Karin Amundsen is the 2019-2021 OI-NEH Postdoctoral Fellow.
I am a historian of early modern Britain and the Atlantic World focusing on the influence of alchemy and metallurgy in the development of English colonization. I completed my Ph.D. at the University of Southern California with support from the Institute of Historical Research, the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute, and the Omohundro Institute-Jamestown Rediscovery Center.
My book manuscript examines the key role alchemy and metallurgy played in stimulating and defining English colonization in the Americas during the century between Martin Frobisher’s arctic voyages and King Philip’s War. Sustained interest in establishing English colonies in the Americas emerged from an efflorescence of projects in the Tudor period that brought new technologies and expertise to England and generated capital for large-scale enterprises. In particular, advances in navigation and metallurgy gave English projectors confidence that they could master nature via transoceanic navigation and the exploitation of American mines, as the Spanish were doing. Colonial projectors looked to New World mines to address a perceived crisis in political and religious authority, as well as social and economic volatility: enhancing the Crown’s supply of gold and silver bullion, they said, would reduce royal debts, enlarge the circulating currency, and provide for the kingdom’s defense, thus shoring up royal authority; finding base metals like copper, iron, and calamine would supplement domestic industries, reduce competition over woodlands and waterways, and provide employment for the idle masses. As mining was a long-term, capital-intensive enterprise, early on colonial projectors realized that they would need to transplant a cross-section of English society to provide necessary infrastructure and ongoing capital for their mining operations to be successful. In other words, mining in the Americas went hand-in-hand with settler plantations. To attract investors and adventurers, projectors turned to alchemical philosophy to rationalize colonization as a public good and to grant England’s conquest of indigenous peoples an eschatological significance. Far from being considered a form of plunder, the search for American mines was understood as an integral part of England’s economic and moral reformation.
During my OI-NEH fellowship, I will be researching and writing the final chapter of my manuscript about the New England ironworks at Braintree/Saugus. Research for this chapter will include visits to the Massachusetts Historical Society, the National Archives, Kew, and Cambridge University.