Metals, Minerals, and New World Natural History

Colonial reflections on America's mineral wealth took shape within wider currents of thought about the natural history and geology of the continent. Detailed descriptions of minerals and discussions of their formation and distribution appear in natural histories from the late sixteenth century onward. Enlightenment era Europeans who condemned American nature as inferior and Creole patriots who defended that nature both pointed to the characteristics of America's subterranean realms in making their arguments.


32. Father Jaime Hernández, A philosophical and practical essay on the gold and silver mines of Mexico and Peru (London, 1755).

The Spanish Jesuit who allegedly authored this translated text rehearsed a theory of mineral distribution that was outlined by Pliny and frequently echoed in descriptions of mining in the colonial Americas. According to this theory, silver and other metals were almost always found in harsh and sterile places.


33. Cornelius Pauw, Recherches philosophiques sur les Américains (Berlin, 1777).

Far from viewing the abundance of metals in the New World in a positive light, Cornelius Pauw, an influential Dutch intellectual, interpreted this abundance as a sign that the Americas, compared with other continents, were still in a raw and primeval state.


34. William Robertson, The history of America (London, 1778).

Robertson, a prominent Scottish historian, criticized the Spanish for—in his view—focusing only on extracting precious metals while ignoring all other natural resources that their American colonies offered. Like many eighteenth century European intellectuals, Robertson believed that agriculture should be privileged over mining.


35. Mercurio peruano (Lima, 1791-1794).

For the author of this essay, published in a patriotic Peruvian journal, Peru was as rich in natural wealth and wonders below ground as on the surface. Taking his readers on an imaginary journey into the subterranean, he describes a dazzling variety of earths, fossils, stones, and metals.


36. Alonso de Ovalle, Historica relacion del reyno de Chile (Roma, 1646).

The Jesuit author of this mid-colonial account of Chile repeatedly refers to the territory's "fertility" in precious metals. Ovalle's use of this term possibly reflects the widespread belief in the colonial Americas that metals grew and were continually replenished underground. For Ovalle, gold mines were so numerous that the entire territory constituted "a plank, or sheet of gold."


37. Giovanni Ignazio Molina, Compendio de la historia geográfica, natural y civil del Reyno de Chile (Madrid, 1788).

For Giovanni Ignazio Molina, a Chilean Jesuit, Chile's agricultural abundance and its mineral wealth went hand in hand. Subterranean heat generated by those minerals, he argued, helped to ensure the fertility of the soil and the perfect ripening of crops.

  the Exhibition may be seen in the reading room from April 2015 through august 2015.