Potosi: The Mine that Changed the World

Sketch of Potosi in 1533
The discovery of the Americas was just the start of an exploration of a land that had so much potential and resources. A new economic order in Europe brought so much change in trade and economic perspective and policies. This new policy, called Mercantilism, brought the need for the control of sources of raw materials as well as new markets for manufactured products. This led to a wave of imperialism, colonialism, and a search for sources of wealth. The Spanish, in particular, were keen to discover El Dorado, the city of gold. But what they found out in the Peruvian highlands was almost similar in size of wealth. Cerro de Potosi would change a landscape of the mountain itself and world commerce as a whole.

Cerro de Potosi was the dubbed the mountain of silver. Located in the highlands of modern day Bolivia, it is a mountain shaped like a tent in appearance. Filled with rough terrain and grasses called quinua, Potosi was a mountain of one of a kind. Beneath its grasses and rugged terrain, numerous amount of silver ore could be mined just from its surface. The abundance of silver of Potosi led to its exploitation by the Spaniards.

The thirst of the Spaniards for the treasures of Potosi could be attributed to the prevailing economic trend in Europe. In Europe the trend called mercantilism spread throughout the continent. A part of this doctrine was the belief that the wealth a nation was based on the amount of precious metal that it had. Gold and silver were then treasured. In order to keep the reserves of precious metal, trade had to be in favor of the home country. And it would be better if the home country had a land that had abundant natural resources. If a home country, for example Spain, had established a colony, its silver or gold reserves would not be used to pay other countries to acquire the needed raw materials. In addition, a colony could also serve as a market for manufactured goods, which would further expand the gold and silver that Spain had. This eventually led for the exploration of new lands with huge endowment of resources and the search for the fabled city of gold, El Dorado, which would bring huge wealth to Spain and its discoverer. This economic thought brought Spain to the Americas and ultimately, to Cerro de Potosi.

During the late 1520’s and the 1530’s, the search for El Dorado reached western South America. Francisco Pizarro had brought down the mighty Inca Empire. Other conquistadors then flooded to the area and began to search for fortune. By the end of 1530’s Spain was firmly settled in Western South America. A Viceroyalty was established, the Viceroyalty of Peru. Exploitation of natural minerals then began.

The discovery of wealth of Potosi was made by revenge to a neighbor. In 1540’s a native worker of the Porco silver Mines, named Hualpa (Gualpa) travelled with pacts of llamas carrying supplies to the mines. During their pass to Potosi, one of the llamas went out of the line and climb up the steep slopes of Cerro Potosi. Hualpa immeadiately followed the llama to get it back with the pack. To climb up the rugged terrain he held onto the quinuas. However, one of the quinua he held was suddenly uprooted. As the plant was pulled out of the soil, it revealed ores of silver. Working as a miner, Hualpa had a good eye for silver. Upon his return to the nearest town, he checked the grade of the silver. Upon closer inspection, it showed that the silver ore was of high quality and thus, highly valuable. Hualpa then return day after day in secret to Cerro Potosi to mine silver ore. After a month, his discreet mining of Potosi allowed him to buy luxurious items, new clothes, good food, etc. Then one of Hualpa’s neighbors, Hunca (Gunca), became curious of the sudden riches of his neighbor. Hunca confronted Hualpa. With much persuasion, Hunca managed Hualpa to give up his secret to him. Hualpa showed to Hunca the source of his wealth, Cerro de Potosi. In exchange for his silence, Hualpa agreed with Huanca to divide the mountain between them. One side would be mined by Hualpa, and the other belonged to Hunca. Sometime later, Hunca discovered that it was more difficult to mine silver on his side than that of Hualpa. And so, Hunca asked Hualpa to redraw the division of the mountain. Hualpa, however, turned the request down. Unluckily for Hualpa, Hunca was a yanaconas or a servant of a Spanish landowner or an encomendero. Hunca told his Spanish master, Juan de Villaroel, the secret silver ores of Cerro de Potosi. Hualpa was no much to wealth, power, and influence of the Spanish landowners. And so in April 1545, de Villaroel and Hunca registered to the court the first lots that were to be mined in Cerro de Potosi. After the two mined so much from the mountain, many more Spaniards went to the mountain and began a silver rush in the area.

The area of Potosi grew because of its silver. Many dubbed the mountain, Cerro de Rico, or Mountain of Riches. A town soon grew just in the base of the mountain. As a sign of importance of the town, it was called Villa Imperial de Carlos V or the Imperial City of Charles V. Miners came to the area to see that the mountain was so rich that from its surface, silver could already be collected. It population rose tremendously because of the silver mining industry. In 1548, the population of the town of Potosi was 14,000, just after a hundred years, it boomed to 160,000.

Besides the Spaniards, initially, the natives too benefited from the Potosi silver rush. The Spaniards did not have the expertise to refine silver. The only once who have capability were the natives. The natives used guayra or wind ovens that would refine the silver ores and remove the impurities with it. Because of the massive demand for refining services, thousands of guayras could be seen operating in the city proper of Potosi.
Native working in the mine of Potosi
On the other hand, the natives were not just refiners, but they were also managers. Encomenderos sometimes entrusted to their native servants or yanaconas, the management of their mines. These yanaconas then hired native workers to work in their mining shafts. A system of sharing the fruits of labor was prevalent. The native worker would pay a share of silver to the yanaconas, as well as to the mine shaft owner.

With the growth of population and wealth, other work could also be seen showing up in the city. Because of its location in the highlands, supplies were needed to be transported from the lowland plains up. With a big population started to grow in Potosi, the higher demand for food followed. The result merchants of food stuffs began to prosper within the city. Alongside of food vendors were luxury item sellers. Because of increasing wealth within the area propelled by silver, many had the money to spend in luxurious items. Sellers of imported cloth, wine, and jewelry began to benefit from the Potosi mining. Also, with wealth flowing continuously, servants and slaves were also brought in in order to cater the service needed to maintain the houses of the wealthy. The government of Potosi also made efforts to show their development. In 1561, they ceded from the province of La Plata after paying 79,000 pesos. By 1663, they were given a coat-of-arms. Potosi became a buzzing city as long as silver continued to flow.

The mining of silver in Potosi continued for a decade until suddenly in late 1560’s, production began to falter. Over mining at the surface of the mountain resulted to its immediate depletion. Because of the depletion of silver at the surface, miners had to resort in digging further bellow the mountain. It cost huge money and labor, two things that were difficult to obtain. Because of decrease in production, mine owners had little profit left. In addition, labor became scarce as mining jobs became tougher. Not to mention, Silver that came out from these mine became more difficult to refine. Potosi became suddenly in a state of depression.

Two individuals would help to once again revive the mines of Cerro de Potosi. The first person was a man miles away from the mine of Potosi. Bartolome de Medina, a merchant from Seville, introduced the process of using mercury to refine and extract silver ore from the rocks of the mine of Mexico. His mercury amalgam process reached the highlands of modern day Bolivia in the late 1660’s. The introduction of the amalgam process coincide by the start of office of a new viceroy of Peru, Francisco de Toledo, in 1669.. A man of piety, loyalty, and good administration, he would preside over the revival and reformation of Potosi. Under his administration, the mercury amalgam process was spread to Potosi. The result was a sudden change in the landscape. The hundreds of wind mills that power the guayras of the natives suddenly disappeared and were replaced by only few Spanish owned hydro powered refineries called azogueros. From paid laborers, Toledo initiated a system of draft labor based on the pre-Columbian system of mita. Under Toledo’s labor system, abled body men must work for a year for free once for every six years. Pool of free labor then flowed to the mines of Potosi. Once again, the mine became active and Potosi began to grow once again with the natives bearing much of the burden of mining silver without pay.

Toledo also initiated new laws and policies in Potosi. He instituted rules of ownership of mines in Potosi. It brought organization to the more than 600 mine owners, each owning a shaft in the mountain. Also, he established a royal mint that would process the silver ores into silver coins, bars, and bullions. The mint allowed the viceroyalty to remit one fifth of the annual silver ores mines to the crown of Spain.

Potosi continued to develop during and after 1570 until late 1600’s. For centuries silver continued to flow from the city. Its silver powered the Spanish and later, the world economy. Most of the silver coins that circulated the world economy came from the mines of Potosi. Potosi changed the face of world trade, leading to the development of mercantile nations, like Britain and the Netherlands. But the silver bonanza of Potosi would not last long. By the latter half of 1600’s, the silver of the Potosi became scarcer and scarcer. The depletion of silver from the Cerro de Rico led to the sudden abandonment of the city that once flourished.

Although the mines of Potosi no longer produce that much silver, its legacy continued. Because of Potosi silver, Spain saw a golden age. A surged of wealth that later spilled to its neighbors and later throughout the world. Its silver funded great works of art and sciences. Its mines produce wealth, but the burden it gave to the natives should also be remembered.

See also:
Ghana Empire

Acosta, J. Natural and Moral History of the Indies. US: Duke University Press, 2002.

Klein, H. A Concise History of Bolivia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Morales, W. A Brief History of Bolivia. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2010.

Robins, N. Mercury, Mining, and Empires: The Human and Ecological Cost of Colonial Silver Mining in the Andes. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2011.


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