Trading Roles: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Urban Economy in Colonial Potosí

Trading Roles: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Urban Economy in Colonial Potosí

by Jane E. Mangan

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Located in the heart of the Andes, Potosí was arguably the most important urban center in the Western Hemisphere during the colonial era. It was internationally famous for its abundant silver mines and regionally infamous for its labor draft. Set in this context of opulence and oppression associated with the silver trade, Trading Roles emphasizes daily


Located in the heart of the Andes, Potosí was arguably the most important urban center in the Western Hemisphere during the colonial era. It was internationally famous for its abundant silver mines and regionally infamous for its labor draft. Set in this context of opulence and oppression associated with the silver trade, Trading Roles emphasizes daily life in the city’s streets, markets, and taverns. As Jane E. Mangan shows, food and drink transactions emerged as the most common site of interaction for Potosinos of different ethnic and class backgrounds. Within two decades of Potosí’s founding in the 1540s, the majority of the city’s inhabitants no longer produced food or alcohol for themselves; they purchased these items. Mangan presents a vibrant social history of colonial Potosí through an investigation of everyday commerce during the city’s economic heyday, between the discovery of silver in 1545 and the waning of production in the late seventeenth century.

Drawing on wills and dowries, judicial cases, town council records, and royal decrees, Mangan brings alive the bustle of trade in Potosí. She examines quotidian economic transactions in light of social custom, ethnicity, and gender, illuminating negotiations over vendor locations, kinship ties that sustained urban trade through the course of silver booms and busts, and credit practices that developed to mitigate the pressures of the market economy. Mangan argues that trade exchanges functioned as sites to negotiate identities within this colonial multiethnic society. Throughout the study, she demonstrates how women and indigenous peoples played essential roles in Potosí’s economy through the commercial transactions she describes so vividly.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Trading Roles is a pioneering study. The mass of research Jane E. Mangan has put into the work is truly amazing. She makes the lives of the vast majority of the population of Potosí come alive.”—Erick D. Langer, author of Economic Change and Rural Resistance in Southern Bolivia, 1880-1930

Trading Roles is an unusually lively, detailed account of ‘the underdogs’ of a colonial Spanish American city. It draws attention not only to relatively invisible historical actors but to the rich texture of the deals and socially patterned expectations that brought them together.”—Kathryn Burns, author of Colonial Habits: Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru

Timothy E. Anna
“In the historiography on colonial Potosí, Mangan’s work is distinctive for its concentration on the grassroots of daily market activities and mundane business dealings. . . . The great strength of Mangan’s book is that she brings to life the world of the common vendors, artisans, merchants, and suppliers that made a great colonial city work.”
Karen B. Graubart
“This is a highly readable, well-argued study appropriate for courses on the urban economy as well as gender history. . . . [I]t does offer an inclusive and fresh approach to understanding how women and men of all ethnic groups came to create a colonial world in Potosí.”

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Duke University Press
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Latin America Otherwise
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4 MB

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Gender, Ethnicity, and the Urban Economy in Colonial Potosí


Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3458-3

Chapter One


The Genesis of Potosí's Urban Economy

Potosí was discovered by two native Andeans transporting food from Cochabamba to the mines of Porco, or so claimed one early seventeenth-century source. These men, guayradores who smelted silver, traveled a route that took them past the foot of the Cerro Rico. At precisely this point in the journey one of their freight llamas strayed from the rest. The man known as Guallpa chased the llama up the slopes of the Cerro only to stumble onto a huge outcropping of silver. He discretely replaced the llama's load of food with silver and rejoined his companion. For several months Guallpa returned to the Cerro, took the ore, and refined it for himself. His fellow guayradores in Porco became suspicious because, suddenly, he was eating and dressing better than they were. Where, they asked, do you find such rich ore?

Accounts of discovery have a way of blending events and myths. This tale contradicts others in the precise details, but it reveals the dominant themes of Potosí's dynamic sixteenth-century history. Silver and sustenance were the twinengines of Potosí's economy from its 1545 founding; native laborers were its fuel. Thus it is supremely fitting that this recounting of Potosí's discovery has at its core two native Andeans transporting commercial goods from the breadbasket region of Cochabamba to silver mines at Porco (see map 1). Other hints of Potosí's sixteenth-century history also emerge here. These men were experts in the art of refining silver. And, with a bit of skill and calculation, Guallpa obtained higher profits than other native Andeans.

But the silver riches bred discontent. Guallpa revealed his secret to a friend, and the two argued over how long they could disguise the source of their material comforts. In the words of El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, since "its wealth was so great that they could not or would not conceal it from their masters, they then revealed it." The masters, encomenderos named Villaroel and Quixada, traveled to the site with fellow Spaniards. Then, having confirmed the existence of silver, they undertook the legal acts necessary to found the asiento de minas on 16 April 1545. In the end, the tale of discovery plays out ominously for native Andeans, as the economic advantage passes to Spanish masters.

The period between Guallpa's discovery and the late sixteenth-century Spanish domination of silver refining is the subject of this opening chapter. Two major themes emerge in this development of the urban economy. First, the history of the initial decades stands out because the city's mines and markets offered opportunities for both Indians and Spaniards to earn profits. Thus, in Potosí's incipient urban economy one can read complex tales of benefit for a small sector of the indigenous population, which would become increasingly differentiated. Second, these economic developments reveal a history of both men's and women's activities in the urban economy. The urban economy complements our understanding of male mine laborers by adding a view of women's activity to the evolution of the city.

The silver refining expertise of yanaconas like Guallpa gave them a clear economic advantage in the first decades after Potosí's founding. Indigenous elites, known as kurakas, and later indigenous labor draft leaders (capitanes de mita) had opportunities to provision Potosí's growing market and to profit from such exchanges. At the same time indigenous women emerged as critical leaders in urban trade. While monetary gain is clearly a motive, many of these individuals also enacted economic strategies for the benefit and with the assistance of their ayllus, the basic kin unit in the Andes which comprised numerous household groupings related through endogamous lineage. The nature of Potosí's economy changed between 1545 and 1600. Barter and supply based on Andean modes of production characterized it in the first decades, but by the 1570s and that decade's Toledan reforms, cash-based exchanges and supply influenced by Spanish economic regulations were increasingly common. During the late sixteenth century, after Toledo's tenure, the population shifted to include more Spaniards, and even Spanish women, who would compete with native Andeans for mining, refining, and trade profits. By this point only certain elements within the indigenous population had the ability to benefit from Potosí's economy. This interval of Potosí's history provides clues to the economic and social negotiations, as well as the trade and personal relationships, that contributed to the growth of its unique urban economy.


Do not take the silver from this mountain. It is for other masters. -Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela, Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosí

None of the many tellings of Potosí's discovery mention preconquest mining at Potosí, and most ignore possible Inca or local knowledge of the silver located there. The closest settlement to Potosí was Cantumarca, a native community located almost two miles to the west of the Cerro Rico. This village revealed no evidence of having carried out preconquest mining at Potosí. Yet it is difficult to conclude that native Andeans had no knowledge of the silver at Potosí, since Inca laborers worked the silver mines at Porco, some twenty-two miles to the southwest. Both mountains of silver sat at the very extremes of Collasuyu, the southeastern quadrant of Tawantinsuyu, as the Incas called their empire. This land was home to ancient Aymara kingdoms invaded by Inca expansionists during the fifteenth-century reigns of Tupac Inca Yupanqui and Pachakuti. Inca rule was not peaceful for the Cantumarca: groups of Guarani soldiers attacked during the reign of Guayna Capac. The Inca responded to their displays of strength by sending several thousand royal soldiers from Cuzco to the town of Cantumarca. After a battle that left thousands of Guarani dead, Guayna Capac entered the town to receive praise from local peoples. Spanish legend had it that on this trip Guayna Capac spied the Cerro Rico from afar and ordered his men to reconnoiter the site. They arrived but refrained from mining after a voice coming from inside the mountain ordered them, "Do not take the silver from this mountain. It is for other masters." As the colonizers tell the story, the mountain of silver was destined to glorify Spain.

In contrast to this European version, Inca history reveals a very productive center of silver mining at nearby Porco. Here Guayna Capac kept yanaconas busy mining silver. The yanaconas were a group of Inca subjects who performed a variety of services for the Inca ruler in places throughout his empire. Yanaconas did not belong to a specific ayllu. Instead, they were loyal retainers of the Inca, from whom they received special honors and status for their service. The yanaconas at Porco became expert in retrieving ore and refining it by guayra, a native process that used clay ovens (hence the name guayradores).

The demand for silver from Porco or other mines in the Inca period was not monetary. Silver artisanry, both religious and ornamental, adorned the palaces of the Inca in and around Cuzco, but silver was neither made into coin nor used as a method of payment. Exchange took place within ayllu structures using "vertical archipelagos," whereby people traded staples among kin groups spread over various ecological zones. Llama caravans carried goods from one zone to the next on trips that might last for several days. In spite of the distance, inhabitants at each stop were related to the travelers through kin ties. This trade did not occur within a commercial market, but rather was compatible with the general framework of reciprocity that governed native life in the ayllu. A decidedly not-for-profit ethos governed the relationships among these households; the Andean community was thus one in which, as Steve Stern has noted, "social mobility had a collective rather than individualized flavor." Reciprocity, not capitalist motive, reigned in all facets of life-be it work, religion, or trade. This ethos would be challenged in Potosí's urban market, though it would not be eradicated.

Thus, no evidence suggests that markets met in the vicinity of Potosí prior to conquest, and certainly no preconquest Upper Peruvian market could rival what was to come after 1532. The rhythms of economic and social life began important processes of change after the Spanish wrested control of the Andean heartland from the Incas. By the late 1530s, Spaniards under the leadership of Francisco Pizarro had moved into the region surrounding Potosí. In 1539 they founded the city of La Plata in the site known as Chuquisaca, some 150 miles away from the Cerro Rico. The encomenderos in the region of Chuquisaca wasted no time in sending laborers to mine at Porco for their benefit. These miners, of course, were the community from which Guallpa came. Some of the Porco miners were yanaconas who had mined for the Inca and they began to use their expertise for new Spanish masters. In return for their service to Spaniards, be it in mining or other tasks, the yanacona Indians received a reputation for being more loyal than other native Andeans. A 1541 royal cédula exempted them from tribute and mita service to the Crown. Many Porco yanaconas had fallen under the control of Gonzalo Pizarro during his rebellion against Spain. Even during the years of the rebellion and civil war in the Andes, economic development and Spanish exploitation of indigenous labor continued apace. Thus, when the mines of Potosí officially opened on 16 April 1545, the experienced mine workers from Porco lost no time. In roundabout fashion Guallpa had answered the queries of his fellow smelters; off they went, along with the better part of the Spanish male population of La Plata, to the rich ore of the Cerro Rico.


In many parts of Peru silver mines have been, and are still, found, though none like those of Potosí.... It stands on a plain and is shaped like a sugar loaf: it is one league round at the base and a quarter of a league at the top. The top of the hill is round. It is beautiful to see, for it stands alone, and nature decked it so that it might be as famous in the world as it now is. -Garcilaso de la Vega, 535

Potosí's mountain drew people to create a silver industry; the silver drew still more people to trade. With the end of Spanish civil conflict in the Andes, Potosí became a destination for those who lived beyond Porco and La Plata. When news of the silver bonanza reached the Crown, word spread throughout Europe and a global market emerged for Potosí silver.

Imagine the route traveled by Guallpa and his llamas as the thorough-fare for thousands of people and thousands of pack animals. The year of 1549 marked the first great rush to the mines by ayllu Indians, known in Quechua as hatunruna. Some traveled to the city to engage in market transactions with the goal of earning tribute payments for their ayllu. Others came at the behest of their Spanish masters, the encomenderos, who were eager to profit from the silver rush. Many workers brought their families with them, and the presence of women in Potosí was as fundamental to the shaping of the marketplace as men were to the shaping of the mines. As many as twenty-five thousand men and women marched along the roads to Potosí by 1550. On their journey they climbed higher and higher, to nearly thirteen thousand feet, in a climate so cold it "hurt the temples." In addition to chilly temperatures, the months of December through April threatened lightning, thunder, snow, and hailstorms, while the rest of the year brought furious winds known as Tomahavi. Despite the forbidding environment, the population surged to seventy-nine thousand by 1565.

Picture then the Cerro Rico, climbed not by a single man chasing a single llama, but by hundreds of mineworkers and hundreds of llamas. The men were burdened on the ascent by the combination of thinning air and the weight of the tools of their trade: candles, coca, and ladders made from animal hides. They endured lengthy periods of forced labor deep inside the furnace of the earth only to emerge to Potosí's infamous chill. On the return down the mountain to family and friends, the miners were weighed down by the silver they managed to secret away for their own profit. Llamas dotted the slopes of the Cerro, too, their climb surely less onerous than their descent with bags of ore destined for Potosí's refineries and official Crown markets.

And, finally, envision the marketplace, filled not with the contents of a single trajín of llamas, but by hundreds of women and men and the cargo of hundreds of llama caravans. To new arrivals, the bustling marketplace could only have seemed like pandemonium. From the very year the mines opened, colonial forces conspired to bring workers to Potosí to earn for their encomenderos or for their ayllus' tribute; either way, the mines drew them into the colonial economy. These scenes of the crowded roads, mines, and marketplace were unlikely visions for a town perched thirteen thousand feet in the Andes, in the midst of highland plains known for bitter cold winds and parched earth. But the scenes had begun to unfold. In the space of a few years Potosí boasted the "largest population, and the most commerce, in all of Peru."

The first hints of urban settlement one encountered on approaching the town were not the Spanish buildings or patterned streets but the rancherías, indigenous neighborhoods characterized by buhíos, modest round dwellings constructed of adobe and straw. The first ranchería grew up at the very foot of the Cerro Rico, logically enough given its proximity to the mines. With the growth of the city's population, rancherías came to circle central Potosí on all sides. Moving past the rancherías toward the center of town, the houses became larger and more elaborate, with the grandest residences located in view of the main plaza. Early evidence shows that shelter in the mining settlement was built from large stones found on the mining site, using local agave branches as roof beams. Bills of sale suggest that at least by 1549 residents constructed more permanent buildings. Property records indicate that by 1559 casas de morada, a more refined dwelling, lined some streets in the town center, including the Calle de los Mercaderes. The main parish church and government buildings, the cabildo or town council hall, the Caja Real or Treasury Office, and the Casa de la Moneda or Mint, were symbols of Spanish dominance that ringed the main plaza, the geographic center of town.

Places of trade became quickly established in the new mining town. Markets sprouted in specific spots, and stayed there over decades, cultivated by daily custom. The northwest corner of the main square fed into the largest market plaza of Potosí, the kjato or gato in Spanish, often referred to as the Gato de las Indias. Buyers and sellers met there every day of the week. In the 1550s, popular products included maize, chuño, coca, ají, and clothing. In addition to the main market in the Spanish center of town, "the Indians have many others, and in particular one they call 'del Carbón offered hens, eggs, and lard in addition to charcoal, while other plazas specialized in the sale of flour, barley, wood, ore, llama dung (for fuel), and even the corn beer starter, known in Quechua as muk'u.


Excerpted from TRADING ROLES by JANE E. MANGAN Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jane E. Mangan is Assistant Professor of History at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. She is the editor of Natural and Moral History of the Indies, by José de Acosta (also published by Duke University Press).

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