Potosí, Bolivia

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Potosí is the name of both a mountain, a city, and a department in Bolivia. When silver was discovered there in 1545, the city of Potosí did not yet exist.[1] The Spanish, having already conquered the Incan Empire a little over a decade before,[2] began extracting and exporting silver from Potosí on a large scale. By 1573, the city of Potosí has 120,000 residents, "the same population as London and more than Seville, Madrid, Rome, or Paris."[3] Less than a century later, in 1650, the city of Potosí has 160,000 residents and it is one of the richest cities in the world.[4] In modern-day Bolivia, the city of Potosí is the capital of the department of Potosí (Bolivia is divided into 9 departments, which are like states. Each department is subdivided into provinces.)

The Legend of Potosí

According to legend, under the Inca, before the arrival of the Spanish, indigenous miners went to Potosí. However:

"Indian miners had hardly dug their flints into the beautiful Cerro's veins of silver when a deep, hollow voice struck them to the ground. Emerging as loud as thunder from the depths of the wilderness, the voice said in Quechua: "This is not for you; God is keeping these riches for those who come from afar." The Indians fled in terror and the Inca, before departing from the Cerro, changed its name. It became "Potojsi," which means to thunder, burst, explode."[5] The settlement at Potosí was official named "Villa Imperial de Potosí" in 1547. [6]

Initial Mining Period

Prior to the 1560's, both Spanish and indigenous miners willingly worked in the mines in Potosi. One year after the silver was discovered, the town at the base of the mountain was home to 170 Spaniards and 3000 indigenous.[7] By the next year, the settlement held 14,000 residents. In this period, the Spanish relied on indigenous skills to obtain and refine silver, as Spanish methods were ineffective at the site's high altitude.

"By contrast, Indian technicians using pre-Hispanic guayra (wind oven) skillfully coaxed molten silver from the rich tacana ore. At one point, there were as many as 15,000 guayras in use. Many of the Indians who came to Potosí were yanaconas - artisans, former Inca retainers, and others who were not affiliated with an ayllu - men who had been displaced by the conquest. They worked individually, under contracts with Spanish mine owners, and were often called indios varas because they were assigned a specified length of vein (measured in varas) to work. This was the skilled component of a two-tier division of labor at Potosí; the unskilled component consisted of Indians brought by their kurakas to earn the money with which to pay their ayllus' tribute. These worked in shifts of a few months to a year, performing the more physical task of carrying ore out of the mines, after which they would return to their home pueblos."[8]

This period ended in the 1560's when the high-grade ore began to run out. The first attempts to introduce a new amalgamation process to refine ore (a process developed in Mexico in 1554), which would allow refining of lower grade ore, failed. Thus, the search for high-grade ore led to deeper mines and more strenuous work. As the work got harder, the ore also yielded less, and the wages paid to the indigenous became lower. Many indigenous left mining, or left Potosí altogether. "Of the 20,000 Indians living in the Villa Imperial in 1561, only 300 were working in the mines (down from nearly 5,000 the decade before).[9] The Spanish, confronting a labor shortage, were uninterested in filling it with African slave labor as they had done elsewhere in Latin America for a variety of reasons (climate and altitude of Potosí being one).

Exploitation of Indigenous Labor

Once the Spanish faced a shortage of labor in the mines of Potosí, their initial goal was to attract the indigenous to work in the mines willingly, as King Philip II of Spain had banned forced indigenous labor in the mines. [10] Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, who became Viceroy of Peru in 1569, began looking for a way to attract indigenous labor to the mines. He called together an advisory council to study the issue in October 1570. They concluded that Toledo may "compel the Indians, in a determined number, to work int he mines at Potosí and elsewhere in Peru, given certain provision for their good treatment, adequate and assured compensation, and moderate work."[11]

While Toledo continued the matter, the use of the amalgamation refining process was perfected in Potosí. Toledo learned of this in 1572.[12] The mines would once again be a source of great profits as soon as an adequate labor source was established. That year, he visited Potosí and struck a deal with mine owners: they would build mills at their own expense, he would provide them with mercury and indigenous labor at a reasonable cost, and the king of Spain would receive one fifth of all silver produced, a profit on mercury sold at Potosí and "other tax revenues."[13] Thus, he set in place the co-option the Inca system of mit'a, or tribute labor, to conscript millions of indigenous to work in the mines of Potosí.

"In three centuries Potosí's Cerro Rico [Rich Hill] consumed 8 million lives. The Indians, including women and children, were torn from their agricultural communities and driven to the Cerro. Of every ten who went up into the freezing wilderness, seven never returned... The Spanish scoured the countryside for hundreds of miles for labor. Many died on the way, before reaching Potosí, but it was the terrible work conditions in the mine that killed the most people."[14]
"The mita labor system was a machine for crushing Indians. The process of using mercury to extract silver poisoned as many or more than did the toxic gases in the bowels of the earth. It made hair and teeth fall out and brought on uncontrollable trembling. The victims ended up dragging themselves through the streets pleading for alms. At night 6,000 fires burned on the slopes of the Cerro and in these the silver was worked, taking advantage of the wind that the "glorious Saint Augustine" sent from the sky. Because of the smoke from the ovens there were no pastures or crops for a radius of twenty miles around Potosí and the fumes attacked men's bodies no less relentlessly."[15]

Impact of Mita Labor on Communities

"The mines required a great displacement of people and dislocated agricultural communities; they not only took countless lives through forced labor, but also indirectly destroyed the collective farming system. The Indieans were taken to the mies, were forced to submit to the service of the encomenderos, and were made to surrender for nothing the lands which they had to leave or neglect."[16]

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References

  1. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of Pillage of a Continent," Monthly Review Press, New York, 1997, p. 14.
  2. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of Pillage of a Continent," Monthly Review Press, New York, 1997, p. 16.
  3. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of Pillage of a Continent," Monthly Review Press, New York, 1997, p. 20.
  4. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of Pillage of a Continent," Monthly Review Press, New York, 1997, p. 20-21.
  5. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of Pillage of a Continent," Monthly Review Press, New York, 1997, p. 21.
  6. Jeffrey A. Cole, The Potosí mita, 1573-1700: compulsory Indian labor in the Andes, p. 3.
  7. Jeffrey A. Cole, The Potosí mita, 1573-1700: compulsory Indian labor in the Andes, p. 3.
  8. Jeffrey A. Cole, The Potosí mita, 1573-1700: compulsory Indian labor in the Andes, p. 3-4.
  9. Jeffrey A. Cole, The Potosí mita, 1573-1700: compulsory Indian labor in the Andes, p. 4.
  10. Jeffrey A. Cole, The Potosí mita, 1573-1700: compulsory Indian labor in the Andes, p. 5.
  11. Jeffrey A. Cole, The Potosí mita, 1573-1700: compulsory Indian labor in the Andes, p. 6.
  12. Jeffrey A. Cole, The Potosí mita, 1573-1700: compulsory Indian labor in the Andes, p. 7.
  13. Jeffrey A. Cole, The Potosí mita, 1573-1700: compulsory Indian labor in the Andes, p. 8.
  14. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of Pillage of a Continent," Monthly Review Press, New York, 1997, p. 39.
  15. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of Pillage of a Continent," Monthly Review Press, New York, 1997, p. 40-41.
  16. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of Pillage of a Continent," Monthly Review Press, New York, 1997, p. 43.

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