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 other luxuries from the East that they craved. The quantities of silver from Potosí that reached Seville and were recorded by the officials of its House of Trade were staggering. Indeed, vale un Potosí—“worth a Potosí”—is an expression still used in Spain.

Encouragement to undertake what was then the arduous journey to Potosí came from Lewis Hanke of Columbia University, the doyen of Spanish-American colonial studies in the United States. He had spent time exploring the Potosí archives and told me, not very reassuringly, that anyone who did so deserved a medal. The cost and inconvenience of travel, the bitter cold, and the inadequate accommodation were all deterrents to visitors in the 1950s, and the sheer abundance of documents in the archives was likely to overwhelm even the most seasoned researcher. In 1956, on the strength of his initial research, Hanke published a short essay on this “boom town supreme” in which he observed that “our knowledge of Potosí may be said to be still in the folklore stage.”1 In the following years he himself did much to move it beyond that stage by publishing valuable source material and editing contemporary and historical accounts of a town described by the Emperor Charles V as “The Treasury of the World” and officially styled by his successor on the Spanish throne, Philip II, as “La Villa Imperial,” the “Imperial Town,” although he never raised it to the status of a city.

Hanke led the way, and others followed. In the 1970s Peter Bakewell, a British historian whose professional career was spent in North American universities, worked out silver production figures for Potosí that have been accepted as standard and went on to publish valuable studies both of entrepreneurship and the labor system in the Peruvian mines.2 But as Hanke made clear, there is much more to the history of Potosí than the extraction, refining, and export of its silver. When in 1545, twelve years after the Spanish “conquest,” a native Peruvian, Diego Gualpa, reportedly stumbled across fragments of silver-bearing ore on the mountainside, there was no human settlement nearby, although the Incas had exploited silver and gold mines in the region, and it is possible that indigenous peoples had sporadically mined for centuries at what was one of the many venerated sacred sites in the Andes to which the inhabitants brought their ritual offerings.


As soon as outcroppings of rich silver on the surface of the Cerro Rico had been identified, the rush was on. Hopeful conquistadores and mine owners already prospecting in the region hurried to the Red Mountain to stake out claims and begin the digging of pits and underground exploration. As Spaniards and native Andeans flocked to the mine, a formerly barren site mushroomed into a full-scale Spanish-style city, with more than 50,000 inhabitants by the early 1570s. By 1610, Potosí was reported to have a population of 160,000, larger than that of contemporary London.3

As Hanke realized, there was a whole other story waiting to be told—a story of explosive urban growth, of crime and extreme violence, and of glaringly conspicuous consumption. “No one single person,” he wrote, “can possibly hope to write the story—the full story—of Potosí.” Since Hanke’s time, social, environmental, and other aspects of life in Potosí have attracted the attention of growing numbers of historians, and Kris Lane gives a brief summary of the historiography in the bibliographical essay that concludes Potosí: The Silver City That Changed the World. Lane, who holds the chair in colonial Latin American history at Tulane University, is well known for his publications in the field, which include a study of the trade in emeralds and an urban history of Quito at the end of the sixteenth century.4 In turning his attention to Potosí, Lane has chosen a more spectacular South American city than Quito, and one that was of far more than local significance.

For anyone who wants to learn about the rise and decline of Potosí as a city, and more generally about its preeminent position in the global trade in silver following the mountain’s discovery, Lane’s book is the ideal place to begin. Although the division of his chapters into short sections tends to interfere with the flow of the narrative, he writes lucidly, and he has mastered the now voluminous secondary, as well as the primary, literature. Moreover, he would undoubtedly be a deserving recipient of Hanke’s medal for grappling with the rich documentation in Potosí’s Historical Archive, although this no longer demands the physical and mental fortitude required of Hanke. The city has better accommodation than in the past, and Bolivia’s traditionally welcoming archivists have done much to make their country’s documentary resources more accessible.

Lane’s research opens windows onto the lives of Potosí’s inhabitants—Spanish, indigenous, African, and those of mixed ethnicity. We are introduced, for instance, to María Pomachumbo, a native of Cuzco and the widow of a Spaniard, whose possessions, as inventoried after her death in 1588, included Inca-style clothing, “a shawl from Trujillo that looks Chinese,” and “gold and emerald jewelry in the Spanish style.” The list is indicative of the extraordinary range of goods, both regional and global, available to residents of Potosí. It also illustrates the presence and importance of women in the town, a long-neglected topic that is treated at greater length in a pioneering work by Jane E. Mangan, Trading Roles, which Lane rightly acknowledges.5

Although it adduces fresh examples from the archives, Potosí is essentially a work of synthesis that draws on and summarizes a vast body of literature without transforming the story already known. On the other hand, this may not really be possible, and Lane deserves credit not only for assembling so much old and new information into a convenient form, but also for reminding us that cities have a life of their own, regardless of their national or transnational importance. As he writes in his preface, the aim of his book is to “balance the local and the global by treating Potosí—city and mountain, mines and countryside—as an example of early modern global urbanism and extraction in action.”

In this he succeeds admirably. Where extraction is concerned, we learn, for instance, of the “reforms” introduced by Francisco de Toledo, the great but controversial viceroy of Peru between 1569 and 1581. It was Toledo who consolidated the forced labor system in the mines, the mita, in pursuit of his grand project to turn the previously anarchical Peruvian viceroyalty into a well-governed Spanish overseas dominion capable of delivering substantial annual revenues to a distant monarch. We learn in some detail, too, of the methods used for extracting silver from the ore, and of the enormous improvement in the refining process made by the large-scale introduction in the 1570s of mercury amalgamation, a process facilitated by the allegedly miraculous discovery of the mercury mine of Huancavelica, high in the central Andes. Toledo was also responsible for the establishment of a royal mint in Potosí, the casa de la moneda, which in due course would produce the famous piece of eight, the peso, stamped with a P mint-mark and royal coat of arms, that would be used and coveted across the world.


Along with describing the procedures used for extracting, refining, and minting, Lane explains how these processes shaped the character of the Villa Imperial and its surrounding region. Already by 1600, some 10,000 mita workers, forcibly drafted in the numerous nearby villages and subjected to appalling working conditions above and below ground, were living in Potosí. They were joined by a growing army of free laborers, known as mingas, who put themselves up for hire in order to provide sustenance for themselves and their families, and to pay the annual tribute exacted from the indigenous population.

Indigenous workers in a Potosí silver mine; engraving by Theodor de Bry, circa 1590


Indigenous workers in a Potosí silver mine; engraving by Theodor de Bry, circa 1590

All these laborers had to be kept supplied with food and drink, as did the vast numbers who took up residence in the town, whether to find occupation in the mining and service sectors, turn a quick profit as merchants and entrepreneurs, or enjoy the many opportunities for a life of ease that resulted from Potosí’s being a production and marketing center and a hub of complex regional and global networks. These developments in turn involved the creation of a supply system dependent on the coming and going of long tethered lines of llamas laden with as heavy a burden as they could manage and reinforced by mules, which were less well adapted than llamas to the high altitude but capable of bearing heavier loads. Some of the documents unearthed by Lane are so detailed that they even tell us the names bestowed by mule drivers on their reluctant charges: La Morisca, La Doctora, and El Tirano, a tyrannical black male.

Lane rightly emphasizes the enormous environmental changes brought to the region by the creation of a mining economy. The refiners needed hydraulic mills to crush the ores and also, at Viceroy Toledo’s urgent insistence, mills for the refining process. This in turn necessitated the provision of a reliable water supply, which could only come from the construction of reservoirs, canals, and aqueducts on a huge scale. All this construction transformed the physical landscape, just as the growth of a vast urban complex in the high Andes transformed the human landscape. The Spanish center of the city, with its characteristic grid layout, came to be haphazardly ringed by suburbs. These were intended for a segregated Indian population, but segregation tended to break down under the pressure of a continuing influx of new residents of diverse origin; and native Andeans, Africans, and people of mixed blood were soon jostling each other at the market stalls in the crowded city center nominally set apart for Spaniards and their creole descendants.

The human suffering caused by the creation of this monstrous mining complex in the heart of the Andes is incalculable. Thousands upon thousands of miners lost their lives, either as the result of accidents in terrifyingly dangerous working conditions or from exposure to mercury vapor, lead, zinc, and other toxins showered down on the city by the Red Mountain that loomed above it. Their wives and children, too, died by the thousands from disease, malnutrition, and forcible removal from their homes.

Yet as Lane also shows, the cruelty and oppression that are so widely seen as epitomizing the history of Spanish rule in America and have done so much to reinforce what became known as the “Black Legend” of Spain’s conduct as the dominant imperial power in early modern Europe and the Americas6 are far from being the whole story. In America, while one world was being brutally destroyed, another was painfully being born. To some, at least, in this emerging world the arrival of the European intruders expanded horizons and offered new and unexpected opportunities. In Lane’s eloquent words, “Potosí has always been a site of struggle and innovation, a dense concentration of predictable losses and unpredictable successes, an indigenous space and also a complex African and European one, a woman-centered world in spite of men’s best efforts.”

The evidence for these assertions is to be found in the information that, especially in the city’s early days, the refining sector was almost entirely in the hands of native Andeans; that native traders and merchants took advantage of the bonanza to become rich; and that by the mid-seventeenth century as many as a fifth of the refining mills belonged to women, while other women owned mines, farms, ranches, and rural and urban properties. Many of these women were widows who were entitled under Spanish inheritance law to take possession of a portion of their husbands’ properties and estates. Most of them came from settler families, but others were recent arrivals from Spain, and a few were indigenous or ethnically mixed women married to white property-owners.

Lane brings out well the complex hues of a society too easily portrayed in monotone by advocates of the Black Legend of Spanish rule. While native Andeans and the growing numbers of slaves imported from Africa to meet the city’s needs were, in one form or another, victims of a brutal and coercive system, this does not necessarily mean that they are to be defined exclusively as victims. Alongside the more spectacular success stories chronicled in this book, innumerable more modest victories were won on a daily basis by those who learned to work the system and refused to bow before it. This was particularly true of the women of all races who dominated the urban market. As street vendors, stall-holders, and traders in commodities in daily demand like the coca leaves remorselessly chewed as antidotes to hard labor in high altitudes or the addictive indigenous maize beer known as chicha, these women knew exactly how to flout and circumvent the regulations intended to control their sale. Far from being passive, they were active agents of their own fate insofar as the coercive system under which they lived allowed. In Lane’s words: “Traces of their agency litter the record.”

He also qualifies another aspect of the Black Legend—the alleged absence of entrepreneurial skills among Spaniards, and the technical and scientific backwardness of Hispanic society as a whole. The history of Potosí gives the lie to these assumptions. In an environment wide open to new enterprises, like that of viceregal Peru, entrepreneurship flourished. The Basques in particular were quick to arrive and seize their opportunities. They were soon a dominant force in the city, where violent gang warfare broke out in the 1620s when their dominance was challenged by other Spaniards no less keen to enjoy the benefits.

The most successful entrepreneur in Potosí and probably the richest man in seventeenth-century Peru, Antonio López de Quiroga, was a native of Galicia, but there was no lack of entrepreneurial skills among those who arrived from regions of the peninsula other than Galicia and the Basque provinces. Some fell by the wayside, crippled by debt in a society that lived on credit. Others, however, whether estate owners producing food and wine for the growing urban market or merchants engaged in local and international trade, not only made fortunes but also contributed decisively to the creation and development of Peru’s mining economy.

To function effectively and produce silver at sustainable levels, this economy depended from the start on many forms of technological expertise. It also required, as the veins of silver that were easier to mine ran dry, a constant willingness to innovate. Here again native Spaniards, although no doubt drawing on a common fund of European knowledge and experience, were in the forefront. There were already well-developed skills among ironmongers in the Basque country and among miners and prospectors in the copper and mercury mines of Andalusia. A merchant from Seville, Bartolomé de Medina, developed the mercury amalgamation system that transformed the refining process, while another immigrant, Álvaro Alonso Barba, born and raised in the vicinity of Andalusia’s famous Río Tinto mine, traveled through the mining regions of Peru, introduced valuable technological improvements in Potosí, and published a treatise, The Art of Metals, in 1640 that was consulted throughout Europe and the Indies.

Yet even with all these improvements, Potosí’s silver production had passed its peak by the opening years of the seventeenth century, and finally, in the eighteenth, Peru would be overtaken by Mexico as the principal source of supply. There were various reasons for this. Already by the end of the sixteenth century, the rich veins of ore, which were concentrated in the summit of the mountain, were being depleted. Miners thus had to tunnel deeper underground, which meant higher costs. Then, near the end of the rainy season in 1626, a section of the dam that contained the San Ildefonso reservoir gave way. The resulting flood not only killed hundreds of people but also wiped out crushing mills and amalgamation refineries. On top of this, corrupt merchants, mill owners, and mint officials siphoned off large quantities of silver that should have been properly registered, which led to a debasement of the coinage that for a time shook worldwide confidence in Potosí-minted pesos. Effective royal action in the 1640s put an end to the worst abuses, but the accumulation of natural and man-made disasters gradually made Peruvian silver less able to compete with that of the Mexican mines.

Under the Spanish Bourbon kings, reformers in the eighteenth century had some success in reviving Peruvian output, but European expertise was not necessarily superior to local knowledge, and the results were frequently disappointing. Corruption and vested interests were powerful obstacles to change, and even after Peru and Bolivia won independence in the early nineteenth century and silver was replaced in the 1890s by tin as the principal metal extracted from the Bolivian mines, Potosí never returned to the glories of its heyday, in spite of all the new technology and investment brought to bear in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The city’s Baroque churches and convents are a continuing reminder of those glories. But for anyone who visits Potosí, it is impossible to ignore the suffering and the horrors that accompanied them. As one stands on those cold streets looking up at the Red Mountain, no view, however picturesque, can obliterate the painful truth: the city whose fluctuating fortunes are so effectively chronicled by Lane was a city built on greed.