THE Bolivian city of Potosi sits at the base of a mountain called Cerro Rico which, although not particularly high (its peak is4824m above sea level), once held within it a silver lode of astonishing magnitude and purity. It was an integral source of Spanish silver from the 1500s onwards as the European power looked to expand andconsolidate its New World territories.
The Incas had established a large empire near the site of Potosi around 1200AD. Records indicate that while the native population probably mined Cerro Rico’s silver from time to time, it wasn’t a common practice.
According to Eduardo Galeano in his 1971 book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Incan emperor Huayna Capac was told of the massive riches contained within Cerro Rico in 1462.
“Before leaving there, he saw [Cerro Rico] and, admiring its beauty and grandeur, he said: ‘This doubtless must have much silver in its heart’, whereby he subsequently ordered his vassals to…work the mines and remove from them all the rich metal,” Galeano wrote.
“They did so and, having brought their tools of flint and reinforced wood, they climbed the hill…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’.
“The Incan vassals desisted in their purpose, and returned to Porco [a nearby region famous for its silver mines] and told the king 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 the name of Potosi.”
Around 1540, Spanish conquistadors pushed south to Potosi following their subjugation of the Incan empire. Early records describe a 300 foot outcrop of silver ore high on the mountain’s western slope: by 1545, Spanish miners and locals had begun digging it out.
Potosi rapidly grew from a town of about 14,000 residents to become one of the largest cities in the Americas and, indeed, the world, with a population that exploded to more than 200,000 people at its peak in the 1600s.
Mining quickly spread from the originally discovered lode. In about 1570, Spanish authorities – under orders from King Philip II – moved to reorganise the entire mining industry. A system of draft labour called the ‘mita’ was introduced whereby Indian communities for hundreds of miles were required to send an annual complement of workers to the mines: usually one-seventh of the male population of each village.
Labour conditions in the mines were harsh. Many labourers became sick and died, usually from silicosis or black lung disease, within months of their arrival.
Total deaths from mining at Cerro Rico have been estimated at 200,000, hence its nickname: ‘the mountain that eats men’.
The export of each year’s silver output was itself an enormous and arduous enterprise. It began with a three-week journey by pack train through the mountains to the coastal ports.
The silver would then travel by ship to the western shore of Panama, again by land across the jungle to the Atlantic, and to Havana by sea, where the party would meet the famous galleons of the annual treasure fleet. In the 1600s, Potosi had developed to accommodate the population boom, with the city’s architecture – including fine churches, monasteries, and convents – closely mimicking that of late medieval Spain. While mining and refining were the
cornerstones of the local economy, around them teemed an assortment of everyday commerce.
In 1672, a mint was established to coin the silver, and water reservoirs were built to cater for the growing population. More than 86 churches were built during the boom as Potosi became one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world.
At the height of its undeniable grandeur, Potosi had silver on all sides of the known world. By about 1650, the mines – and, by extension, the local economy – began a long and steady decline. The best of the original silver lodes had been exhausted and, as a result, mine shafts grew longer, costs rose and yields invariably shrank.
By 1700, Potosi’s population had contracted to 60,000, its annual silver output was down two-thirds and the city began showing signs of decay. By 1800, the silver mines had been depleted and tin mining had become the main industry.
Incredibly, the city and its mines have survived, albeit on a much reduced scale.
In fact, the past century has seen a modest revival. Mining remains integral to the local economy but with silver supplies diminished, attention has shifted to tin, lead and zinc.
These days, the locals still travel deep into the mountain around the clock, bringing ore to the surface for processing at nearby plants. Most of the mines are owned by miners’ cooperatives, which sell the ore to private companies for processing. Dozens of grey ore piles dot the mountainside and surrounding area, with each representing the mouth of another mine. Despite leaps forward in mining technology during the past 500 years, the Potosi miners still mine
the traditional way: breaking up the ore with pickaxes and shovels, then hauling it outside in wheelbarrows to be dumped into trucks and driven to the processing plants.
Most of the silver shipped through the Spanish Main (the stretch of coastline in the Americas controlled by Spain from the 1600s to the 1800s) came from Potosi while the mines were at peak production. According to official records, 45,000t of pure silver was mined from Cerro Rico from 1556 to 1783. Of this, about 9000t was given over to the Spanish monarchy.
Due to extensive mining, the mountain has diminished in height, with Cerro Rico more than 200m shorter than it was originally.
By Reuben Adams