europe (Flynn and Giráldez 1995). In 1997 a preeminent historian declared the “external consequences” of mining, namely its influence upon settlement patterns, demographics, and material cultures, to be “almost beyond measure” (Bakewell). Since then, scholarship has sought to measure that impact by developing new research areas and methods that recognize the local and global natures of colonial American mining. The field has been enriched by new research in environmental economics and the public health outcomes of mining (Robins 2011), and scholars have productively adapted methods from art history, literature, and the history of science and technology to read the remains of the past in new ways (Siracusano 2011, Bigelow 2012, Scott 2012). These interdisciplinary, multilingual methods have helped especially to reveal the contributions of indigenous, African, and creole women and men who mined, refined, and traded metals in marketplaces (Velasco Murillo 2013, Lane 2010, Langfur 2006, Mangan 2005).

These conversations, however, are scattered among different journals and sorted into specialized subfields, a reality that reveals the richness of the field’s expansion and challenges scholars to find spaces of convergence. We propose a roundtable to put some of these new modes and nodes of scholarship into dialogue. Each invited speaker will present a brief summary of current research, followed by a comment that synthesizes and identifies overlaps and divergences between the research questions. The purpose is to draw connections among scholars whose expertise on New Spain, Alto Perú, and colonial Brazil in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries might not otherwise find a common space. By throwing into sharp relief commonalities and distinctions between and among mining and metallurgical communities founded in different times and spaces within the early Americas, this roundtable aims to shed light on current research trends, suggest new areas of investigation, and bring into dialogue studies that might otherwise speak past each other. The panel will attract audience members with interests that include the history of science, environmental history, colonial relations, and global histories of mining.

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