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Potosí: The Lost City of Silver

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. 

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About davidgaughran

David Gaughran is an Irish writer, living in Prague, and author of Mercenary, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, Let's Get Digital, Let's Get Visible and this here blog thing.

Discussion

16 thoughts on “Potosí: The Lost City of Silver

  1. Wow what an awesome follow up to reading Pacha’s chapter.

    It is obvious that your tour of the mine impacted you greatly. I can only sit here dumbfounded imagining what it must be like. i wish we all could have a chance to experience that sort of thing. How good it would be in building the character of our youth in to not talking for granted all that they have.

    :} Cathryn

    Posted by Cathryn Leigh | November 26, 2011, 8:55 pm
    • Thanks Cathyrn,

      It really was a fascinating experience, on so many levels – one that I will always remember.

      Dave

      Posted by davidgaughran | November 26, 2011, 8:59 pm
    • I have often wondered why Bolivia really came tumbling down from the wealth of the Potosi mine during the Colonial period, to having the poorest economy in Latin America today. Your article above is fascinating and really well explained. It shows and helps you understand how Spanish colonialism well exploited South America as a whole, thus creating the poverty that spread throughout this whole continent, especially in Bolivia, nearly 5 centuries on.

      To add insult to Bolivia’s injury, poverty has particularly been rife in Bolivia since losing the Gran Chaco mines to Paraguay, following a war in the 1930s. I’m surprised that tourists overlook the Potosi mine. I thought it would be an attraction enough to remind themselves of the area’s lost wealth, if only for them to imagine what life was like in those early colonial days, like the working conditions in the mine etc, thus generating at least some source of imcome to help Bolivia’s economy recuperate.

      Posted by Mike Reed | December 26, 2011, 11:16 am
      • The Grand Chaco war is (yet another) tragic story, and I hope to write about it soon. Maybe after I write something about the War of the Triple Alliance so it all fits together.

        Posted by davidgaughran | December 26, 2011, 2:03 pm
  2. Hi David,

    Wow! I can’t believe you actually went there. What a story! Looking forward to reading about it when your book is finished. This kind of story makes us realize how lucky we are.

    Posted by Melissa | November 26, 2011, 11:39 pm
  3. When I was (in) there there was one episode that I will never forget: The guide took out from his bag some of the dynamite we had bought down in the miners’ part of town, prepped it and stuck it into some small holes in the walls. And then he lit the fuse. And then he just stood there, watching the fuse fizz – and get smaller. I asked if we shouldn’t move away but he just answered something I did not understand. Then I and several others started moving away, quickening our pace with each step. Finally the guide followed, along with the rest of the group – who apparently were more courageous than me and a few others.

    And then the damn things exploded, and the walls around us shook, literally. I’ll never forget that blast – we had perhaps moved one or two hundred meters away (but I’m not sure) and taken several turns, but it was like being hit by a hammer all over the body. The shockwave from the blast was just … well, I’ve never in my life experienced anything like it, not even at the military training range.

    Needless to say, this story makes for a good yarn at the dining table back home, but to be frank I feel all the more cold thinking about the men, and children, who still work there; the conditions. (The guide BTW never warned anyone that he was detonating our dynamite, and neither were we warned for the rest of the trip – when we heard – and felt – several other detonations, although somewhat further away.)

    I talked to two of the miners during a break and they were quite stoic about their lot, it seemed – almost relaxed; while I was just thinking all the time – ‘My God, if only I could get you out of here … Heck, *I* want to go out of here!’

    P.S.

    There’s this movie, “The Devil’s Miner” – http://www.thedevilsminer.com/index_new.html – which I recommend very much. It’s probably the best – mediated – experience of what it’s like being down there, that I can think of. And the movie itself is both very beautiful and horrific and the same time – a great piece of work. (And there’s also a link to an ongoing collection for the children who work in the mountain, should one be interested in that.)

    Posted by Christopher Marcus | November 27, 2011, 2:23 am
  4. What an incredible post! My grandparents held stock in the salvage company that eventually found the wreck Nuestra Senora de Atocha off the Florida coast. It was loaded with silver and all pieces of eight had the “P” stamped on them – the asayer’s mark for Potosi. But I never knew anything about the place. Now I do! Thank you so much. I’ll keep an eye out for your book too.

    Posted by Mike Poynton | November 28, 2011, 12:02 am
  5. Awesome content davidgaughran! Keep up excellent work and forever keep making post such as this one.

    Posted by Cerra | November 30, 2011, 2:37 am
  6. This was an absolutely fascinating post, David. I clicked on the link because I had heard the name Potosi before, although in a completely different context. My brothers, who were all Boy Scouts, went to Camp Potosi, near Las Vegas, every year to do those scouty things they did. Because we lived in Las Vegas, I always assumed that it was a Spanish name, but never knew what it was or where it came from. So I have now been educated! What a tragic tale of the complete ruin of a place and of the people unfortunate enough to get caught up in its story. Thank you for sharing not only the history of the mine but your personal reaction to it. Your stories are hair-raising, but we are all grateful you made it out alive.

    Posted by susannahsharp | December 3, 2011, 7:53 am
  7. “Sentinel without arms, town without spirit, people without grace, land without water, sun without warmth: Each one there-stranger or citizen-should calculate his risks beforehand. An audacious start and a cautious retreat are indispensable. Mines of legendary name – many prosperous and some now empty – climb from slope to slope the length of the cordillera, in constant struggle with the earth.” Adolfo Costa du Rels, Los Andes No Creen en Díos (Quoted in Norman Gall’s article on the Patino mines, “Bolivia, the Price of Tin,” dated January, 1974 @ http://www.normangall.com/bolivia_art2.htm).
    .
    Hello Dave,
    A pleasure to read of your adventures in Potosi. The story of the oppression of the miners (and peasants in general) of Bolivia is, indeed, a sad story which goes back centuries. The Spanish raped their lands, but Patino who was a native, also made millions in tin mining that helped to bring about the 1952 Revolution. As a child, I lived only a few blocks from his estate in Cochabama which is recollected in my novel, “When the Eagle Flies with the Condor.”

    I will be following your blog and look forward to your new book about Argentina. Is it out yet? Congratulation, Sue.

    Posted by sue | December 9, 2011, 8:07 pm
    • Hi Sue,

      Thank you very much. I’ll be checking out your book.

      Mine is nearly done – the second half goes off to the editor tomorrow. It should be out before Christmas, but I’ll announce it here. The paperback will follow in January but I’m doing everything I can to have the e-book up for sale before Christmas Day.

      Dave

      Posted by davidgaughran | December 9, 2011, 8:13 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  3. Pingback: Colonial Peru, the Caste System, and the “Purity” of Blood « South Americana - March 20, 2012

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