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Useful to Whom? How Bureaucracy Shapes What We Know about Technology in the Early Modern Iberian State


Read Renée Raphael’s special issue article “In Pursuit of “Useful” Knowledge: Documenting Technical Innovation in Sixteenth-Century Potosí” here.

Renée Raphael

University of California, Irvine

On October 17, 1588, the public notary of Potosí (in current-day Bolivia) recorded a conversation about a potentially disastrous financial situation between an agent of the royal treasury and the provincial governor. According to the treasury official, all refining of Potosí’s silver ores had ceased in anticipation of the licensing of a new refining method proposed by one of the town’s citizens, Garçi Sánchez. Sánchez’s new method purportedly produced more silver using less mercury, the crucial ingredient in the state-of-the-art technique for purifying Potosí’s silver ores. Sánchez was unwilling to share his method without a clear mandate from the viceroy, who resided some 2,000 kilometers away in Lima.

The first image of Potosi printed in Eurpe. Source: Cieza de León, Pedro. 1553. Parte Primera de la Crónica del Perú, cxxii verso. Image provided by Biblioteca Nacional de España. Public Domain.

The notary’s record of the exchange is contained in a manuscript compilation in Spain’s National Library (Ms. 3040, 311r-319v). It indicates that so great was the town’s residents’ faith in a new method that they pooled their resources to force Sánchez to disclose his recipe. Apparently, the crisis was resolved fourteen days later when Sánchez appeared before the governorand the same notary and presented the details of his recipe: it involved combining silver ore, ground sulphur, and quicksilver and heating the mixture until a black crust formed on top.

When I first read through the documentary evidence surrounding Sánchez’s proposal, the questions that immediately came to mind were: What happened then? Was his method wildly successful? Did the town’s inhabitants fulfill their promise of paying Sánchez for disclosing his new technique? And if it did not work, was Sánchez renounced as a fraud and driven from town?  Was he forced to repay the money? Unfortunately, the record is silent on these accounts after Sánchez’s declaration in October 1588.

Sánchez’s Case: An Example of Utilitarian Science or Not?

This silence in the documentary record sat uneasily in my mind, with current narratives of science in the early modern Iberian world as being empirical, utilitarian, and driven by state interests generating ever more questions. In his Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution (University of Texas Press, 2010), Antonio Barrera-Osorio argues that artisans like Potosí’s miners and administrative officials enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship in the sixteenth-century Iberian world. The inventors were awarded compensation and protection, while officials were promised that the new technique would be employed more broadly, furthering Spain’s political and economic interests.

Initially, the episode seemed to follow this description. For one, the town’s records from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries indicated that Sánchez’s proposal to Potosí’s municipal officials for new refining methods was not an isolated case. Second, these proposals aspired to follow the model of another well-known and successful collaboration between an artisan innovator and a bureaucrat. When the town’s silver deposits had been discovered in 1545, European refining stoves had proven incapable of refining the ores, and the silver was instead refined using indigenous techniques. As the richer ores were depleted, however, so too were the town’s profits, and the population began dwindling. This trend was reversed in the 1570s when Pedro Fernández de Velasco, with the backing of viceroy Francisco de Toledo, introduced a new technique for refining silver via mercury amalgamation. Silver production soared, and by 1600, the city was home to over 100,000 residents.

Reading more closely, however, I found that historians’ narratives reflected only imperfectly the written records produced in sixteenth-century Potosí. The detailed description of Sánchez’s method, its recording in municipal record books viewed only by a small number of administrative officials, and the lack of information about its long-term success were all puzzling. It did none of the things I was expecting it to: function as a license for Sánchez’s protection, disseminate the method to the wider community, or update and store the information for future municipal administrators inquiring into the town’s shared technical knowledge.

The Sánchez Case Resolved: Making Bureaucracy the Object of Study

Conversations with the members of the “History of Bureaucratic Knowledge” working group helped me reconcile Sánchez’s case with established historiographical interpretation. In her piece, Maura Dykstra took a standard assumption of her field, the inherent corruption of the Qing, and made it the subject of her study. I began to wonder if many of the aspects of the Sánchez case that I found perplexing or had wanted to attribute to genre or the uncertain nature of archival preservation required a similar approach. Rather than seeking to explain why the Qing became corrupt, Dykstra asked what about the Qing’s approach to bureaucracy contributed to a discourse of corruption. Applying her methodology to the Sánchez case led me to focus less on the apparent use of the information in Sánchez’s proposal and more on the reasons offered by officials as to why they wrote down the information in the first place. As the conveners of the workshop, Christine and Sebastian, proposed, “bureaucracy is the problem, knowledge is the solution.” This statement encapsulates their vision that new insights emerge when we use the methods of the history of science to study bureaucratic structures and processes.

In standard histories of science of the Iberian world, the subject matter is “science” (knowledge production) while the state is often employed as a means of explanation: It functions as an agent of patronage, an agent that determines the style of knowledge production (manuscript and archival vs. print), and so forth. In my contribution, however, I tried to make the state the subject of the analysis and the methods of historians of science the explanatory mechanism. Because the focus was on the nature of administrative practice, the motivations of those producing the documents came to the fore, leading to my discussion of utility vs. purpose or benefit.

What I found in the Sánchez case was that local officials repeatedly explained their documentation of technical innovation as a response to a bureaucratic crisis, an attempt to force others to comply with bureaucratic rule-following, or their own efforts to follow the rules of the bureaucracy. In other words, while historians have often interpreted Iberian administrators as being interested in “useful” knowledge, these local bureaucrats were primarily motivated by the more mundane desire to show that they knew how to follow the rules.


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