Indians Mining Gold

Date: 1535
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Images


This woodcut is based on the observations of the Spanish naturalist Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, one of the first Europeans to apply the tenets of empiricism to American nature and peoples. It shows three Indians using technology (a hoe and sifting pans) to mine for gold in a river and, considering the harsh conditions of Amerindian slavery, it is hardly surprising that the man in the middle looks decidedly unhappy. Oviedo also depicts how Indians grew corn in individual mounds.

For early European conquistadores, entrepreneurs, and settlers who sought wealth in the New World, Indians were the most obvious source of labor. Indeed, Europeans began enslaving Indians as early as the late fifteenth century, when Columbus established the first small colonies in the Caribbean. The earliest Indian slaves, like those pictured here, were put to work mining precious metals, the quickest and most desired source of American wealth. Spanish scientific developments in mining techniques and metallurgy, such as using mercury to extract silver, were crucial to ensuring a steady production of mineral wealth, but such innovations would not have generated the desired profit without Indian miners.

Indian slavery was criticized by the Spanish Crown and the Church, thus new systems of coerced labor like the encomienda were developed to ensure that Indians could still be exploited to make Europeans rich. This kind of tribute labor, however, did not have the same economic potential as chattel slavery. Thus the Iberians looked to Africa for a new source of slaves. The Crown and Catholic authorities were less concerned with the souls and salvation of Africans, a people they considered even lower in the "hierarchy of being" than Indians. This hierarchy was fundamental to sixteenth century anthropology; it was a system of "scientific" classification that used Aristotelian ideas to justify European dominance and the subjugation of "lesser" races. By the late sixteenth century, blacks had replaced Indians as the main source of labor in Brazil and the Caribbean, and had become a significant part of the work force in Peru and Mexico.

Reference: Hodgen, Margaret T. Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1964.

CITATION: Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdez, Gonzalo. La Historia General de las Indias. 1535. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call number: Taylor 75 folio LXVI r.