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.
This lesson was reported from:
It is a companion to Manila at the Crossroads of World Trade. It can also be used independently. This text is adapted in part from open sources.
Inside the Mines of Potosi
- Does the traditional story of Potosi’s discovery and naming sound likely to you? Why or why not?
- How did the Spanish extract and process the silver found at Potosi?
Inside the mines of Potosi, in modern day Bolivia, it is hot, even in the mid-winter month of July. The air is thick with silica and other fine particulate that will leave you a nasty set of respiratory disorders if you stay here a few years. I’m just visiting for the morning, but it is telling that the guys who work here are between the ages of 18 and 35 or so. You don’t get old doing this job.
According to legend, in about 1462, Huayna Capac, the eleventh Sapa Inca of the Inca Empire set out to tour the south of his realm, the altiplano of modern Bolivia, where much silver was mined. There, he saw the mountain of Cerro Rico, and, admiring its beauty and grandeur, he said (speaking to those of his Court):
‘This doubtless must have much silver in its heart’; whereby he subsequently ordered his vassals to go to the mountain … and work the mines and remove from them all the rich metal. They did so, and having brought their tools of flint and reinforced wood, they climbed the hill; and after having probed for its veins, they were about to open those veins when they heard a frightening thunderous noise which shook the whole hill, and after this, they heard a voice which said: ‘Do not take the silver from this hill, because it is destined for other masters.’ Amazed at hearing this reasoning, the Incan vassals desisted in their purpose and returned to the Inca, telling him what had happened; relating the occurrence in their own language, on coming to the word noise, they said ‘Potocsí’ which means there was a great thunderous noise, and from that later was derived (corrupting a letter) the name of Potosi.”
As with any story passed down orally, the accuracy of these events is debatable. What is certain, is that the Spanish arrived in the Inca Empire in 1532. Within just a few years, the whole of the empire – including the silver rich altiplano – were firmly under Spanish control.
Founded in 1545 as a mining town, Potosi soon produced fabulous wealth, and the population eventually exceeded 200,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world during the 1600s. The rich mountain, Cerro Rico, produced an estimated 60% of all silver mined in the world during the second half of the 16th century.
Potosi’s naturally pure deposits, along with technological advancements in production like the Patio process, allowed silver production costs to remain extremely low. In fact, Spanish American mines were the world’s cheapest sources of silver during this time period. Spanish America’s ability to supply a great amount of silver and China’s strong demand for this commodity resulted in a spectacular mining boom. The true champion of this boom in the silver industry was indeed the Spanish crown. By allowing private-sector entrepreneurs to operate mines and placing high taxes on mining profits, the Spanish empire was able to extract the greatest benefits. An example of a tax that was levied includes the quinto – the royal fifth – a 20% tax on all silver that came out of the mountain.
The Potosi mint used elaborate wooden machines to fashion the silver into bullion and into silver coins.
For Europeans, Potosi became a mythical land of riches. It is mentioned in Miguel de Cervantes‘ famous novel, Don Quixote (second part, chap. LXXI) as a land of “extraordinary richness.” One theory holds that the mint mark of Potosí (the letters “PTSI” superimposed on one another) is the origin of the dollar sign, although the likelier origin of the symbol is the $-shaped scroll-wrapped columns on the reverse of the Spanish dollar.
Forced Labor by Any Other Name
- What hazards did the miners of Potosi face?
- Why couldn’t El Tio exist anywhere except in this colony?
- Is there a difference between the mita – a tax paid through a labor – and slavery? Explain.
On the other hand, for the native peoples of western South America, Potosi came to be known as the mountain that eats men.
Indigenous laborers were conscripted and forced to work in Potosí’s silver mines through the traditional Incan mita system of contributed labor. Many of them died due to the harsh conditions of the mine life. At such a high altitude, pneumonia was always a concern and mercury poisoning took the lives of many involved in the refining process. According to Noble David Cook, “A key factor in understanding the impact of the Potosi mita on the Indians is that mita labor was only one form of work at the mines. A 1603 report stated that of 58,800 Indians working at Potosi, 5100 were mitayos, or less than one in ten. In addition to the mitayos there were 10,500 mingas (contractual workers) and 43,200 free wage earners. Yet mitayos were required to do the work others refused: predominantly the transport of the ore up the shafts to the mouth of the mine.”
To this day, miners descending into Potosi make an offering to the one they call Tio, a syncretic 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 little more than candles to light the way and coca leaves – which suppress the appetite and stimulate the nervous system – 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 – known as the patio process – 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, and that is just the official estimate.
By the mid-sixteenth century, it was well known in Spain that American silver production was in decline due to the depletion of high-grade ores and increasing production costs. The New Laws, prohibiting the enslavement of Indians, had resulted in higher labor costs as miners turned to wage labor and expensive African slaves. These higher production costs made mining and smelting anything but the highest grade silver ores prohibitively expensive, just as the availability of high grade ores was in decline.
The introduction of amalgamation to silver refining in the Americas not only ended the mid-sixteenth century crisis in silver production, it also inaugurated a rapid expansion of silver production in New Spain and Peru as miners could now profitably mine lower-grade ores. As a result of this expansion, the Americas became the primary producer of the world’s silver, with Spanish America producing three-fifths of the world’s silver supply prior to 1900.
While a number of factors resulted in the minimal use of forced Indian labor in Mexican silver production, the introduction of silver amalgamation allowed for an expansion of silver production in Peru that had profound consequences for Peru’s native population. Francisco Toledo, the Viceroy of Peru in the 1570s, saw amalgamation as the key to expanding Peruvian silver production. He encouraged miners to adopt amalgamation and construct mercury mines. More significantly, in order to provide sufficient labor to accommodate the expansion of silver mining to lower-grade ores, Toledo organized an Indian draft labor system, the mita – based on the Inca’s system of tribute to the government in the form of labor. In Spanish colonial times, however, and especially in Potosi, this was in actuality a very thinly-veiled form of slavery, different only in name to skirt the New Laws. Under this system, thousands of natives were forced to work in silver and mercury mines for less than subsistence-level wages.
Twelve thousand draft laborers regularly worked at the largest mine in the Americas, located at Potosí in modern Bolivia. Native attempts to avoid the mita led to the abandonment of many Indian villages throughout Peru. Spanish monopolization of refining through amalgamation cut natives out of what had earlier been a native-dominated enterprise. Refining represented the most profitable segment of silver production. In conjunction with the mita, the exclusion of natives from owning refineries contributed to the transformation of Peruvian natives into a poorly paid labor force.
So let’s put it this way… You needed someone looking out for you, and the devil 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 – the mita – that had brought you to this mine in the first place. The mountain is still a significant contributor to the city’s economy, employing some 15,000 miners. 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.
- In what ways was Potosi connected to other parts of the globe?
The silver was taken by llama and mule train to the Pacific coast. From there, the silver was transported by ship up the coast to the port of Acapulco (present-day Mexico), and from there on to Manila in the Philippines, which were then both part of New Spain. (Learn more about the Manila Galleon Trade.) Trade with Ming China via Manila – the designated trading post between the two great empires of China and Spain – served a major source of revenue for the Spanish Empire and as a fundamental source of income for Spanish colonists in the Philippine Islands. Due to official attempts to tax and control the galleon trade, contraband and the regular understating of the value and quantity of ships’ cargo became widespread – so it is impossible to say exactly how much silver crossed the Pacific this way.
Potosi was the linchpin 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 colonial 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 sailed west 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.
As The Annenberg Learner Project puts it:
“In China, the demand for silver initially drove the global economy. Then, by 1750, silver glutted the Chinese market, bringing its price down and leading to inflation. The devaluation of silver in China had a devastating financial effect on Spain as well — a fact that allowed its European competitors to gain the upper hand in a new global trade focused on sugar, tobacco, gold, and slaves.”
I hate to break it to 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.
Five hundred years ago, the central axis of global trade ran through this sleepy little town in southern Bolivia…
- Silver is all well and fine, but there are plenty of other components that make up the smartphone in your pocket. Choose one – such as lithium, crude oil, gold, or one of the more exotic elements named on this chart. Where in the world is this resource most commonly found? What does it take to extract it? To refine it? What is it used for? What are the environmental and social by-products of all of these processes? What conditions do the producers of this good live and work under? What are their lives like? Be sure to find photos and video to bring your research to life.
- The mita system, which brought many indigenous peoples into the mines and mint at Potosi was technically a tax paid through labor after the Spanish crown had explicitly outlawed slavery. However, it is not a great leap to say that the mita was actually slavery by another name. Today, slavery isn’t legal anywhere. And yet, it persists in many forms. Research one of those forms and create a presentation to raise awareness of this issue, its dangers, and the ways in which it is connected to business and industries which you may support through your own habits of consumption. What can you do to limit your connections to these industries? Create an infographic, poster, or comic strip that answers these questions for your peers.
- Find out what mining, manufacturing, or other industrial processes (like power production or waste management) occur in your area. Many such facilities have public relations teams, and frequently such organizations will offer tours. Go on one, with family, friends, or as a class trip, to learn about the ways in which the natural world is put to industrial and commercial uses in your own neighborhood.
- Take a guided visual tour through modern day Bolivia with this curated photo essay.
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann.
THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM FUND FOR TEACHERS.
You can actually visit the parts of the world featured in this lesson:
- Adventure Blog.
- A Guided Tour of Bolivia, 2016 – Explore the streets of La Paz and El Alto, scramble through the 500 year-old silver mines of Potosi, or race across the barren salt flats of Uyuni. Supplementary photos and information on Bolivia, past and present.
- A Guided Tour of Peru, 2016 – Explore the streets of Cusco and Lima, scramble through Inca ruins from Machu Picchu on down, take a slow boat up the Amazon River from Iquitos, and an even slower boat across Lake Titicaca to the floating man-made islands of the Uros. Supplementary photos and information on Peru, past and present.