'Lustie corne' and 'mucha dote': Gendered Readings of Nature in New England and New Spain

Comparative scholarship on the early literatures of the Americas has largely fallen in one of two critical or methodological camps: the push of difference or the pull of similarity. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, dominant scholarly paradigms considered English and Spanish colonialist discourses irreconcilable in their difference, the “English planter” and “Spanish encomendero” incompatible in their theological orientations and respective biocultural practices of husbandry or cultivation, aligned with the typological “second Adams,” and mining or metallurgy, the exploitative practices that abuse indigenous laborers, “torture” Nature, and form the very stuff of the leyenda negra (Hanke 1964, Lang 1975, Seed 1995). More recently, historians and literary scholars have emphasized the similarities among early Iberian and Anglo colonialisms in the Americas, especially with respect to their readings of nature. English and Spanish colonialists both draw upon invocations of a demonic landscape, metaphorical understandings of shipwreck, and complex legal maneuvers rehabilitated from antiquity or invented in the early modern era to justify possession of natural resources throughout the Americas (Cañizares Esguerra 2006, Bauer 2003, Elliott, 2006). In the spirit of this attention to the circum-Atlantic theater of nature, I would like to contribute a reading of the gendered bodies that emerge in the modes of natural inquiry associated with the specific domain of English and Spanish colonialisms: agriculture and mining, respectively, are at once the foundational material practices associated with and cultural symbols of the two largest colonialist enterprises in the Americas (Evans 1995, Bakewell 1997). While the role of gender within histories of science has largely turned upon questions of whether Nature-as-feminine represents a conceptual default inherited in English via Latin translation (Osler 2005, Vickers 2008) or a subordination of the feminine to an increasingly-mechanized cosmos (Merchant 1980, Keller 1985, Harding 1986), the work of the gendered bodies enacted within the colonial archive is much broader than this framework would suggest.

By reading one body of texts in which nouns are inherently gendered and one corpus in which writers can choose to ascribe a variety of gendered subjectivities (male, female, hermaphroditic and gender-neutral) to the social, cosmological, and spiritual bodies that emerge in their works, I hope to gesture toward the ways that history of science and feminist studies of nature might helpfully be brought to the colonial hemispheric archive. As the comparison between Spanish and English proto-scientific writings will show, gendered readings of nature indeed play a formative role in the way that early modern writers understand their relationship to natural inquiry and to the development of colonial science. For instance, the physician Juan de Cárdenas (1563-1609) and the agricultural author Sir Hugh Platt (1552?-1608) develop similar explanations of the fertility and “hermaphroditical” properties of salt, a reading that emerges in the work of early modern chemists like Joseph Duschene (1540-1609) and Johann Glauber (1604-1670) (Problemas y secretos maravillosos de las Indias (México, 1591) and The Jewell House of Art and Nature (London, 1594)). But within this broad rubric of similarity there are important differences. The relatively stable gendered subjectivities of the mines, minerals, and laborers described in the Historia natural y moral de las Indias (Sevilla, 1590) by the Jesuit priest José de Acosta (1539-1600) and by the secular priest and metallurgist Álvaro Alonso Barba (1559-1662) in his Arte de los Metales (Madrid, 1640) stand in sharp contrast to the fluid gender identities that mark the soils, plants, and husbandmen of the English agricultural archive described by London-based writers John Fitzherbert (Boke of Surveying and Improvements (London, 1523)) and Gervase Markham (Booke of the English Husbandman (London, 1635)) and the Presbyterian minister John Flavell (Husbandry Spiritualized (London, 1669/1693; Boston, 1709)). A comparative, multilingual approach to the nature of gender, or the gender of nature, allows us to appreciate the range of complex ways in which early modern English and Spanish writers negotiate their relationship to the study and artful manipulation of American nature.