Potosí, Bolivia: a silver mountain led to riches and death

A visit to a city sky-high in the Andes is to step back into the 17th century and the tragedy that resulted from Spain's quest for wealth. Photo: Outskirts of Potosí

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md, August 23, 2011—Of all the places I have visited, Potosí in Bolivia remains the most interesting. Its history has been explained in many different ways, and the numerous explanations simply seem to add to the legendary nature of the city.

To get to Potosí one has to take a plane from La Paz, one of the highest capitals in the world. Service is only available in the early hours of the morning as it is the only time when the extremely high velocity winds in the area allow any access between these two cities. Before leaving La Paz, it is traditional to have some coca tea to help with the altitude sickness you, like almost all visitors, will begin experiencing.

Why? Potosí lies at 13,400 feet above sea level, high even for the Andes. To get up to that level, first you fly through a narrow alley between very high mountains. Just as you get used to the crush of adrenaline this creates, the sun appears between two of these mountains and it’s truly magical.

First, let me put you in context of my visit there. While working for the US Agency for International Development, I was asked to visit the city and do an evaluation of mining techniques. I was already curious and knew a lot about the city. Once I got there, I became positively fascinated by its history and local folklore, which include many legends.

The old part of the city dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries. It was during this era when it became one of the most populated and rich urban centers of the world with a population of about 200,000. Adventurous Spanish noblemen actually resided in the city during its apogee. Street names attest to their residency there.

The main reason for its richness and high population was the discovery of silver in Mount Potosí overlooking the city. The common name for the mountain is “Mount of Riches” or “Cerro Rico” in Spanish. Estimates on the amount of pure silver mined in this location range from about 45,000 to 80,000 metric tons of pure silver, making it the largest silver mine area in the world.

Potosí was founded in 1546, as a mining city and was, throughout the Spanish colonization of Latin America, its richest conquest. It was part of the Perú Viceroy’s domain and was then known as part of “Alto Perú” or “High Perú.” The main, rich silver vein in the Mount was largely depleted by the beginning of the 19th century, and eventually became principally a tin mining area.

Spanish view of Potosi, Boliva

While mining in the original traditional mining shafts is still practiced, a significant portion is done on the “tailings.” These are leftover material from both the original and subsequent mining. The main products are silver and lead concentrates and silver and zinc concentrates. Tin, however, has currently lost much of its commercial value due to very low international prices.

In addition to the general Spanish exploitation of this area and its environmental impact on the topography and ecology of the region, there is more ignominy to the history of silver mining in this area. I heard recently that PBS made a documentary about child labor in Cerro Rico. But even before the bad publicity, there were the legends.

The legend I knew beforehand began prior to the “discovery” of America by Europeans. In 1462 Hayna Capac, an Inca prince, visited the area and found significant amounts of silver. The Incas had control over various tribes who spoke various languages, including Quechua and Aymará.

As the Prince was leaving the area, he saw the mountain and realized how much silver that one area must contain. He had his subjects gather their tools immediately for the extraction of some of the silver, and they quickly located a vein right at the surface.

Just as they started to mine it, a horrifying, thunderous noise was heard. The prince decided this was an omen from the gods, warning them not to mine in that area, as it belonged to “other” beings. Heeding this supposed warning, the prince and his entourage left. The Aymará language had a word for “place where the thunderous noise was heard,” which eventually evolved into its current form, which it sounds a lot like: Potosí.

Still another story I heard while visiting the city’s Spanish coin mint came from a tour guide who told us that in 1545, an itinerant Native American was travelling through the region and at dusk found himself at the foot of Mount Potosí. To safeguard against the bitter cold of these elevations, he built a fire. When he awoke the next morning, he found “rivers of silver” flowing from where the fire had been. Regardless of whether the actual event really happened, the city was founded one year later in 1546.

Here’s where ignominy enters the picture again. To mine the silver, the Spanish “enlisted” several Native American tribes. Some were indentured servants, others were forced laborers, and others were contracted for the work. After many decades of this, it is said that millions of these workers had died, ultimately leading to extreme resistance from the local population.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Spanish mine managers then asked their King for authorization to bring African slaves to do the work. The Crown’s general decision to switch from Native American forced labor to African slaves resulted in up to 2,000 African slaves a year being brought to Potosí over the next two centuries. Some records indicate that about 30,000 African slaves were brought to Potosí from 1608 to 1800. Some believe that this number was much higher.

And this doesn’t even account for the countless numbers Africans who died in the crossing or those who died during the forced marches to the mines from the coast. This final step reminds me of the “Trail of Tears” of the North American Native Americans. And the Africans were not accustomed to the sudden change of altitude from sea level to 13,400 feet. Those who survived all were sent down into the mines to work for 40 days straight.

Potosi w/Mt. Cerro Rico

Besides mining, the Spanish found that it was cheaper to use African slaves to “mint” the silver coins than to use horses. Originally they had used horses and mules to pull an arm anchored on a central pivot that operated a screw that was used as compression to impress the coins. The slaves who did this were worked until they died. Our tour guide insisted that the actual number of African slaves who died may number in the millions.

It is difficult to determine how much of these tales is true. As the Spanish crown became sensitive to criticism of slavery (as it was being abolished in other countries), it probably revised its records to show statistics and treatment as being more benign than they actually were. It is significant to note that the Spanish were sensitive how their treatment of slaves was seen by others, regardless of whether it was motivated by actual guilt or mere public relations.

Decisions on how slavery was to be managed and then justified are a fascinating theme beyond this humble article. As with apartheid, slavery was often justified by pronouncements from the highest levels of governmental, religious, and other societal institutions.

Visiting the old city was like taking a trip to another century with its haunting salt flats, extreme isolation, and few modern buildings and trappings of modern life. Its desolate outskirts are dotted with tens of recovery mining mills, especially along the river that borders the city. Our environmental mission dovetailed with an effort by a European donor nation that wanted to build a dam to systematize the recovery mining efforts and control and prevent pollution to the river.

We spent almost two weeks in this magic place. I always recommend it to people travelling to Bolivia. It’s truly worth the trip.

Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a bleeding heart liberal, agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, combat infantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, Environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker, and, not surprisingly, pacifist. You can find his articles - ranging from politics to cooking a mean brisket - in 21st Century Pacifist at The Washington Times Communities. Follow Mario on Twitter @chibcharus #TWTC and Facebook at Mario Salazar




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Mario Salazar

Mario Salazar is a combat infantry Vietnam Vet, world traveler, renaissance reconnaissance man, pacifist, metal smith, glass artisan, computer programmer and he has a Master of Science in Civil/Environmental Engineering.  Now retired from the Environmental Protection Agency and living in Montgomery County, Mario will share with you his life, his thoughts, his musing on living in yet another century of change.  He will also try to convey his joy of being old.

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