The Mountain That Eats People

The Mountain That Eats People

The Nightmare Of The Potosi Silver Mines

Dr. Lorin Swinehart

potosi silver mine art


In the “Inferno”, first book of Dante Aligiere’s Divine Comedy, the lowest level of hell is reserved for those guilty of treachery. While many times and places may vie for the title of hell on earth, those who are victims of such a dolorous state of affairs are not necessarily guilty of any offense. One such location that would qualify as a living hell would be the former silver mines at Potosi in what is now southern Bolivia. Those were the days when the Spanish dominions encompassed nearly all of Latin America except Portuguese Brazil and some British and French enclaves along the Caribbean coast. Bolivia as such did not exist yet, not until Simon Bolivar and his armies drove the Spanish off the continent and he gave his name to one of the newly born republics.

One never knows for certain where fable ends and fact begins. The legend is that somewhere around 1545 a man named Diego Gualpa was wandering along the heights at around 13,000 feet while searching for a vanished llama when he stumbled and grabbed at a small bush to break his fall. The alpine soil being shallow and tenuous at best, the small plant came out by its roots, revealing what would later prove to the history’s greatest silver strike.

The ledge upon which Diego stood was atop a vein of silver ore one hundred feet long and thirteen feet wide. This and other strikes satisfied a global hunger for silver as feverish as any craze for gold then or since. China provided a huge market as its own supply of minerals became ever more depleted. In order to address rampant inflation caused by the production of coins made of cheaper metals, the Chinese were desperate to obtain all the silver available at the time.

Thousands of prospectors, utilizing the advanced technology of the local natives, began smelting the valuable mineral over fires kindled from dry grass and llama dung. By the 1560’s the population of the area had swollen to over fifty thousand. So, the rush was on. By 1611, the population had expanded even further to 160,000, and Potosi was the world’s most wealthy city.

As is typical of boom towns, Potosi attracted the lawless element. Corruption, drunkenness, prostitution and dueling in the streets flourished, even full scale battles between spear wielding members of rival ethnic groups. Potosi was crowded with unruly arrivals and always on the tipping point of violence. In 1974, the sociologist ElDean Kohrs coined the term Gillette Syndrome, named after Gillette, Wyoming where large scale coal, oil and methane extraction fostered community disintegration, typified by rapid population growth, skyrocketing prices, epidemic levels of alcohol and drug addiction and soaring crime rates. As Mark Twain once observed, a boom town is a good place for a man to lose his religion.

Bad situations have an uncanny ability to always get worse, particularly where human greed is involved. Eight hundred miles across the frozen heights from Potosi lay Mount Huancavelica, rich with mercury deposits. Earlier, the Spanish had learned that mercury could be used to purify silver, a much more efficient process than reliance upon slow burning fires. In addition, the use of mercury enabled miners to extract silver from lower grade ore. At the time, the combined use of silver and mercury was labeled “The greatest marriage in the world,” by promoters. Little or no thought was wasted on the potential consequences for laborers.

With diminished use of Native American technology, indigenous people could then be considered a source of labor only. Local people were required to provide as tribute weekly numbers of laborers for the silver and mercury mines. At one point, an estimated 4000 Indians each week were forced to labor in the two mines. While estimates vary, it is safe to say that thousands—some say millions—died from their labors. Hundreds of African slaves were also imported to struggle and die in the mines. For a while, six companies in Argentina exported African slaves to Potosi. However, why waste money on imported slaves when thousands of Indians could be secured for free, worked to death and then cast aside like so much rubbish.

As bad as conditions in the silver mines became, they were even worse in the mercury mine. Mercury is widely known to be toxic, the culprit behind the so-called Minamata disease that many years ago caused widespread blindness, paralysis and retardation among the citizens of a Japanese fishing village where local shellfish, a major food source, had been contaminated by a factory upstream. Inside the narrow tunnels of the mines, the heat of the earth vaporized mercury and other minerals like sulphur and arsenic, causing workers to inhale a fog of toxicity. Native laborers were forced to serve several two month shifts each year. Rather than see even their children recruited for the mines, native parents often mutilated them in order to keep them safe.

The demand for silver was so great that the Spanish Crown largely ignored pleas for the mines to be closed, and most reasonable health and safety precautions were never instituted. It took eighty years to even provide some ventilation tunnels into the deeper, darker, hotter shafts. It has been reported that sometimes when the graves of local miners were exhumed, puddles of mercury were left behind.

Native workers struggled under slave-like conditions in the heat and darkness. For light, they wore candles on their foreheads. They toted loads of a hundred pounds of silver ore up and down rope ladders, two men to a ladder, one climbing on one side while another descended on the other. Miners suffered and died in droves from Tuberculosis, silicosis, and other respiratory ailments like pneumonia. Some simply expired from asphyxiation. Spanish overseers beat workers with whips and rocks for failing to meet demanded quotas of ore. It was reported by one priest that if twenty Indians entered the mines at the beginning of the week, half would emerge crippled by its end. Like other native peoples who have been trampled  beneath the iron boot of European invasion and occupation, those throughout South and Central America were subjected to forced religious conversion, compulsory labor and violent treatment.

The horrors of Potosi took place at a time when the debate among European powers over the very personhood of Indians raged fiercely. To settle the matter, an assembly composed of fourteen prominent theologians was ordered to be formed at Valladolid by Spain’s ruling monarch Charles I.  There the Spanish priest Bartolomeu de Las Casas debated fiercely with the humanist philosopher Juan Gines de Sepulveda over whether Indians even had souls. Sepulveda argued that Indians were inferior persons and, thus, natural slaves, sadly not an unusual argument among those who first seek to deprive their intended victims of their humanity before treating them as mere commodities to be used up and eliminated. Sepulveda maintained that it was the duty of the Spanish to “civilize” and “Christianize” native peoples. Having witnessed the methods utilized by Spaniards to civilize and Christianize the peoples of the Caribbean, including beheadings, burnings, decapitations, and torture, Las Casas refused to budge an inch. Fortunately, Las Casas carried the day, causing the King to enact laws forbidding Indian slavery. However, given the distances between South America and the mother country, such good intentions often proved unenforceable, and the mass of human rights violations continued largely unabated until the rich veins of silver were exhausted and the mines were finally abandoned.

What is the lesson to be learned from the centuries long horrors of Potosi. None that become evident, no more than the lessons to be learned from the Atlantic slave trade, the Holocaust of World War II, or such less well known episodes of human skullduggery as the genocide meted out to native Tasmanians by invading white Australians. As one grisly chapter of human history ends, yet new ones arise to take its place. It is challenging to conclude other than that humans are capable of absolutely anything and that they will use any excuse to justify their bad behaviors; profit, progress, religion. While the silver mines at Potosi are closed, mute reminders of the cruelties of the past, slavery has not vanished from earth. According to one BBC report, there may be as many as 27,000,000 million persons living under slave-like conditions. Many are women and young girls held in sexual bondage. This contemporary reality should be a blotch upon the consciences of us all.


March 2022 Issue

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