A History of the Potosi Mines in Bolivia: Discovery, Wealth, Slavery and Death in the Shadow of Cerro Rico

Miners at work

Present day Potosi, said to be the highest city in the world, is not a wealthy city by any means. A handful of museums and a fair few colonial buildings, some in various states of disrepair and others lovingly restored by UNESCO projects, are reminders of former colonial times, but otherwise the city is not so far removed from other Bolivian towns.

However, the riches seen in this town in times past almost defy belief; a settlement that through its natural wealth shaped history, changed nations, and helped make empires. Looming over the town, a constant reminder of former glories, is the conical form of Cerro de Potosi, also known as Cerro Rico (the ‘Rich Mountain’), from which was plucked enough silver to build what was once one of the largest cities in the world.

Inca Legend, Conquistadors & the Cero Rico Mines

Before the arrival of the Spanish, the riches of Cerro Rico lay almost untouched. Perhaps the conquistadores were the recipients of extreme good fortune, coming across the mountain in their travels, possibly seeing some small scale ore mining operations of the local Quechua Indians and then taking it for themselves. Or perhaps they had already heard talk of the mountain in Inca legend.

According to Inca legend the silver-laden mountain was first set upon by Huayna Capac, an Inca ruler of the mid 1400’s, but his workers abandoned the project when hearing a voice warning them not to take the silver as it was ‘destined for other masters’.

What is clear is that the Spanish found the silver deposits, and they wasted little time in extracting the resources for themselves. In 1544 the reinvented mining town of Potosi began its rapid ascent into wealth and grandeur.

The Riches of Potosi, Slavery & Death in Cerro Rico, Bolivia

Within a few years of the Spanish arrival thousands of indigenous workers were toiling in the mines. However, under the rule of their Spanish masters these native labourers also died by their thousands, subjected to brutal working conditions and poisonous mercury vapours used in the mining process.

In the early 1600s the Spanish governors began importing African slaves to the mines to supplement the native workers. These so-called ‘human mules’ also perished due to Spain’s feverish desire for silver. A life expectancy of under one year was reaping a terrible human cost; mercury poisoning, mining accidents, exposure, and lung disease were all contributing factors.

According to Eduardo Galeano (Open Veins of Latin America, Monthly Review Press, 1971) an estimated eight million African and indigenous workers died in the Potosi mines during Spain’s colonial reign.

I am Rich Potosi – Silver & Colonial Wealth

While the miners died in Cerro Rico, both Potosi and Spain were growing rich from their labours. In a report entitled ‘History Echoes in the Mines of Potosi’, Becky Branford (BBC News Online) relates the scale of the Spanish mining operation, which over three centuries extracted “more than 62,000 metric tonnes (137 million pounds) of silver that provided the Spanish aristocracy with a lifestyle of profligate opulence and, because it was used to pay off many Spanish debts to neighbours, fuelled much of the economic rise of Europe.”

By the mid 17th Century this wealth was also transforming the city of Potosi into much more than simply a mining town; now one of the world’s largest and wealthiest cities with a population of over 200,000. The silver was funding the construction of lavish colonial mansions and scores of churches, living up to the claims on the Potosi coat of arms: “I am rich Potosi, Treasure of the world. The king of all mountains, And the envy of all kings.”

The Decline of Cerro Rico & Potosi Today

In the early 1800s the mines of Cerro Rico began their slow decline; the silver became depleted leaving tin as the main product, a product not valuable enough to sustain the extravagance of Potosi. Bolivia’s struggle for independence then began in 1809, the city governed at times by the Spanish Royalists and at others by Patriot forces.

Bolivia, as an independent nation, was never to profit from the mines as had her old colonial masters. While the mines are still active, with some 8,000 men mining Cerro Rico for tin and zinc, the yield is low and the conditions are poor. Life expectancy is not much greater than 40 years; accidents are still common and lung disease remains an often fatal aspect of the work.

Some miners now find a way out by working as tour guides for the tourists who visit the Potosi mines, but many are still working long hours for small rewards. Little now remains of Potosi’s former glories, and less still of the 8 million who died in her mines.