Inside the mines of Potosi, it is hot and the air is thick with silica and other particulate that will leave you with a nasty set of respiratory disorders if you stay here a few years. I’m just visiting to the morning, but it is telling that the guys who work here seem to be firmly between the ages of 18 and 35 or so. You don’t get old doing this job.
Miners make an offering to the one they call Tio, a 8syncretic deity of the underworld inspired by the Christian devil and the Pachatata, the traditional Andean father of the earth. His effigy guards the entrance of the mine, and he is practically drowning in coca leaves, cigarettes, and a liquor preferred by the miners that bears more than a passing resemblance to rubbing alcohol.
Tio keeps you safe on a dangerous job, deep in a mine that has been actively worked for 500 years using basically the same technology – pick axes, carts, and shovels are the primary tools of the trade, though now miners also avail themselves of pneumatic jackhammers and the occasional stick of dynamite. In the colonial period, the Spanish sent Aymara and Quechua men into the mines for six day stretches with nothing but candles to light the way and coca leaves to stave off the hunger.
The conditions were so appalling that here – and in the mint down below in the city, where the indigenous workers purified and processed the silver into bars and coins, a process which among other things, in the sixteenth century involved deadly exposure to mercury on a constant basis – that at least eight million people died in Potosi during the two hundred plus years that the Spanish operated the mine.
So let’s put it this way… You needed someone looking out for you, and Tio might as well be the guy, because the Spanish running the place were scarier and meaner.
Tio also guides miners to the fertile veins of silver – hence his “excited” feature, which the miners douse with alcohol upon entering the mine for the day. If he is virile and productive, so is the mine. In the old days, that meant you could pay the Spanish the tax that had brought you to this mine in the first place. These days, the mines are run by workers’ cooperatives, and depending on commodities markets and the richness of the vein, the average miner earns between $15 and $20 a day… And while that is pretty decent pay for Bolivia, remember that you’re more or less looking at forced medical retirement by your fortieth birthday.
If the Cusco and the Sacred Valley were the first integral part of the project I am working on for Open Ended Social Studies, then Potosi is the second. It is the lynchpin of Spanish colonial rule in South America. Sure, there were some big paydays early on – the ransom of Atahualpa and the sack of Cusco – but it was the vast silver mine of Potosi that made the whole project worthwhile. The silver discovered inside of one mountain here is to this day the largest and purest single deposit found anywhere in the world… It was exploited using thinly veiled indigenous slave labor, its product flooded the Spanish economy, fueling that empire for some 400 years, and, loaded on galleons bound for the Spanish Philippines, it was the key cog that realized the Spanish dream of trade with Imperial China. After all, let’s not forget that trade with Asia was why Columbus set out in 1492 in the first place.
Our textbooks often let that point slip, but the Spanish sure didn’t. The silver mined at Potosi ultimately undermined the Chinese economy, too, playing no small part in the process that lead to European domination of that great nation by the 19th century.
I hate to break it to the populists of the world, but globalization is nothing new – the indigenous peoples slaving away in the Potosi mines 500 years ago could tell you all about it, while Europeans cracked the whip in order to buy Asian-made goods at affordable prices. Add in the fact that the mines were supplied with food and coca by African slaves laboring away in the low lands, and you have a template for the modern integrated global economy – exploitation, unequal rewards, and all.
And it all started here 500 years ago.
Thanks to Fund for Teachers, my students and anyone else who finds their way to Open Ended Social Studies will get to learn all about this semi-forgotten phase of world history in vivid detail. Consider this verbose post a very rough previe. Can you tell I’m excited?
Intent not to have a mad dash, tablet smashing repeat of my last night bus experience, I arrived at Potosi’s Nuevo Terminal exceptionally early.
I can tell my Spanish is improving because I ended up talking to a family of Bolivians – Franklin, Franklin, Jr., and Noelia – for over an hour. We weren’t discussing string theory, mind you, but I can honestly say it was one of the most completely enjoyable hours of my entire trip. The bus broke down yesterday, I met these folks today – this kind of unpredictability, for pleasant or worse, is what separates this from a trip to Disney World. And why, for pleasant or worse, I’ll take this over Mickey any day.
To boot, check out this swanky three wide sleeper bus… My last night bus was four wide, and I ended up sleeping halfway on top of a German guy.