Allison Margaret Bigelow: Mining Language and Political Discourse

Today we welcome a guest post from Allison Margaret Bigelow, author of Mining Language: Racial Thinking, Indigenous Knowledge, and Colonial Metallurgy in the Early Modern Iberian World, out now from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and UNC Press.

Mineral wealth from the Americas underwrote and undergirded European colonization of the New World; American gold and silver enriched Spain, funded the slave trade, and spurred Spain’s northern European competitors to become Atlantic powers. Building upon works that have narrated this global history of American mining in economic and labor terms, Mining Language is the first book-length study of the technical and scientific vocabularies that miners developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as they engaged with metallic materials. This language-centric focus enables Allison Bigelow to document the crucial intellectual contributions Indigenous and African miners made to the very engine of European colonialism.

Mining Language is featured in our #LASA2020 virtual exhibit. It is now available in print and ebook formats.

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About once every four years, as presidential elections ramp up here in the US, we hear a lot about miners. Despite the substantial policy differences between candidates like Donald Trump and Joe Biden, they tend to invoke a similar image of miners and mining technologies. Mr. Trump, sometimes donning a hard hat, often expresses solidarity with coal miners and their families, declaring, as he did in Toledo, Ohio, on January 9, 2020, “we are putting our miners back to work. Dig we must. Dig we must.”[1] Mr. Biden, expressing the same concern for employment prospects, does not claim that jobs in the industry are returning. Instead, he argues that miners could be retrained in computer science. As he put it, “Anybody who can go down 300-3,000 feet in a mine sure as hell can learn how to program as well.”[2]

These descriptions overlook the highly mechanized nature of modern mining. Mr. Trump holds an imaginary shovel in his hand, gesturing to nineteenth- and early-twentieth century methods of extraction, rather than contemporary technologies using draglines, large-scale trucks, and automatic conveyers.[3] Mr. Biden suggests that miners’ bravery will allow them to transition into new industries, seeming to overlook the knowledge required to operate high-tech equipment.

In fact, there is a long history of thinking about the mining industry in terms of brute force and physical presence, rather than scientific and technical knowledge. In colonial Latin America, where most of the women and men who labored under and aboveground were not native speakers of Spanish, but most of the documents from the mining industry are written in Spanish, scholars have struggled to identify the intellectual contributions of Indigenous and Afro-Latin miners. In my book, I try to correct these misunderstandings. Spanish speakers like García de Llanos (1609) and Álvaro Alonso Barba (1640) incorporated Quechua and Aimara vocabularies into their classification of metals and accounts of silver amalgamation, but these terms were eliminated from European translations of colonial sources (Montagu 1670, Lange 1676, Hautin de Villars 1730).

These translators – including colonial authors – replaced Andean spatial classifications of metals as being at the top of a vein, at the bottom, or in the middle, with racial terminologies. Metals located “in the middle” of a deposit became “metales mulatos” (mulatto metals). By showing how Indigenous ways of knowing were erased from scientific writing, and how they were replaced with racial classifications, my book documents the intimate relationship between subaltern knowledge production, colonial racial taxonomies, and the mechanics of print culture in the early modern Atlantic world. A better understanding of this history not only helps us to appreciate the past; it can also help us to make sense of our world, and its political discourse, today.

[1] Chris Cillizza, “The 44 weirdest lines from Donald Trump’s first 2020 campaign rally,” Jan. 10, 2020. CNN.com; https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/10/politics/donald-trump-toledo-keep-america-great/index.html.

[2] David Montanaro, “Joe Biden says coal miners should ‘learn to program,’” Jan. 1, 2020. FoxNews.com; https://www.foxnews.com/media/joe-biden-coal-miners-learn-program-code.

[3] Committee on Coal Research, Technology, and Resource Assessments to Inform Energy Policy. “Coal Mining and Processing.” Coal: Research and Development to Support National Energy Policy, National Academies Press for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2007, pp. 57–79. www.nap.edu, doi:10.17226/11977.

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Photo by Leah Harbour

Allison Margaret Bigelow is assistant professor of colonial Latin American literature at the University of Virginia.