The Matter of Empire: Metaphysics and Mining in Colonial Peru by Orlando Bentancor (review)
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The Matter of Empire: Metaphysics and Mining in Colonial Peru
By Orlando Bentancor. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017.

Orlando Bentancor investigates how an empire legitimizes and sustains the colonial project. His work reconciles the scholastic, legal and intellectual discourse on Spain's religious and legal right to invade the Americas, subjugate the Indigenous population, and appropriate its matter (mineral resources). And while many of the treatises and natural histories he consults apply broadly to Spain's sovereignty in the Americas, Chapters Three, Four and Five tailor the conversation to Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), also known as Potosí, Peru. Potosí's silver mine became the empire's most lucrative source of wealth during the sixteenth century, while the physical process of mining fostered an infamous reputation for the mita (labor levies) and mercury dumping that continues to contaminate the local environment.1 Analyzing a number of treatises and natural histories from 1520–1640, Bentancour argues that the discourse on Spain's sovereignty in the Americas coalesced with a metaphysical framework, which he applies to silver mining. He highlights where authors invoked metaphysics and its relevant colonial problems, including the limits of natural law, profiting from Peru's mineral wealth and coerced labor in mining and refining.

To develop this case, Bentancor engages the writings of Iberian theologians and intellectuals who influenced Spain's royal policies, noting and quoting the passages where they drew on Aristotle, Aquinas and Thomism, and each other's work. Moreover, he articulates how each interpreted the principle of natural subordination, the scholastic foundation for manmade and natural hierarchies. At the top of each hierarchy is God, followed by "a gradation of power and capacity," from those who move independently and are self-sufficient (humans) to non-living things that cannot move on their own (silver, which humans extract and mint) (12). Moving in chronological order, Chapter One introduces the work of Francisco de Vitoria's De Indis (On the Laws of War) and Political Writings, which detail the grounds for just war, argue for legal land titles, and affirm the Amerindian's right to self-rule (86). Chapter Two details the 1550–51 Valladolid debates between Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Bartolome de las Casas, which the author claims created an impasse regarding whether Amerindians could be used as a means to an end (for the extraction of silver and riches), a problem that arose from the "imperial metaphysical instrumentalism itself" (150). Chapter Three demonstrates how Acosta's writings in Historia Natural de las Indias and De procuranda grounded Spain's imperialism within the context of the Amerindian's salvation and civilization. Furthermore, Acosta contends that the Catholic Church's mission supersedes the violent foundations of colonial Peru. Chapter Four, explores writings produced within the context of Francisco de Toledo's Peru, including Anónimo de Yucay, Juan Matienzo's Gobierno del Peru, and Jose Luis Capoche's Relación general de la villa de Potosí. Recognizing the empire's dependence on commerce, Toledo's inner circle conceded that the ills of mining were justified and necessary. Finally, Chapter Five takes the reader through Spain's economic crisis in the 1590s through the first half of the seventeenth century (287). Bentancor concludes with Juan de Solózano's Política Indiana, which he frames as the last great defense of the Spanish Empire as it faced its impending decline.

Bentancor meticulously guides the reader through the most poignant sections of the literature on Spain's imperial legitimacy and its extension to mining. However, one quibble is that he only gestures at the author's motivations. For example, when describing the accidents and deaths occurring in the silver mines in Capoche's Relación, Betancor notes "his purpose is to show that extracting silver costs more blood than money" (273). While it is true that Capoche describes a number of horrible mining anecdotes, Bentancor only nods to the political context and potential agenda behind the document.

Bringing together three fields that often operate separately, Bentancor combines the history of Spanish imperial science, mining and Spanish political theory. This study contributes to the well-established scholarship on imperial legitimacy...


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