The Silver Rush

The Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) and the city of Potosí, in what is now Bolivia; painting by Gaspar Miguel Berrio, 1758
Gilles Mermet/akg-images
The Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) and the city of Potosí, in what is now Bolivia; painting by Gaspar Miguel Berrio, 1758

In July 1964, after spending a night in the Bolivian city of Oruro, my wife and I caught a ramshackle bus in the early morning for the mining city of Potosí, some 13,000 feet above sea level in the Andes. We ascended at a snail’s pace until, some twenty miles from Potosí, the bus got stuck in a ditch from which, in spite of the combined efforts of the passengers, it proved impossible to dislodge. It was not only muddy but also freezing cold. We were fortunate to be rescued by a British compatriot, an employee of the Bolivian Tin Corporation, who happened to live nearby. After warming us beside his log fire and reviving us with hot soup, he took us back to the scene of the breakdown, where we waited in the dark for a relief bus that eventually arrived at 9:30 PM. Finally we made it to Potosí, where we passed a very cold night in a small and damp hotel room. The next morning we awoke to brilliant sunshine and a bright blue sky, although it remained bitterly cold, and the high altitude left us short of breath.

We went to Potosí because I was curious to see the famous Cerro Rico, the barren ochre-colored Rich Hill, also known as the Red Mountain, that, at 15,750 feet, towers over the city. This was the mountain that, in the century after its alleged “discovery” in 1545, produced nearly half the world’s silver. During that century the name of Potosí spread around the globe. It appeared on all the best maps, including one prepared in 1602 by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci as a gift for the Chinese emperor, and the strange conical shape of its mountain, originally depicted in a crude woodcut, was reproduced in countless images.

My desire to visit Potosí arose from my interest in the history of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain, which could never have become the dominant power in early modern Europe without the regular supply of silver extracted from the mines of what is today Bolivia, but during the period of Spanish rule was part of the viceroyalty of Peru. Every year this silver was shipped to Seville, where it entered the royal coffers and those of financiers, merchants, and private individuals. From Spain the silver circulated through Europe, paying for the military and other expenses of the always indebted Spanish crown, facilitating private transactions, and flowing into Asia and the Far East, where it met the rising demands of Mughal India and Ming China for silver, and allowed Europeans in turn to purchase the spices, textiles, and…

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