[Marxism] Potosí: The Silver City That Changed the World

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 31 07:14:44 MDT 2019

NY Review, NOVEMBER 21, 2019 ISSU
The Silver Rush
J.H. ElliottE

Potosí: The Silver City That Changed the World
by Kris Lane
University of California Press, 248 pp., $32.95

In July 1964, after spending a night in the Bolivian city of Oruro, my 
wife and I caught a ramshackle bus in the early morning for the mining 
city of Potosí, some 13,000 feet above sea level in the Andes. We 
ascended at a snail’s pace until, some twenty miles from Potosí, the bus 
got stuck in a ditch from which, in spite of the combined efforts of the 
passengers, it proved impossible to dislodge. It was not only muddy but 
also freezing cold. We were fortunate to be rescued by a British 
compatriot, an employee of the Bolivian Tin Corporation, who happened to 
live nearby. After warming us beside his log fire and reviving us with 
hot soup, he took us back to the scene of the breakdown, where we waited 
in the dark for a relief bus that eventually arrived at 9:30 PM. Finally 
we made it to Potosí, where we passed a very cold night in a small and 
damp hotel room. The next morning we awoke to brilliant sunshine and a 
bright blue sky, although it remained bitterly cold, and the high 
altitude left us short of breath.

We went to Potosí because I was curious to see the famous Cerro Rico, 
the barren ochre-colored Rich Hill, also known as the Red Mountain, 
that, at 15,750 feet, towers over the city. This was the mountain that, 
in the century after its alleged “discovery” in 1545, produced nearly 
half the world’s silver. During that century the name of Potosí spread 
around the globe. It appeared on all the best maps, including one 
prepared in 1602 by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci as a gift for the Chinese 
emperor, and the strange conical shape of its mountain, originally 
depicted in a crude woodcut, was reproduced in countless images.

My desire to visit Potosí arose from my interest in the history of 
sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain, which could never have become 
the dominant power in early modern Europe without the regular supply of 
silver extracted from the mines of what is today Bolivia, but during the 
period of Spanish rule was part of the viceroyalty of Peru. Every year 
this silver was shipped to Seville, where it entered the royal coffers 
and those of financiers, merchants, and private individuals. From Spain 
the silver circulated through Europe, paying for the military and other 
expenses of the always indebted Spanish crown, facilitating private 
transactions, and flowing into Asia and the Far East, where it met the 
rising demands of Mughal India and Ming China for silver, and allowed 
Europeans in turn to purchase the spices, textiles, and other luxuries 
from the East that they craved. The quantities of silver from Potosí 
that reached Seville and were recorded by the officials of its House of 
Trade were staggering. Indeed, vale un Potosí—“worth a Potosí”—is an 
expression still used in Spain.

Encouragement to undertake what was then the arduous journey to Potosí 
came from Lewis Hanke of Columbia University, the doyen of 
Spanish-American colonial studies in the United States. He had spent 
time exploring the Potosí archives and told me, not very reassuringly, 
that anyone who did so deserved a medal. The cost and inconvenience of 
travel, the bitter cold, and the inadequate accommodation were all 
deterrents to visitors in the 1950s, and the sheer abundance of 
documents in the archives was likely to overwhelm even the most seasoned 
researcher. In 1956, on the strength of his initial research, Hanke 
published a short essay on this “boom town supreme” in which he observed 
that “our knowledge of Potosí may be said to be still in the folklore 
stage.”1 In the following years he himself did much to move it beyond 
that stage by publishing valuable source material and editing 
contemporary and historical accounts of a town described by the Emperor 
Charles V as “The Treasury of the World” and officially styled by his 
successor on the Spanish throne, Philip II, as “La Villa Imperial,” the 
“Imperial Town,” although he never raised it to the status of a city.

Hanke led the way, and others followed. In the 1970s Peter Bakewell, a 
British historian whose professional career was spent in North American 
universities, worked out silver production figures for Potosí that have 
been accepted as standard and went on to publish valuable studies both 
of entrepreneurship and the labor system in the Peruvian mines.2 But as 
Hanke made clear, there is much more to the history of Potosí than the 
extraction, refining, and export of its silver. When in 1545, twelve 
years after the Spanish “conquest,” a native Peruvian, Diego Gualpa, 
reportedly stumbled across fragments of silver-bearing ore on the 
mountainside, there was no human settlement nearby, although the Incas 
had exploited silver and gold mines in the region, and it is possible 
that indigenous peoples had sporadically mined for centuries at what was 
one of the many venerated sacred sites in the Andes to which the 
inhabitants brought their ritual offerings.

As soon as outcroppings of rich silver on the surface of the Cerro Rico 
had been identified, the rush was on. Hopeful conquistadores and mine 
owners already prospecting in the region hurried to the Red Mountain to 
stake out claims and begin the digging of pits and underground 
exploration. As Spaniards and native Andeans flocked to the mine, a 
formerly barren site mushroomed into a full-scale Spanish-style city, 
with more than 50,000 inhabitants by the early 1570s. By 1610, Potosí 
was reported to have a population of 160,000, larger than that of 
contemporary London.3

As Hanke realized, there was a whole other story waiting to be told—a 
story of explosive urban growth, of crime and extreme violence, and of 
glaringly conspicuous consumption. “No one single person,” he wrote, 
“can possibly hope to write the story—the full story—of Potosí.” Since 
Hanke’s time, social, environmental, and other aspects of life in Potosí 
have attracted the attention of growing numbers of historians, and Kris 
Lane gives a brief summary of the historiography in the bibliographical 
essay that concludes Potosí: The Silver City That Changed the World. 
Lane, who holds the chair in colonial Latin American history at Tulane 
University, is well known for his publications in the field, which 
include a study of the trade in emeralds and an urban history of Quito 
at the end of the sixteenth century.4 In turning his attention to 
Potosí, Lane has chosen a more spectacular South American city than 
Quito, and one that was of far more than local significance.

For anyone who wants to learn about the rise and decline of Potosí as a 
city, and more generally about its preeminent position in the global 
trade in silver following the mountain’s discovery, Lane’s book is the 
ideal place to begin. Although the division of his chapters into short 
sections tends to interfere with the flow of the narrative, he writes 
lucidly, and he has mastered the now voluminous secondary, as well as 
the primary, literature. Moreover, he would undoubtedly be a deserving 
recipient of Hanke’s medal for grappling with the rich documentation in 
Potosí’s Historical Archive, although this no longer demands the 
physical and mental fortitude required of Hanke. The city has better 
accommodation than in the past, and Bolivia’s traditionally welcoming 
archivists have done much to make their country’s documentary resources 
more accessible.

Lane’s research opens windows onto the lives of Potosí’s 
inhabitants—Spanish, indigenous, African, and those of mixed ethnicity. 
We are introduced, for instance, to María Pomachumbo, a native of Cuzco 
and the widow of a Spaniard, whose possessions, as inventoried after her 
death in 1588, included Inca-style clothing, “a shawl from Trujillo that 
looks Chinese,” and “gold and emerald jewelry in the Spanish style.” The 
list is indicative of the extraordinary range of goods, both regional 
and global, available to residents of Potosí. It also illustrates the 
presence and importance of women in the town, a long-neglected topic 
that is treated at greater length in a pioneering work by Jane E. 
Mangan, Trading Roles, which Lane rightly acknowledges.5

Although it adduces fresh examples from the archives, Potosí is 
essentially a work of synthesis that draws on and summarizes a vast body 
of literature without transforming the story already known. On the other 
hand, this may not really be possible, and Lane deserves credit not only 
for assembling so much old and new information into a convenient form, 
but also for reminding us that cities have a life of their own, 
regardless of their national or transnational importance. As he writes 
in his preface, the aim of his book is to “balance the local and the 
global by treating Potosí—city and mountain, mines and countryside—as an 
example of early modern global urbanism and extraction in action.”

In this he succeeds admirably. Where extraction is concerned, we learn, 
for instance, of the “reforms” introduced by Francisco de Toledo, the 
great but controversial viceroy of Peru between 1569 and 1581. It was 
Toledo who consolidated the forced labor system in the mines, the mita, 
in pursuit of his grand project to turn the previously anarchical 
Peruvian viceroyalty into a well-governed Spanish overseas dominion 
capable of delivering substantial annual revenues to a distant monarch. 
We learn in some detail, too, of the methods used for extracting silver 
from the ore, and of the enormous improvement in the refining process 
made by the large-scale introduction in the 1570s of mercury 
amalgamation, a process facilitated by the allegedly miraculous 
discovery of the mercury mine of Huancavelica, high in the central 
Andes. Toledo was also responsible for the establishment of a royal mint 
in Potosí, the casa de la moneda, which in due course would produce the 
famous piece of eight, the peso, stamped with a P mint-mark and royal 
coat of arms, that would be used and coveted across the world.

Along with describing the procedures used for extracting, refining, and 
minting, Lane explains how these processes shaped the character of the 
Villa Imperial and its surrounding region. Already by 1600, some 10,000 
mita workers, forcibly drafted in the numerous nearby villages and 
subjected to appalling working conditions above and below ground, were 
living in Potosí. They were joined by a growing army of free laborers, 
known as mingas, who put themselves up for hire in order to provide 
sustenance for themselves and their families, and to pay the annual 
tribute exacted from the indigenous population.

All these laborers had to be kept supplied with food and drink, as did 
the vast numbers who took up residence in the town, whether to find 
occupation in the mining and service sectors, turn a quick profit as 
merchants and entrepreneurs, or enjoy the many opportunities for a life 
of ease that resulted from Potosí’s being a production and marketing 
center and a hub of complex regional and global networks. These 
developments in turn involved the creation of a supply system dependent 
on the coming and going of long tethered lines of llamas laden with as 
heavy a burden as they could manage and reinforced by mules, which were 
less well adapted than llamas to the high altitude but capable of 
bearing heavier loads. Some of the documents unearthed by Lane are so 
detailed that they even tell us the names bestowed by mule drivers on 
their reluctant charges: La Morisca, La Doctora, and El Tirano, a 
tyrannical black male.

Lane rightly emphasizes the enormous environmental changes brought to 
the region by the creation of a mining economy. The refiners needed 
hydraulic mills to crush the ores and also, at Viceroy Toledo’s urgent 
insistence, mills for the refining process. This in turn necessitated 
the provision of a reliable water supply, which could only come from the 
construction of reservoirs, canals, and aqueducts on a huge scale. All 
this construction transformed the physical landscape, just as the growth 
of a vast urban complex in the high Andes transformed the human 
landscape. The Spanish center of the city, with its characteristic grid 
layout, came to be haphazardly ringed by suburbs. These were intended 
for a segregated Indian population, but segregation tended to break down 
under the pressure of a continuing influx of new residents of diverse 
origin; and native Andeans, Africans, and people of mixed blood were 
soon jostling each other at the market stalls in the crowded city center 
nominally set apart for Spaniards and their creole descendants.

The human suffering caused by the creation of this monstrous mining 
complex in the heart of the Andes is incalculable. Thousands upon 
thousands of miners lost their lives, either as the result of accidents 
in terrifyingly dangerous working conditions or from exposure to mercury 
vapor, lead, zinc, and other toxins showered down on the city by the Red 
Mountain that loomed above it. Their wives and children, too, died by 
the thousands from disease, malnutrition, and forcible removal from 
their homes.

Yet as Lane also shows, the cruelty and oppression that are so widely 
seen as epitomizing the history of Spanish rule in America and have done 
so much to reinforce what became known as the “Black Legend” of Spain’s 
conduct as the dominant imperial power in early modern Europe and the 
Americas6 are far from being the whole story. In America, while one 
world was being brutally destroyed, another was painfully being born. To 
some, at least, in this emerging world the arrival of the European 
intruders expanded horizons and offered new and unexpected 
opportunities. In Lane’s eloquent words, “Potosí has always been a site 
of struggle and innovation, a dense concentration of predictable losses 
and unpredictable successes, an indigenous space and also a complex 
African and European one, a woman-centered world in spite of men’s best 

The evidence for these assertions is to be found in the information 
that, especially in the city’s early days, the refining sector was 
almost entirely in the hands of native Andeans; that native traders and 
merchants took advantage of the bonanza to become rich; and that by the 
mid-seventeenth century as many as a fifth of the refining mills 
belonged to women, while other women owned mines, farms, ranches, and 
rural and urban properties. Many of these women were widows who were 
entitled under Spanish inheritance law to take possession of a portion 
of their husbands’ properties and estates. Most of them came from 
settler families, but others were recent arrivals from Spain, and a few 
were indigenous or ethnically mixed women married to white property-owners.

Lane brings out well the complex hues of a society too easily portrayed 
in monotone by advocates of the Black Legend of Spanish rule. While 
native Andeans and the growing numbers of slaves imported from Africa to 
meet the city’s needs were, in one form or another, victims of a brutal 
and coercive system, this does not necessarily mean that they are to be 
defined exclusively as victims. Alongside the more spectacular success 
stories chronicled in this book, innumerable more modest victories were 
won on a daily basis by those who learned to work the system and refused 
to bow before it. This was particularly true of the women of all races 
who dominated the urban market. As street vendors, stall-holders, and 
traders in commodities in daily demand like the coca leaves 
remorselessly chewed as antidotes to hard labor in high altitudes or the 
addictive indigenous maize beer known as chicha, these women knew 
exactly how to flout and circumvent the regulations intended to control 
their sale. Far from being passive, they were active agents of their own 
fate insofar as the coercive system under which they lived allowed. In 
Lane’s words: “Traces of their agency litter the record.”

He also qualifies another aspect of the Black Legend—the alleged absence 
of entrepreneurial skills among Spaniards, and the technical and 
scientific backwardness of Hispanic society as a whole. The history of 
Potosí gives the lie to these assumptions. In an environment wide open 
to new enterprises, like that of viceregal Peru, entrepreneurship 
flourished. The Basques in particular were quick to arrive and seize 
their opportunities. They were soon a dominant force in the city, where 
violent gang warfare broke out in the 1620s when their dominance was 
challenged by other Spaniards no less keen to enjoy the benefits.

The most successful entrepreneur in Potosí and probably the richest man 
in seventeenth-century Peru, Antonio López de Quiroga, was a native of 
Galicia, but there was no lack of entrepreneurial skills among those who 
arrived from regions of the peninsula other than Galicia and the Basque 
provinces. Some fell by the wayside, crippled by debt in a society that 
lived on credit. Others, however, whether estate owners producing food 
and wine for the growing urban market or merchants engaged in local and 
international trade, not only made fortunes but also contributed 
decisively to the creation and development of Peru’s mining economy.

To function effectively and produce silver at sustainable levels, this 
economy depended from the start on many forms of technological 
expertise. It also required, as the veins of silver that were easier to 
mine ran dry, a constant willingness to innovate. Here again native 
Spaniards, although no doubt drawing on a common fund of European 
knowledge and experience, were in the forefront. There were already 
well-developed skills among ironmongers in the Basque country and among 
miners and prospectors in the copper and mercury mines of Andalusia. A 
merchant from Seville, Bartolomé de Medina, developed the mercury 
amalgamation system that transformed the refining process, while another 
immigrant, Álvaro Alonso Barba, born and raised in the vicinity of 
Andalusia’s famous Río Tinto mine, traveled through the mining regions 
of Peru, introduced valuable technological improvements in Potosí, and 
published a treatise, The Art of Metals, in 1640 that was consulted 
throughout Europe and the Indies.

Yet even with all these improvements, Potosí’s silver production had 
passed its peak by the opening years of the seventeenth century, and 
finally, in the eighteenth, Peru would be overtaken by Mexico as the 
principal source of supply. There were various reasons for this. Already 
by the end of the sixteenth century, the rich veins of ore, which were 
concentrated in the summit of the mountain, were being depleted. Miners 
thus had to tunnel deeper underground, which meant higher costs. Then, 
near the end of the rainy season in 1626, a section of the dam that 
contained the San Ildefonso reservoir gave way. The resulting flood not 
only killed hundreds of people but also wiped out crushing mills and 
amalgamation refineries. On top of this, corrupt merchants, mill owners, 
and mint officials siphoned off large quantities of silver that should 
have been properly registered, which led to a debasement of the coinage 
that for a time shook worldwide confidence in Potosí-minted pesos. 
Effective royal action in the 1640s put an end to the worst abuses, but 
the accumulation of natural and man-made disasters gradually made 
Peruvian silver less able to compete with that of the Mexican mines.

Under the Spanish Bourbon kings, reformers in the eighteenth century had 
some success in reviving Peruvian output, but European expertise was not 
necessarily superior to local knowledge, and the results were frequently 
disappointing. Corruption and vested interests were powerful obstacles 
to change, and even after Peru and Bolivia won independence in the early 
nineteenth century and silver was replaced in the 1890s by tin as the 
principal metal extracted from the Bolivian mines, Potosí never returned 
to the glories of its heyday, in spite of all the new technology and 
investment brought to bear in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The city’s Baroque churches and convents are a continuing reminder of 
those glories. But for anyone who visits Potosí, it is impossible to 
ignore the suffering and the horrors that accompanied them. As one 
stands on those cold streets looking up at the Red Mountain, no view, 
however picturesque, can obliterate the painful truth: the city whose 
fluctuating fortunes are so effectively chronicled by Lane was a city 
built on greed.

Lewis Hanke, The Imperial City of Potosí: An Unwritten Chapter in the 
History of Spanish America (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1956), p. 3.  ↩

Bakewell reproduces a graph of these estimates, originally published in 
article form, in his Miners of the Red Mountain: Indian Labor in Potosí, 
1545–1650 (University of New Mexico Press, 1984), pp. 28–29. For his 
study of entrepreneurship, see his Silver and Entrepreneurship in 
Seventeenth-Century Potosí: The Life and Times of Antonio López de 
Quiroga (University of New Mexico Press, 1988).  ↩

Bakewell, Silver and Entrepreneurship, p. 191, note 45. ↩

Colour of Paradise: The Emerald in the Age of Gunpowder Empires (Yale 
University Press, 2010); Quito 1599: City and Colony in Transition 
(University of New Mexico Press, 2002). ↩

Trading Roles: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Urban Economy in Colonial 
Potosí (Duke University Press, 2005). ↩

For the Black Legend, see my “Spain’s America” in these pages, May 9, 
2019. ↩

More information about the Marxism mailing list