Harnessing the Natural Resources of Latin America
Following the “discovery” of the New World in 1492, thousands of people traveled to Latin America in search of new opportunities. Among them were a variety of explorers interested in studying the region’s natural resources for scientific, economic, and political purposes. Economic opportunity brought adventurers to mines, forests, and plantations throughout the hemisphere, where they exploited natural resources and managed countless indigenous and African laborers. This exhibit offers a carefully selected sampling of some of the most influential endeavors to investigate and exploit the vast natural resources found in Latin America. It spans the entire continent and covers more than three hundred years of history.
In 1805, an Englishman by the name of Joseph Skinner published his Present State of Peru, in which he provided a detailed account of the flora, fauna, and people of Peru. Included is a color image of a Royal Peruvian mining overseer, depicted as a well-dressed, olive-skinned man on an elegant horse, gazing upon his operations. The image embodies the promise of wealth and prestige that the New World offered European settlers, a unique chance to enter into the transatlantic aristocracy.
William Beckford, an English sugar plantation overseer, describes the economic and social conditions of Jamaica in 1790. Through a series of charts, Beckford lays out the sugar production of the island by county, relating such production to the amount of available land, slaves, and cattle. The information relayed by Beckford describes a mere sliver of the economic potential that the New World afforded, tempting adventurers and business-people alike to seek their fortunes across the pond.
Mr. Helms stopped in Potosí en route from Buenos Aires to Lima, describing the economic and social conditions he experienced while there. Of particular note is a chart comparing production, in Potosi to other sites in Spanish Latin America. While the precious metal production in Potosi was indeed significant, it is shown to be a fraction of the total production in Spanish Latin America, reflecting the wealth of opportunities across the region.
A true embodiment of the spirit of exploration in Latin American in the 18th century, German Prince Maximilian of Neuwied was an early European pioneer in Brazil, publishing an account of his expedition in 1820. The engraving depicts native labor deforesting the land with Europeans watching nearby, a scene that likely illustrates the ecological preparation necessary for economic expansion. Deep into his work, Prince Maximilian describes the Brazilian fazenda, which accompanied by an image of the Brazilian country-house, details life in the Brazilian plantation system.
An early British mineralogist, John Mawe traveled to Brazil in the early 19th century in order to study the minerals and mineral extraction processes of the country. The map depicts the author's route, detailing all of the gold and diamond mines along the way. Another image details various machinery implements used in mineral production in Brazil, with the final picture illustrating particular diamonds. The New World offered tremendous possibilities to those seeking precious metals, from mineralogists to budding aristocrats.
Yet another European traveler to Brazil, Johann Moritz travelled from his native Germany to Brazil in the early 19th-century, where depicted numerous aspects of Brazilian life. A painter by trade, Rugendas was able to capture numerous scenes of the economic, social, and cultural life of Brazil during this time, illustrating both the European settlers and native peoples. Here he illustrates coffee and sugar production, as well as deforestation. These scenes paint a realistic picture of these events in Latin American history, illustrating both European overseers and native laborers.
These two pages, taken from a book titled Brasil de Outrora, illustrate coffee production in Brazil. Painted by Benedicto Bastos Barreto, a renowned 20th-century Brazilian illustrator, the images depict African laborers involved in coffee production. An accompanying description gives the reader a brief history of coffee production in Brazil. The images pay homage to a vital aspect of the Brazilian resource economy, as well as to the African slaves who were forced to toil in the country’s coffee fields.
The mineral wealth of Latin America presented enormous financial opportunities for colonists and European governments, and thus had to be carefully managed. This chart from Colombia (dated 1791) illustrates both the tremendous wealth potential and the intricacies of the mining industry. The chart, which is divided into different Colombian regions, indicates the value of gold and silver extracted, with some of these minerals being minted. The chart also details the rate the Spanish crown charged for shipping these metals, a small yet important reminder of the role of the Spanish government in all colonial dealings.
In an 1829 account of his observations in Mexico, British diplomat Henry George Ward describes aspects of the social and political situation in the country. His 1829 account includes an image of the town of Guanajuato, a community in central Mexico of historic importance to the gold and silver mining industries. The illustration depicts a rough town tucked deep in the mountains, populated with European risk-takers and indigenous people alike. The image epitomizes the community development that resulted from the introduction of mining, and through its architecture, the Europeanization of regions such as Central Mexico.