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Potosí: the mountain of silver that was the first global city (aeon.co)
57 points by danielam 75 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 7 comments

Cerro Rico is a crazy place, geologically speaking. Apparently around 800 million ounces of silver (22,695 metric tons) were produced between 1545 and 1823 [1], and even after about half a millennium of mining it still has another 1.7 billion ounces in estimated silver reserves [2].

It's a swiss cheese of tunnels by now, so much so that the summit is subsiding at a rate of a few cm/yr [2] due to the gradual collapse of the mountain.

[1] https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199366439.013.2

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cerro_Rico

You bring out a very interesting fact. A not-so-known side effect of all that mining is that it flooded the Spanish markets in that era with so much silver that it lost its value. Niall Ferguson in “The Ascent of Money” suggests that all that silver in Spain couldn’t really prevent Spain from financial headaches. Makes you wonder if the first QE was way back in 1500s , doesn’t it? :-)

I did a mine tour. We first visited a market to buy dynamite, coca leaves, and soda as gifts for miners we may encounter. Tunnel areas are run by different cooperatives. It was interesting and humbling. Each coop has a devil statue in the mine they pay weekly respect to for keeping them safe. At 4500 meters, it's best advised to take an altitude sickness pill 12 hours before your trip to Potosi if coming in quickly from surrounding areas. We also went to a bar for drinks and found many locals playing cards at tables, drinking hot lemonade with singani (Bolivian clear Brandy). Here's a BBC article about the mines, devils: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29448079

The article touches on this slightly, but I don't really feel that it does true justice to the horror of the slavery of the native Americans forced to work in the mines by the Spaniards. "Labour draft" seems like much too mild a euphemism for what was really rapacious enslavement. Cerro Rico is known as "The Mountain that Eats Men" and an estimated 8 million people have died mining it since the 16th century.

I read a great piece of journalism a couple years ago about the miners in Potosí and the ecotourism associated with the area. Sadly I can't find a free version of it--here's a link to it for those interested: https://www.decastories.com/comeseethemountain/

There's an awesome discussion of Potosí and its wider role in the first stages of globalization in Mann's book 1493.

Potosi is so synonomous with wealth that the word literally means "a fortune" in Spanish now. Like another poster touched on, this came at immense human cost.


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