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The Collation

The Meaning of Mining from Agricola to Zárate

A woodcut showing a series of men working a landscape doing various jobs.
A woodcut showing a series of men working a landscape doing various jobs.

Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica (Basel, 1561) contains an image of a decimated mine:  

A woodcut showing a series of men working a landscape doing various jobs.
Georg Agricola,De re metallica ...,1561. Folger TN144 A4 1561 Cage.

The caption to the image reads “attamen uenam dilatatem raro labor hominum aperit, sed plerunque uis aliqua” (“Yet a dilated vein is seldom opened by the labor of men, but in most cases [it is opened], by some force”) (my translation). Here the earth is imagined as a body that is violated so that humanity can extract from it. The image also shows a wasteland, cut down trees, the earth full of gaping wounds, and labored upon by weary workers.  

I am interested in how the practice of mining is often described as an embodied (violent) process and whether discussions of mining as a violation of a body might relate to discourses of race-making in the early modern world. It’s no accident that the practice of mining and its difficult conditions often resulted in radicalized workers. In the U.K., former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher notably destroyed the coal industry in response to the strength of the miners protests in the eighties. Émile Zola’s 1885 masterpiece Germinal is similarly interested in the intensity of mining, representing a coalminers strike in Northern France. Agricola’s depiction of mining as a violation of the earth’s body is intriguing when linked to how the ability to “extract well” or not was used as criteria to denigrate Indigenous American people across the continents. Countless Indigenous Americans and Africans forcibly brought to the continent under slavery were forced to work in the mines under harrowing conditions.  

A specific example of how extraction is understood as linked to imperialism is apparent in Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s Loa to the Divine Narcissus (1689). An allegorical character, Religion, representing Spain, claimsOccidente poderoso, 
America bella y rica, /que vivís tan miserables entre las riquezas mismas” (“powerful Occident, beautiful and rich America, how can you live so miserably when you are amongst such riches.”) (my translation). This short text (that serves as an introduction to the main play- El Divino Narciso) features four allegorical characters in man/woman pairings, Religion and Zeal who represent the Spanish crown and America and Occident who represent Indigenous Mexicans. Earlier in the text, America comments on the way that excessive extraction destroys the environment, resisting Spain’s imposition that extracting resources is a moral good.  

That brings us to the Spanish colonial historian Agustín de Zárate (ca. 1514-ca. 1575), author of Historia del descubrimiento y conquista del Peru. The English translation, The discouerie and conquest of the prounices of Peru, and the nauigation in the South Sea, along that coast: And also of the ritche mines of Potosi (London, 1581), which contains multiple woodcuts.

A title page with a woodcut showing a small village under a mountain surrounding a river
Agustin de Zárate, The discouerie and conquest of the prouinces of Peru, 1581. Folger STC 26123.

Zárate’s text begins with an image of Potosí, a silver mining city located in Bolivia. Tourists can still visit Potosí’s mines where workers labor under extreme conditions. The title page includes a woodcut of the main mountain in Potosí with ridges drawn within it, reminiscent of the very veins Agricola mentions in his mining manifesto. 

Text in english followed by an image of a horned figure in robes approaches a group of men
Agustin de Zárate, The discouerie and conquest of the prouinces of Peru, 1581. Folger STC 26123.

The image and text on sig. E4 verso are not surprising. The text presents colonizing propaganda rather than a representation of Quechua people as a dialogic moment where both sides are experiencing an encounter. Zárate notes that “This God Pachacama above among them till the comming of the Christians into Peru, and after their comming be never more appeared, wherupon it is thought that it was some devil which made theme beleue all those vanities.” Here it is firmly stated that Quechua people universally “gave up” their religious beliefs after being introduced to Christianity. This is, of course, a lie.  

I visited Perú this summer. Calling it a beautiful country can’t capture how amazing it is. Simultaneously, I was disturbed by the lingering presence of cultural genocide and inequalities because of the country’s history of colonization. For example, many churches in the Andes are built on top of Incan temples where the original stones of the temples are still present. This becomes even more tragic when one realizes that in Andean cosmology stones are sacred and vitalistic.  

While in Cusco and Puno, I was grateful to learn about the preservation of Quechua and Aymara language, culture, and beliefs. Our guide on La Ruta Del Sol made sure that the group understood that “Incas are not extinct. We are here.” To give a further iconographic example, the Chakana (Andean) Cross (a pre-Columbian symbol from Quechua word chakay which means to “cross over”) is included in many Catholic churches in Perú as a way of blending Andean cosmologies with Catholic ones. San Pedro Apóstol de Andahuaylillas, 41 km (about 25.48 mi), from Cusco, contains frescos that depict the Biblical King Herod (who ordered the killing of baby boys) with a face remarkably like the King of Spain. A painting of the Last Supper in Cusco’s Cathedral Basilica shows the disciples eating cuy (guinea pig, a delicacy in Perú). Many paintings of the Virgin Mary in Cusco School art depict her as a triangulated body, with some interpretations arguing that her body then mirrors the image of the Apus (literally “lord” in Quechua but used to reference mountains that are believed to embody a spirit) and thus links the Virgin Mary to Pachamama (Mother Earth type goddess in Andean cosmology). In other words, Andean cosmologies were not abandoned in the wake of Spanish colonization and sometimes Catholic art was used to portray Spanish imperialism in Perú. 

Of course, a text written by a Spaniard in the sixteenth century will present Perú and its people as gladly embracing the beliefs of the conquistadors. In the history of colonization willful misinterpretation does damaging work for invigorating false narratives about encounters between different people. The wood cut of a group of people conversing with a devil in the Zárate text is suggestive of the limited cosmological imagination of Catholic Spaniards in the sixteenth century (adapted visually by the English printmakers). 

In the proem to Book II of the Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser argues:

The cover page of the Faerie Queene with a decorative frontispiece.
Edmund Spenser, The faerie queene, 1596. Folger STC 23082 copy 1.

Many great Regions are discouered,
Which to late age were neuer mentioned.
Who euer heard of th’Indian Peru?
Or who in venturous vessell measured
The Amazon huge riuer now found trew?
Or fruitfullest Virginia who did euer vew?

Fairy land is as plausible as the “Indian Peru,” that has now been “discovered” and thus legitimized by European access and extraction. “Who euer heard of th’Indian Peru?” could easily be reframed to “who has ever heard of England?” Of course, people living in Perú in the sixteenth century could not care less about Elizabeth I!

This idea of Perú as an ultimate other doesn’t end with Spenser. Michael Bond’s beloved twentieth century bear, Paddington, was said to come from “darkest Perú” and the British Embassy gifted the city of Lima a statue of Paddington with a note about his “origins” in “darkest Perú.” More can, of course, be said about the work that “darkest” is doing to describe Paddington’s origins.

A statue of a small bear wearing a union jack coat and doffing his hat.
Paddington Bear statue on the Miraflores boardwalk in Lima. Photo by the author.

To return to the mines of Potosí, I want to think anew about the earth as body, something that happens in Mexican Sor Juana’s baroque drama, German Agricola’s mining text, and Andean cosmology where Pachamama is sacred. I am not arguing that Agricola, Sor Juana, and Andean religion are seeing the earth as body in the same way. Rather, I am interested in how the material process of mining was imagined in early modernity across the globe. Who is doing the work of mining? How is that labor imagined or buried? How are descriptions or images of jewels and precious metals dislocated from the labor of mining? Is mining helpful for thinking about ways that race-making and imperialism were discoursed? 

The woodcuts of the English translation of Zárate’s text are not surprising but function as a useful link between how mining practices were developing in Europe and the Americas and how these practices were not divorced from mythos about colonizing through religion and capitalism. 


A useful cognate book will be William Rees, Industry before the Industrial Revolution, which, despite its grandiose title, is about mining in Wales in the 16th century, and the Potosí connection.

William Ingram — July 4, 2024


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