The best books on mining in colonial Latin America

Allison Bigelow Author Of Mining Language: Racial Thinking, Indigenous Knowledge, and Colonial Metallurgy in the Early Modern Iberian World
By Allison Bigelow

Who am I?

I became fascinated by the science, technology, and social landscape of mining during my time teaching English in the Cerro Colorado copper mine in the north of Chile. Listening to miners and their families speak to each other gave me a small sense of the knowledge embedded in the language of mining communities. The experience showed me just how little I knew about metals and how much they shape our world, from the copper wiring in phone chargers to expressions like “mina” (mine/woman). That curiosity led me to a PhD program and to write my first book, Mining Language.


I wrote...

Mining Language: Racial Thinking, Indigenous Knowledge, and Colonial Metallurgy in the Early Modern Iberian World

By Allison Bigelow,

Book cover of Mining Language: Racial Thinking, Indigenous Knowledge, and Colonial Metallurgy in the Early Modern Iberian World

What is my book about?

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 economic, labor, and environmental histories, Mining Language is the first book-length study of the technical and scientific vocabularies, ideas, and practices that Indigenous and African miners developed in one of the largest and most lucrative industries of the colonial Americas. Mining Language develops methods of linguistic and visual analysis to convert colonial archives from spaces that justify settler colonial ideologies into sources of Indigenous and African knowledge production.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Trading Roles: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Urban Economy in Colonial Potosí

By Jane E. Mangan,

Book cover of Trading Roles: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Urban Economy in Colonial Potosí

Why this book?

Mangan’s work completely changed the way that I thought about the colonial mining industry and the complexities of Andean gender systems. Through careful case studies and historical scholarship, Mangan gives voice and texture to the lives of Andean market women, artisans, and ordinary miners who filled the streets of Potosí and its surrounding communities. Trading Roles translates global histories of credit, market capitalization, and urbanization into intimate details of family and community life, and in so doing makes it clear that gender was – and is – a central part of Andean mining history. Readers interested in the interactions of gender, commerce, and Indigenous politics in urban spaces will be well-served by Mangan’s work.


Urban Indians in a Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546-1810

By Dana Velasco Murillo,

Book cover of Urban Indians in a Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546-1810

Why this book?

What Mangan’s work does for the Andes, Velasco Murillo’s scholarship does for Mexico. The book covers an astounding historical range, taking readers through the first silver strikes in Zacatecas under colonial rule until the edge of early nation-statehood. In telling this 250-year history of Zacatecas, Velasco Murillo demonstrates how Indigenous mining communities, their labor, and the capital they generated were critical to shaping – and were shaped by – emerging ideas of mestizo citizenship. It does so, moreover, by centering women and Indigenous miners in ways that other social histories of mining had not yet accomplished. Velasco Murillo shows definitively that the history of silver is not just underground – it is a story of women who prepare food, raise children, and form a political and economic community is life-giving, meaning-making ways across urban geographies and remote mining spaces. Readers looking for new ways to understand mining and revolution in Mexico will enjoy Velasco Murillo’s combination of social, political, and labor history.


Potosí Global: Viajando con sus primeras imágenes (1550-1650)

By Rossana Barragán,

Book cover of Potosí Global: Viajando con sus primeras imágenes (1550-1650)

Why this book?

In this methodologically creative approach, Rossana Barragán narrates the history of colonial Andean silver through images. The slim, 90-page book is organized around 12 images and their global movements. Barragán expertly analyzes scenes of underground mining that other European empires used to justify their own violence, depictions of the Cerro Rico that appealed to Ottoman sensibilities, and the architecture of the mint of Antwerp, the city responsible for coining much of Potosí’s silver and printing many of the books and images that shaped early modern understandings of the Andes. Readers looking for an accessible history of the global consequences of Potosí will be well-served by Barragán’s work.


Potosí: The Silver City That Changed the World

By Kris Lane,

Book cover of Potosí: The Silver City That Changed the World

Why this book?

Kris Lane’s new work on Potosí does in words what Barragán does in images. Lane manages to tell a story that is at once global and comprehensive yet still rooted in local details of mineral extraction, assay, and coining. This book takes us from underground tunnels, adits, and galleys into refineries and, especially, the mint of Potosí. Readers seeking a big-picture view of the importance of Latin American mining and metallurgy to the story of the Spanish empire, and one told in vivid detail and readable prose, will find a lot to like here.



A History of Mining in Latin America: From the Colonial Era to the Present

By Kendall W. Brown,

Book cover of A History of Mining in Latin America: From the Colonial Era to the Present

Why this book?

Although mining in the colonial period has lasting implications for contemporary public policy, extractive industries, and science and technology, few books can tell this 500-year history in the detail it requires. Kendall Brown’s History of Mining in Latin America is one of those few. In vivid prose, Brown explains key aspects of economic, technological, and labor history that shaped mining and metallurgical industries in the major mining zones of Mexico, Brazil, and the Andes, as well as less-studied regions like the Caribbean and Nueva Granada. Readers looking for a comprehensive regional synthesis that shows change over time will learn a lot from Brown’s book.