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This Day in Labor History: April 21, 1545

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On April 21, 1545, a man named Juan de Villarroel filed the first mining claim at Potosí, in what is now Bolivia. The silver mine in the mountain known as Cerro Rico would feed the Spanish coffers, fund wars to kill Protestants in Europe, and come at a horrible cost to the indigenous peoples of the Andes.

The Spanish had a pretty set idea about labor in the Americas. They wanted indigenous people to work for them in a subservient or slave role. That didn’t always work out because of disease that wiped out Native populations, and thus African slaves were substituted in many places. But not all. In the mountainous parts of the mining regions of Mexico and the Andes, indigenous labor could be either enslaved or otherwise coerced into labor.

The silver deposit at Potosí itself was found by a native man named Diego Huallpa. It wasn’t the first mine found in the Andes, as the Spanish had been mining silver there since 1538. Huallpa was working for an overseer at one of those other mines. When the great riches of Cerro Rico began to be developed, the Spanish started coercing the Incas and other peoples to work for them in developing it. But because there was actual money in mining, both Natives and Spanish also volunteered to work there. Many Andean peoples had become direct vassals of Spanish officers and officials, but others were independent of that and could work for themselves, usually paid directly in silver ore. These were called kajcheos and by the 18th century, they had formed syndicates to organize collectively for a fair shake, although certainly at a great disadvantage against the Spanish crown.

More common was what was called the mita, a word borrowed from the Quechua word “m’ita,” meaning shift. That was a system of coerced labor that drafted 1/7 of men from up to hundreds of miles away into forced labor in the Potosí and other mines. These men were often treated horribly and died there. It wasn’t a permanent labor status per se, but it often turned out to be near that, even though the idea was to serve a year and then take six years off. Part of the reason for this is that while the workers were technically paid, it was such a tiny amount that they could not pay their own expenses while they were in bondage. They earned 10 pesos a month and the estimated survival wage, according to calculations done by modern scholars, was 26 pesos a month. So when their year was up, they had sold all their possessions and then had to stay in the mine as an independent laborer to earn enough money to return home, or just stay in Potosí. These were the kajcheos, by and large. In 1596, one priest estimated that there were 6,000 people in Potosí because they could not afford to return home.

The crown demanded 12,000 mitayos at any one time and with declining indigenous numbers, that required more of who was left. Since it was men who were drafted and since they were likely to be there for at least a year, their families came with them. This made Potosí the largest city in South America, even though it is bone dry, almost totally lacking in plant life, and over 13,000 feet in elevation. Everything needed to be brought in from places where people should actually live. The mita system, instituted in 1573, led to a vast increase in production at Cerro Rico, which rose from 115,000 marks in 1572 to 887,000 marks in 1592, which was the peak production for the mine. A 1601 royal decree lessened the labor burdens of indigenous people in Peru (which at the time included Potosí)–except for Cerro Rico, because the mine’s silver was so critical to Spanish royal ambitions.

The way the mita worked was a form of bonding indigenous people to a particular Spaniard. So when the best silver deposits began running out, new mines opened and some of those workers went there. But the Spanish lords also just began basically keeping the mitayos as quasi-slaves or forcing a cash payment in exchange for not laboring. By the late 17th century, Cerro Rico production started to decline significantly–which also materially contributed to the beginning of the decline of Spanish power–but the labor relations didn’t change much. Since this arrangement lasted all the way until the end of the colonial period in the early nineteenth century–a labor system that went on for more than two centuries–the Spanish who controlled these Native workers could get very wealthy without doing any mining at all. The mita became the symbol of Spanish oppression in South America. When Simón Bolívar freed Potosi, he climbed to the top of Cerro Rico to declare it abolished.

But indigenous liberation was not really on the minds of the new South American elites. In fact, modernization projects throughout Latin America were often constructed specifically with the goal of modernizing or eliminating Native peoples, including the very effective genocide in Argentina. In Bolivia, the mita was even brought back, although it was finally abolished for good in 1832. The mines were still active and indigenous people still worked the labor for mestizos or, increasingly, whites, particularly the foreign engineers brought in to manage Latin American mines in the 19th century. Still, Potosí had already declined by 1825 from its peak population of 200,000, which is almost impossible to imagine for such a hostile climate, to 10,000.

Cerro Rico is still an active mine today. I have been inside of it and wrote about it here, with some of my pictures. The conditions are not much better than they were under Spanish rule. Death is common, workplace safety is effectively nonexistent, and it is a very scary place. Eventually, the mountain is going to collapse in on itself, but for thousands of indigenous men, this is a work culture passed down over generations or centuries and the idea of doing anything else with your life is not considered as an acceptable choice, even as they know very well that by the time they are in their 40s, their lung capacity will be too diminished to work, if they survive that long. Here is a contemporary picture of the mountain and the city.

This mining city became so legendary that not only is the Mexican mining city of San Luis Potosí named after it, but so are multiple American mining towns.

There is a great deal of literature on Potosí and I borrowed from a bit of it, including this pretty comprehensive encyclopedia article and from Ann Zulawski’s They Eat Their Labor: Work and Social Change in Colonial Bolivia.

This is the 267th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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