Friday, May 22, 2020

Allison Margaret Bigelow's "Mining Language"

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

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Mining Language: Racial Thinking, Indigenous Knowledge, and Colonial Metallurgy in the Early Modern Iberian World, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Mining Language begins mid-sentence: “agencies in the gold industry, and we have largely overlooked storytelling traditions as archives of knowledge.” The paragraph goes on to outline major interpretations of Taíno demographic collapse, an Indigenous community of the Caribbean who represent the first Native people in the Americas to encounter Columbus in his invasion of the Americas. In the next paragraph, I suggest why the conclusions reached by this older historiographical model may require serious reassessment. As scholars like Kathleen Deagan have shown, Taíno communities were matrilineal, but studies of big, public spaces, rather than household-unit analysis, have dominated the literature of Taíno life in the colonial period, and thus distorted our sense of continuity rather than change.

This page concludes a chapter that juxtaposed colonial petitions from Santo Domingo, imperial ordinances declared in Spain, and a Taíno creation narrative. As if this combination were not complex enough, Taínos explained their cosmovision in Classic Taíno to a Catalán priest who had studied Macorís, a different Taíno language spoken in the northeast region of Quisqueya, one of the Taíno names for the island that is now called the Dominican Republic. The narrative was recounted in father Ramón Pané’s Relación de las antigüedades de los indios, which was first published in an Italian-language biography of Christopher Columbus, authored by the Admiral’s son, Fernando, in 1571.

Using literary methods to analyze these layers of translation and mistranslation, alongside historical work in Spanish archives, I provide evidence of Indigenous influences in the timing and methods of gold processing on the island in the 1520s-1550s. Many of the policies that regulated goldwork, such as the Spanish Crown’s decision to move the season of refining from the dry months of November and December to the rainy months of June and July, make little sense from the perspective of an extractive empire. But the decision makes a lot of sense in a worldview that relates rain, gold metals, and the emergence of Taíno life. I therefore suggest that Taínos told their stories to colonists as part of a broader process of narrative reframing, or telling stories to bring meaning-making coherence to a world turned upside down. These colonists, in turn, incorporated Indigenous ideas about plants, metals, and seasons into their petitions to the Crown. By approaching old texts in new ways, the chapter shows how imperial archives can become sources that document Indigenous knowledge production.

In an annoyingly professorial fashion, I’d say that page 99 is both a good indicator of the book as a whole and not useful at all for understanding the book. On the one hand, most of the book is not dedicated to a critique of earlier scholarly approaches. I build from them, and my own thinking is deeply indebted to them. On the other hand, the kind of methodological creativity that page 99 summarizes is reflective of the approaches that I develop in Mining Language. Each part of the book – Gold, Iron, Copper, Silver – unfolds in a different world region and historical moment, and these local differences force me to use different kinds of scholarly methods to tell about Indigenous, African, and South Asian histories in mining and metalwork.
Learn more about Mining Language at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue