If you walk around Potosí today, it’s hard to believe that it was once the center of the New World: the largest and richest city in the Americas. There are plenty of signs of faded grandeur; the city is filled with beautiful, but crumbling, colonial buildings.
Most travelers to Bolivia bypass the city. After touring the Salt Plains to the south, most head on to the lights of La Paz, planning to tour Lake Titicaca, cycle the world’s most dangerous road, or move on to Cuzco and Machu Picchu.
Others take a less-traveled path into Chile and the Atacama Desert then travel up to Ica, the condors of the Colca Canyon, and the mysterious Nazca Lines. Those coming from the north tend to skip Potosí altogether. This, however, is a mistake.
Its primary tourist attraction is the old silver mine. While it’s not much to look at – from the outside at least – this mine once provided a huge portion of the Spanish Crown’s revenue.
In the 1540s, the first Spanish explorers described a “thumb of silver” sticking out from the Altiplano. Mount Potosí was soon renamed El Cerro Rico, in honor of a huge outcropping of silver ore which ran down one side of the mountain, hinting at the vast riches which lay beneath.
Development was rapid. As Yale history professor John Demos describes (in his superb article The High Place):
From then on, for half a century, the boom around the cerro rico (rich hill) developed fantastically. In 1547 Potosí’s population was about 14,000, in 1571 perhaps 40,000, by 1600 at least 150,000. This raised it to the demographic level of the chief capitals of Europe and Asia (London, Amsterdam, Canton, Tokyo), and made it by far the largest human community in the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, its population formed an astonishing, unprecedented mix. A 1611 estimate included 3,000 Spaniards, 40,000 non-Spanish Europeans (French, German, Italian, Portuguese, English, among others), 35,000 Creoles (American-born, many of mixed-race parentage), 76,000 Indians (themselves representing numerous different ethnic and cultural backgrounds), and 6,000 Africans (nearly all held as slaves by white Potosínos).
Initially, African slaves were brought to work the mine. But when they struggled to adapt to the 4,200 meter (nearly 14,000 feet) altitude, the Spanish turned to the Indians.
They were slaves in all but name. Under the mita system, Indians were drafted – forcibly – as indentured laborers to work the mine. While they earned a nominal wage, many didn’t survive the appalling conditions in what the Indians came to call “the mountain that eats men.” By the time the Spaniards bled the mine dry three centuries later, this “mouth of hell” swallowed eight million souls.
Those who stayed above ground – the European settlers – profited handsomely. Silver was everywhere from horseshoes to church altars – even the streets outside the cathedral were resurface with silver bars. The mythical city of El Dorado had been made real, but silver.
Soon “Potosí” became a byword for unimaginable wealth across the world. Treasure hunters, prospectors, professional gamblers, matadors, and prostitutes descended on the city where the rich merchants and nobles competed with ostentatious displays of wealth. The city’s coat of arms bore the following legend: I am rich Potosí, Treasure of the world. The king of all mountains, And the envy of all kings.
Locals claim that the Spanish dug enough silver out of the ground to build a bridge all the way to Madrid. That’s not altogether fanciful. 99% of colonial Latin America’s exports was silver – most of that coming from Potosí.
The Spanish people, however, benefited little from the silver gushing into Seville’s Casa de Contratació. The Crown owed most of it to creditors all over Europe, and thus the wealth of Potosí ended up stimulating development across the continent.
After the Argentines declared independence at the start of the 19th century, they struck north, seeking to cross the Altiplano to launch a land assault on the capital of Spanish America, and the heart of Madrid’s power on the continent: Lima.
While Potosí’s fortunes had faded – the silver had dwindled – the city was still important enough to remain a primary objective, and was captured by Argentine forces who liberated the miners – many of whom enlisted. The city soon returned to Spanish hands though, as the Argentine army was driven back, and the retribution for the independence supporters left behind was especially fierce.
Today, all across Latin America, the regions that were richest in natural resources are now the most underdeveloped and poverty-stricken; Potosí is just one tragic example.
At the time of Argentina’s capture of Potosí during the independence wars, the area now known as Bolivia was more populous than all of Argentina. Now, the latter’s population is six times that of its northern neighbour.
Eduard Galeano, in the superb The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, called Potosí: an open wound of the colonial system in America: a still audible “J’accuse.”
The mine is still operational today, and tourists can experience the working conditions first-hand. I took a tour of the mine in 2005. I was already experiencing some of the effects of altitude sickness – confusion, disorientation, shortness of breath – but nothing too serious. Potosí was the highest I had been for an extended period. That is, until I entered the mine.
We were driven up to the market below the mine. Our tour guide – an ex-miner who had to retire after his arm was crushed by an ore-cart – explained that it was traditional to buy miners gifts of alcohol, hand-rolled cigarettes, coca leaves, and dynamite.
The mine is something of a free-for-all now, with 8,000 miners working in a variety of independent cooperatives. The problem is, nobody has sufficient capital for modern tools, so the methods used to extract the few metals that are left – such as tin – are quite crude.
Indeed, the conditions are particularly poor for the workers. Miners’ life expectancy averages at 40 years. The miners themselves reckon they have about ten years on the job before they succumb to an accident or silicosis (black lung disease).
The few older workers we saw were given the easiest jobs. Men kept them on their teams despite them not pulling their weight, as they were considered lucky. Our guide decided to give two of them a break from shovelling loose rock, and handed me a shovel.
Two minutes later, I had to stop – to the jeers of the guide and the old miners. The air is already noticeably thin at 4,200m (almost 14,000 feet), and we had descended down three levels of the mine where the air was filled with black soot.
There were seventeen more levels, but we didn’t want to go any lower. We were hoping to make it out in one piece. There is no “safety” as such, just the watchful eyes of your solitary guide. We walked down tracks while our guide listened out for the ore carts that would crush us without losing pace.
When he heard one approaching, we had to find some nook or cranny to jam ourselves in, clear of the track.
While travelling uphill, all these carts had to be pushed by hand by groups of miners. We passed several such groups, sweating, pleading for something to drink, but we had already given all our gifts away.
The whole experience had a profound effect on me. A few months later, while living in Northern Peru, I had an idea for a historical novel set during the South American independence wars called A Storm Hits Valparaíso. I knew I had to include the story of Potosí and the Indians that worked the mine, and my character Pacha was born.
A Storm Hits Valparaíso will be released next month. It has been a labor of love for five years, and I’m very excited about finally publishing it.
You can read an excerpt staring Pacha and Potosí here (scroll down past the writer talk), and more background on A Storm Hits Valparaíso here. If you would like to get an email when A Storm Hits Valparaíso is released, subscribe to my newsletter here.