Potosi: The Silver City That Changed the World

Potosi: The Silver City That Changed the World

by Kris Lane

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In 1545, a native Andean prospector hit pay dirt on a desolate red mountain in highland Bolivia. There followed the world's greatest silver bonanza, making the Cerro Rico or "Rich Hill" and the Imperial Villa of Potosí instant legends, famous from Istanbul to Beijing. The Cerro Rico alone provided over half of the world's silver for a century, and even in decline, it remained the single richest source on earth.
Potosí is the first interpretive history of the fabled mining city’s rise and fall. It tells the story of global economic transformation and the environmental and social impact of rampant colonial exploitation from Potosí’s startling emergence in the 16th century to its collapse in the 19th. Throughout, Kris Lane’s invigorating narrative offers rare details of this thriving city and its promise of prosperity. A new world of native workers, market women, African slaves, and other ordinary residents who lived alongside the elite merchants, refinery owners, wealthy widows, and crown officials, emerge in lively, riveting stories from the original sources. An engrossing depiction of excess and devastation, Potosí reveals the relentless human tradition in boom times and bust.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520280847
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/28/2019
Series: California World History Library , #27
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 218,750
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Kris Lane holds the France V. Scholes Chair in Colonial Latin American History at Tulane University. He is author of Colour of Paradise: The Emerald in the Age of Gunpowder Empires, Quito 1599: City and Colony in Transition, and Pillaging the Empire: Global Piracy on the High Seas, 1500-1750.

Read an Excerpt



... and as several Indians belonging to a so-and-so Villaroel wandered among some mountains eighteen leagues from the Villa de la Plata, they came upon a very large peak seated on a plain, the size of which I cannot quite explain except to tell Your Mercy so that you may understand that it is as large as one might see in these parts. And they found in it signs of silver, and in smelting they found it so rich that wherever they took earth and fired it, it yielded almost nothing but silver, such that the least they got was eighty marks per hundredweight, which was almost half.

— ANONYMOUS, possibly Lic. Polo Ondegardo, 1547

AS ONE MIGHT EXPECT, Potosí's discovery generated legends. According to several Spanish writers it was early in the year 1545 that a native Andean man known either as Gualpa or Guanca happened upon an outcrop of silver ore while chasing a llama, a guanaco, or a deer up a conical red peak in the southern Bolivian highlands. The reddish mountain, possibly known as Potoc'chi, was not terribly high by Andean standards, but at just under 5,000 meters (nearly 16,000 feet) above sea level it did command an impressive view. The horizon was dominated by lumpy, barren, puna a high desert cut through by canyons topped with basalt cliffs, and with glimpses of vast salt flats framed by distant cordilleras.

According to most early accounts, there was little evidence of Inca or other pre-Hispanic mining activity on the red mountain's flanks. Not far off, about a half-day's journey southwest, were the former Inca mines of Porco, where Gualpa or Guanca was working as a yanacona or personal retainer for his presumably Spanish overlord, called "Villaroel" in the account above. Porco's silver mines were rich, but many had flooded due to the high water table, driving up costs and diminishing returns.

It was a moment of crisis according to the providentialist narratives, and in one of them Diego Gualpa became the Juan Diego of the Andes. The Virgin of Guadalupe did not appear to him, but either the Christian God or the God of Wind (in Quechua, Wayra) used him to reveal the riches of the Cerro Rico to the world. Fortunately, we have an account that seems to be from Gualpa himself, or as close to him as we may get (see appendix). In 1572, on orders of just-arrived viceroy Francisco de Toledo, a Spanish priest interviewed the nearly 70-year-old Andean man as he lay dying in his home in Potosí.

The discoverer was by this time known as don Diego Gualpa, the title "don" signifying noble ancestry. He claimed to have been from the Cuzco-area province of Chumbivilcas, a retainer for the ill-fated Inca Huascar, a keeper of sacred feathers. Gualpa was also at Cajamarca, he said, when Francisco Pizarro and his followers ambushed and captured the Inca Atahualpa in 1532. Young Gualpa attached himself to a Portuguese soldier who used him as a personal servant or yanacona but who also protected him from Spaniards who had treated him poorly. Diego Gualpa ended up in Porco mining silver a few years later. He claimed that he and other yanaconas routinely passed the hill or mountain of Potosí (he does not call it Potoc'chi in the testimony, but we must keep in mind that this was filtered through a priest in 1572) on their way back and forth between Porco and La Plata, or Chuquisaca, the budding regional capital on the eastern slope of the Andes.

Gonzalo Pizarro, younger brother of Francisco, had even ordered test diggings low on the mountain's flanks, but they yielded nothing. The occasion Diego Gualpa gave for his discovery of the great mines of the Cerro Rico was that he and a friend had been sent to the mountain's summit to search for a shrine dedicated to the resident spirit, or huaca. The pair found an offering, he claimed, which they removed and took down the hill to deliver to their masters. Presumably it included gold and silver objects, but the testimony offers no details.

On the way downhill the two men were separated, according to don Diego Gualpa, who said he was hit by a gust of wind so powerful it flattened him and nearly knocked him out. As he lifted himself, he saw that his hands were marked by a substance he immediately recognized as pay dirt. Gualpa wrapped several pounds of this material in his blanket and took it to Porco to refine. He found it rich, but his current master and other conquistadors were not convinced that the ore had come from the hill already called, apparently, Potosí.

Finally, one Spaniard accompanied Gualpa back to the red mountain, but again the wind kicked up, and was soon so fierce that it dashed the man tothe ground and blew off his hat, angering him so much that he began to beat and curse Gualpa. The two soon returned to Porco, where word of Gualpa's discovery reached the man called Villaroel, a Spaniard who moved quickly to stake claims aided by his indigenous retainer, the yanacona Chalco.

No llamas or deer or upturned roots appear in Gualpa's story, as in many other accounts of Potosí's fateful discovery, but wind figures prominently. Wayra (or guaira in Spanish phonetics), the Quechua word for wind, would continue to be providential in Potosí for several decades. Yet even this seemingly native account of Potosí's discovery smacks of Catholic legend, of the innocent yokel who witnesses an apparition, only to struggle desperately with supposedly learned authorities to prove its truth. Was Gualpa's discovery real?


By the time Europeans and Africans reached South America in the early sixteenth century, Andeans had spent thousands of years extracting and working gold, silver, copper, tin, mercury, salt, lapis lazuli, emeralds, turquoise, nephrite, obsidian, and many other minerals. Andean stone masonry was among the most advanced in the Americas, giving lie to the notion of "Stone Age" primitivism. One need only visit the former Inca capital of Cuzco or the ruins of Machu Picchu to see this matchless artistry firsthand.

In Central and South America as well as parts of the Caribbean, gold-silver-copper alloys were commonly used in jewelry and grave goods, and in coastal Ecuador and Colombia even the difficult metal platinum was worked, ingeniously soldered with gold dust and burnished. Metalworkers in Bolivia and Peru developed arsenical bronze, yielding durable tools and weapons, and at the great temple complex of Tiwanaku near Lake Titicaca, bronze ties held massive, hand-carved building stones in place.

Andean metallurgy was so ancient that few rich metallic mineral deposits remained unknown by the time the Spanish arrived. The conquistadors and their successors suspected this right away, and when native Andeans failed to lead them to gold or silver mines, the Spanish claimed they hid them out of malice. Some native peoples certainly did so out of self-protection, but mineral wealth could work both ways; even oppressed Andeans could get rich or gain status in mining, as hinted by Cieza de León above. Ultimately, keeping "bullion-starved" Europeans away from American treasure was all but impossible.

The Incas who survived conquest were notably fickle about revealing precious metals mines, and it thus seems highly improbable that the Rich Hill of Potosí was truly discovered in 1545, more than a decade after Cajamarca. The Cerro Rico's red color alone would have signaled heavy mineralization to pre-Columbian prospectors, and the mines of Porco were close by. Perhaps religious veneration limited mining activity. We do not know for certain, but there is evidence that Aymara lords inhabiting the Potosí region "gave" the Incas the Porco silver mines as a ritual of submission, and this has led some scholars to argue that the Cerro Rico was in turn an offering made by exiled Incas to the Spanish king amid the rebellion of Gonzalo Pizarro. What we do know is that Potosí's history changed radically after 1545.

The Cerro Rico lies in the heavily mineralized Eastern Cordillera of the Bolivian Andes, one of a chain of rocky mountains rising to the east of the great Altiplano, or South American high plain, located in the southern tropics and interspersed with vast lakes and salt flats. The bulk of Bolivia's highlands consists of massive sediment beds, thrust up, twisted, and occasionally punctured by ancient igneous swellings and volcanoes. The terrain has changed. Now high and dry, Potosí was at one time, perhaps as late as 14 million years ago, wet and low. Volcanic ash or tuff layers discovered in a mine on the Cerro Rico contained a variety of fossil leaves of middle Tertiary to Pliocene ages, collected and catalogued by geologists in the 1920s but first encountered in colonial times.

Bolivia's active volcanoes are found in the Western Cordillera, bordering Chile. Volcanism here is so recent that it often covers older mineralized zones, some of which were discovered by prospectors setting out from Potosí. Faults, uplifts, and wet-season moisture feed numerous hot springs all over the highlands, including the famous Ojo del Inca, or Inca Baths, just down the hill from Potosí on the road to Oruro. The stream of warm and mineral-rich water flowing from this spring at Tarapaya was used in colonial times to power dozens of ore-crushing mills. Salt springs are abundant throughout highland Bolivia, and they provided reagents to Potosí's early silver refiners. Massive salt beds such as those of Uyuni lay to the southwest at several days' hard walk, but most of the salt used in colonial times came from the nearby town and springs of Yocalla.

Ancient volcanic and hydrothermal activity most likely dissolved and redeposited the great silver and tin veins of Bolivia's Eastern Cordillera, therichest in both metals of any in the world. Only Nevada's Comstock Lode might have vied with Potosí's Cerro Rico for silver concentration in a single spot, but Comstock played out after only a few decades. As of this writing the red mountain of Potosí is still producing silver, tin, zinc, lead, and other metals, and it never seems to have stopped doing so despite many cycles since its discovery in 1545. Current estimates range from 30,000 to 60,000 tons of silver produced to date, and geologists estimate that the Cerro Rico, easily the world's richest silver deposit, contains an equivalent amount dispersed in low-grade, refractory ores that would require sophisticated processing.

Most geologists today agree that the nearly 4,800-meter-high Cerro Rico is an approximately 14 million–year-old silica-rich volcanic dome that was fractured internally in subsequent millennia. The fractures became ore veins, mineralized by rich hydrothermal fluids and magmatic steam rising up from below. Some veins extend into older sediments below the dome, including the fossil-bearing Caracoles tuff. Metallic veins of this kind often contain quartz, and the high silica content of the Cerro Rico's host rock has been the bane of indigenous miners since colonial times. Silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhalation of sharp, tiny bits of glass-like rock, remains the primary killer of mineworkers. The corrugated, maroon-colored crest of the Cerro Rico is mostly silica in the form of weathered, iron-stained quartz.

The silver-rich veins of the Cerro Rico are about a meter wide on average, but several larger veins were exploited in colonial times. Bodies of rock containing numerous small veins have also been blasted out, leaving behind large and dangerous galleries. Most of the veins dive steeply into the mountain from the surface, striking northeastward. Upper-zone ores were richest thanks to what is called supergene oxidation, and some hunks of native (i.e., pure) silver were found. Ores at depth tended to be of lower grade, or more difficult to refine. Within a few decades of discovery, colonial miners reached the water table and with it unoxidized or sulfide ores below about 400 or more meters' depth. The deepest level mined in modern times, Level 16, reaches 1,150 meters below the summit.

The Cerro Rico's distinctive red hue comes from surface oxidation of iron and other metallic compounds, and it was rich, reddish ores that drove Potosí's initial boom. As miners got deeper into the hill in the 1560s they encountered dark gray sulfide ores. These could be quite rich but they were difficult to smelt using then-available technologies. As will be seen in chapter 3, mercury amalgamation, introduced in 1572 from Mexico and adapted to Potosí's high-altitude conditions and peculiar ore chemistry, solved the problem.

Although miners wanted to believe that Potosí's great silver veins got wider and richer as they descended, the reverse was nearly always true. Beyond an enriched zone near the water table, silver ores declined in quality or became more refractory, and sometimes veins disappeared altogether. Yet these challenges were offset by Potosí's unusual geological configuration. First, it was crisscrossed by numerous, very large polymetallic vein systems, and second, even poorer ore bodies were laced with native silver, spurring further excavation. That the Cerro Rico still stands today is a minor miracle. In most countries such an ore-rich mountain would have been leveled and turned into a pit long ago. The hollowed mountain's current supporters recently filled a giant hole near the crest with a concrete plug and then with mill waste, but it continues to sink. A small stone tower maintains the Cerro Rico's official altitude.

Did pre-Inca peoples mine silver at Potosí? Scientists Colin Cooke, Mark Abbott, and Alexander Wolfe have argued that lake sediments from near Potosí prove that the Cerro Rico was exploited, not just in Inca times but long before: by at least 1000 CE, well over 500 years before the Spanish arrived. Given the centuries of exploitation of the mountain itself it is hard to verify this claim by surface archaeology, yet it seems unlikely that Andean miners would have missed such a major deposit. All we know for certain is that the mountain could not have been mined too extensively before 1545, when Diego Gualpa was knocked down by a providential wind.


Although the Incas controlled the vast highland region around Potosí when the Spanish arrived in the 1530s, they had only held it for about a century, and local pre-Incaic cultures persisted. First, the population of the larger province consisted of both Quechua and Aymara speakers, with Aymara nobles dominant. The region surrounding and to the north of the Cerro Rico was home to the Qaraqara lords, joined to the east by the Charkas, for whom the greater Potosí region was named after the Spanish established their district capital in 1539 at Chuquisaca, today's Sucre. The Spanish called the district Los Charcas, the name of its dominant indigenous group, but thanks to Porco and Potosí it was also known as La Plata.

The Qaraqaras were farmers and pastoralists, growing potatoes and other tubers along with quinoa at high elevations, supplementing these staples with maize, capsicum peppers, coca, and other items grown or collected in distant, warmer valleys. Surviving in the Bolivian Andes was complicated by extreme altitudes and uncertain rainfall, so vertical control of ecological "islands" was essential. The Charkas occupied generally lower-altitude zones to the east of Potosí. Their settlements abutted the hotter Chaco region that stretched all the way to Paraguay, home of semi-sedentary Guaraní speakers known collectively as Chiriguanaes or Chiriwana. Under Inca rule, Charkas marked the southeastern frontier of Tawantinsuyu, the Inca Empire. Three semi-sedentary Charka ethnic groups, the Chuy, Yampara, and Chicha, served as buffers against the lowland Chiriwana.

The confederated Qaraqaras and Charkas shared certain religious beliefs with the Incas and other highland agriculturalists to the north. For example, features in the landscape were usually sacred, often regarded as sentient and capable of reanimation. Sentience was assumed of material objects in general, including the human corpse. Mummies and bones of ancestors were carefully housed, consulted through divination, and carried to ceremonies. Agricultural and animal fertility were central concerns, as in most premodern societies, and Andean shamans prescribed appropriate rituals to ensure seasonal regeneration. Shamans were also healers and some, including women, were herbalists.

Little is known of Qaraqara and Charka religious practices, but early colonial documents suggest periodic veneration of sacred mountains, some of which, like Potosí's Cerro Rico, contained silver. The mountains of Porco,which under Inca rule served as the empire's primary source of silver, were especially significant. Huacas, or sacred sites and shrines, almost always included mountain summits, and sometimes other prominent features, such as caves, boulders, or outcrops. The huacas inside mountains might include bodies of exceptionally rich ore reached by tunneling from a sacred outcrop, usually signaled by a clustering of three stones. Mines, in other words, were not simply holes in the ground from which one extracted wealth; they were sacred spaces or portals to the underworld.


Excerpted from "Potosí"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Kris Lane.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1 • Bonanza
2 • Age of Wind, Age of Iron
3 • The Viceroy’s Great Machine
4 • An Improbable Global City
5 • Secret Judgments of God
6 • Decadence and Rebirth
7 • From Revival to Revolution
8 • Summing Up
Epilogue: Potosí since

Appendix: Voices
Bibliographical Essay
Select Bibliography


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