The Guardian has been running an interesting set of stories on world cities. This one highlights Potosí, the Bolivian silver city I have been utterly fascinated by ever since visiting it in 2008. Potosí created great Spanish wealthy but at a huge cost in human lives.
Potosí was “the first city of capitalism, for it supplied the primary ingredient of capitalism – money”, notes the author Jack Weatherford. “Potosí made the money that irrevocably changed the economic complexion of the world.”
The production of silver in the city exploded in the early 1570s after the discovery of a mercury amalgamation process to extract it from the mined ore, coupled with the imposition of a forced labour system known as the mita. Native Peruvians from hundreds of miles away were forced to travel to Potosí to labour in the mines, then given the back-breaking task of carrying the daily quota of 25 bags of silver ore, each weighing around 45kg, to the surface .
Temperature and humidity differences between the depths of the mine and the surface meant pneumonia and respiratory infections were rife, with one mining boss noting: “If 20 healthy Indians enter on Monday, half may emerge crippled on Saturday.”
The mita imposed by Viceroy Toledo in Alto Peru caused demographic collapse, earning the hill in Potosí a Quechua name meaning “the mountain that eats men”. Writing about a group of 7,000 native Peruvians – taken from their homes far away to work in the mines – one Spanish observer wrote: “Only some 2,000 people return: of the other 5,000, some die and others stay at Potosí or the nearby valleys because they have no cattle for the return journey.”
longside the mita, Toledo’s other reforms were the first serious attempt to organise this boom city. Marshland was drained to open up more space for construction, dividing Potosí into a Spanish and a local district, and creating an intricate system of dykes and drains to fill five artificial lagoons that fed the mills – an extraordinary feat of hydro-engineering that guaranteed a steady supply of silver.
The ore mined by the native workers and African slaves made many Spaniards exceedingly wealthy. Drunk on “the mere fumes of silver”, an author of the time noted that the city’s residents “nurtured such elevated thoughts” – exemplified by mining boss Domingo Beltran, who reportedly proclaimed himself to be among the world’s most important figures: “The Pope in Rome, the King in Spain, and Domingo Beltran in Potosí …”
The city did not just prove fatal to the thousands who died in the mines. Despite Potosí’s flamboyance, it was plagued by murderous disputes between warring Spanish miners, natural disasters and the perils of living at 4,000m, where very little grows. The first Spanish boy to survive birth in Potosí was born in 1584, nearly 40 years after the city’s foundation; in 1624, much of the city’s native Peruvian sector was washed away as the San Salvador dam broke, killing around 200 and causing extensive destruction.
But hey, it allowed the Spanish to spend huge sums of money killing Protestants in Europe, so it all was totally worth it!