Silver Mines of Potosí

Pimsleur Approach • January 9, 2013 • SpanishComments (0)

The silver mines of Potosí, Bolivia are legendary and infamous. In the sixteenth century, Potosí was the wealthiest city in the Americas. Europeans told stories of streets paved with silver and many believed Potosí’s mines contained infinite treasure

However, the reality of the Potosí mines has always been a different story. Over the centuries, the harsh natural environment and miserable working conditions in the mines have cost millions of miners their lives.

Silver Mines: Potosí, Bolivia
Potosí, Bolivia – Image via Wikipedia

Potosí lies in the south of Bolivia at an altitude of more than 13,000 feet above sea level. The city was founded by the Spanish in 1546 and today stands as the capital of the Potosí Department. The community got its name from San Luis de Potosí, a Mexican state that is also rich with silver mines.

The city was established to support the mining operations. In the mid-sixteenth century, the region was called Alto Peru and fell under the rule of the Viceroy of Peru. Potosí grew very quickly and by the end of the sixteenth century was home to more than 200,000 people.

During the early days of the city, stories of eccentricities made their way from Bolivia to Europe. One story claimed that iron was so scarce and silver so plentiful in Potosí that residents made silver shoes for their mules. Another tale claimed that the mines were so rich that the Spanish Empire could construct a solid silver bridge between Bolivia and Spain.

The wealth generated from the silver mines was quite real and helped build the city. Spanish colonists used proceeds from the mines to build spectacular mansions, monasteries and dozens of baroque churches.

Many of the original building still remain and today hold a place on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. One of the most prominent buildings honored by UNESCO is Casa de la Moneda, the national mint from 1773 until the nineteenth century. Today, Casa de la Moneda houses a museum that contains ethnographic, archeological and photo collections dating back to colonial times.

The UNESCO listing also encompasses sites that were critical in the history of the mining industry, including neighborhoods that housed miners and reservoirs and aqueducts used in the mining operation.

Historical records show that the majority of the silver shipped from South America to Spain originated in the mines of Potosí. The Potosí mines are located in a mountain called Cerro Rico, which means rich mountain.

Silver Mines of Potosi: Silver Nugget
Silver Nugget – Image via Wikipedia

Between the mid-sixteenth century and late eighteenth century, more than 40,000 metric tons of silver were mined from Cerro Rico. In fact, geologists have determined that the mining was so extensive that the height of the mountain was actually reduced by several hundred meters.

Working conditions in the Potosí mines have been a point of contention since they were established. In the early seventeenth century, nearly 60,000 people worked in the mines. Some were indigenous slaves, while others received a wage or commission. Masters forced slaves to perform tasks that paid employees refused to do, such as transporting ore through narrow shafts to processing stations above ground.

Scores of indigenous workers never made it out of the mines alive, which created a crisis for the Spanish Crown. To compensate for the worker shortage, Spain began transporting African slaves to Potosí. During colonial rule, an estimated 30,000 Africans worked as slaves in Potosí.

African slaves performed the same jobs as mules. Masters considered slaves to be better workers than the animals, because mules typically died after just a few weeks of brutal mining work. Twenty African slaves replaced four mules. However, the humans also died under the extreme working conditions.

Miners often spent weeks underground, causing many to die from exposure. To remove silver from ore, silver-rich stones were crushed into powder. Mercury was added to the powder and the mixture was heated to extract the silver. Many miners suffered poisoning as a result of breathing the lethal vapors. The exact number of laborers to die in the mines during Spanish rule is unknown, but some estimates claim as many as eight million people lost their lives.

Silver Mines of Potosí: Potosi's Royal Mint
Potosí’s Royal Mint – Image via Wikipedia

Potosí’s Royal Mint was established in 1672. The mint required the construction of reservoirs, dams and a canal system to deliver water used in the minting process. Silver was fashioned into bars and minted into coins that bore the royal Spanish seal.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the mines were believed to be depleted of silver. Workers continue to mine for tin, but the economy slowly collapsed. However, using new exploratory technologies, today’s modern mining cooperatives are again extracting silver from the Potosí mines.

From 1809 to 1825, Bolivia fought for its independence from the Spanish Empire. Both sides fought hard to maintain control of the city, which changed hands many times during the conflict.

At one point in the war, Potosí fell under the control of Manuel Belgrano, an Argentine commander who fought for Bolivia. As the Spanish troops closed in on the city, Belgrano decided to blow up the entire mountain to destroy the mines. Residents objected, but Belgrano’s men lit the fuse. Luckily, the mines were saved when a brave local snatched the fuse from the explosive charge.

Today, the mines of Potosí employ an estimated 10,000 people. The working conditions for miners have not changed much since the colonial era and the mines are still taking lives.

Miners work in shafts less than two feet in diameter, extracting ore with hammers and metal bars. They use dynamite to break through the mountain’s stone core, which sometimes causes shafts to collapse.

Because the workspaces are so small, mining companies often hire young boys to set explosives and remove debris after blasts. If the boys continue to work in the mines until adulthood, they cannot expect a long life, because many miners develop silicosis, a lung disease. The life expectancy of a Potosí miner is around 40 years of age.

Despite the dangers of the mines, mining cooperatives offer tours. Those that feature tours have gift shops, where visitors can buy presents from the miners. Gifts popular with miners include coca leaves, which workers chew to reduce hunger pains, and sticks of dynamite. At processing plants, miners sell chunks of silver ore to tourists.

Occasionally, mine shafts collapse during tours, trapping tourists for hours until rescue workers arrive. Such is the life of a Potosí miner, or a curious tourist who ventures into the depths of the mountain.

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