The coat of arms of Bolivia features a large, triangular, brown mountain. The silver from this ‘Cerro Rico’ – ‘Rich Mountain’ changed the world.
The river that flows past Buenos Aires and separates Argentina (the country of silver) and Uruguay is called the River Plate (Plata = silver). The dry ports in the Atacama Desert were established for this same silver.
The pirates of the Caribbean stole this silver. Plans for a canal in Nicaragua or Panama were drawn up to transport this silver across central America.
The silver from Potosi inspired and initially financed the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The silver coins minted in Potosi were the first global currency. The “$” symbol is derived from the overlapped letters PTSI (Potosi), which confirmed the Spanish royal mint.
For centuries Potosi was the highest city on earth. Perched in the southern Bolivian Andes, the official height of Potosi is 4060 meters (13320 feet) above sea level.
The Spanish encountered this mountain of silver in 1544 and by 1645 Potosi was the most ethnically diverse city in the world. It was the largest city in South America, as large as London and much larger than Madrid at that time.
Brace yourself, the story becomes much more difficult.
By the early 1600’s the Spanish were transporting slaves from Africa to work the mines, but the attrition (death) rate was so high due to altitude and general conditions, the Africans were moved to lower elevations to cultivate coca. The success of this enslavement led to the millions of people who were transported to the Caribbean, Brazil and throughout the Americas.
Silver from Potosi financed this and empowered all the European empires.
Turning from African slaves, the Spanish required three years of unpaid labour in the mines from the Quechua (Inca) and Aymara inhabitants of the highlands. Some parents would maim their children so they could not work in the mines.
Numbers are never clear, but up to 6 million people may have died in forced labour either in the mountain or in the associative processing of the silver.
All of this was sanctioned by the Catholic Church which maintains a major presence in the city to this day. Yet inside the mountains the miners worshipped the devil. They still do.
It is / was believed the devil ruled the underworld and had to be honoured in order to keep miners safe and grant access to the minerals.
It is impossible to understate the importance of this mountain and the community of Potosi. It really did change the world. The amount of wealth extracted from the mine is staggering. To this day there is a Spanish expression ‘vale un Potosi’ – much like ‘winning the lottery!’
The actual mint stopped producing coins in 1951, but people continue to work in the mine – still finding silver, and also tin.
Life did improve somewhat after Bolivia gained its independence in 1825, but only marginally. Indigenous people were permitted to pass through the gate that had segregated the colonists. Forced labour ended, but conditions remained extreme.
Currently, there are about 5400 miners working in the mountain organised through 200 cooperatives. Some labourers are as young as 10 years old. About 30 % of miners develop silicosis and die.
The general language of the miners is Quechua, though the origin of the name Potosi is probably Aymaran.
Miners still do not eat or drink when at work, but they chew coca leaves continuously. They also drink 96% alcohol during their time off and always offer some to the devil statues inside the mines.
I have toured the mines several times over the years. After some fairly serious accidents, the mine tours have become somewhat more sterile. Nevertheless, my current group was moved by the experience and only half stayed inside the mountain for the whole tour.
There is an old saying in history; ‘if we do not know where we have come from, we will not know where we are going.’ Becoming aware of Potosi, Bolivia really is the history of our world.
It is not hyperbole when I suggest this is the most important city on earth.