The Cerro Rico, or “Rich Hill,” in San Luis Potosí, Bolivia
One thinks of mines as delving deep into the earth. The silver mines at Cerro Rico in San Luis Potosí, Bolivia, are no exception—except for one little fact: The mines are at an altitude of 15,000 feet plus (4,700 meters), high enough that the miners must chew coca leaves so that they could work without the debilitating effects of soroche, acute mountain sickness.
In his book Valley of the Spirits: A Journey into the Lost Realm of the Aymara, Alan L. Kolata writes:
Silver was the prize that inspired unbridled lust in the Europeans who conquered the Andean world in the sixteenth century. The frenzy for veins of silver from the majestic Andes destroyed whole nations of Indians. After decades of warfare, pestilence and famine, the ravaged native populations were subjugated into slave labor in the hellish mines of Potosí in southern Bolivia. Desperate for laborers to work the fabulously rich deposits, Spanish overlords laid claim to the traditional laborers, the mit’a, that the Indian nations rendered to their native monarchs. More than one-seventh of the native population between Cuzco in southern Peru and Tarija in southern Bolivia were pressed into service in the mines of Potosí. Conditions in the mines were bestial. Even the Spanish dogs of war were treated with more compassion than the native conscripts who died in unremembered numbers.
“Conditions in the Mines Were [and Are] Bestial”
They still are bestial. The Cerro Rico is still being mined, though with diminishing rewards. Between the 16th and the 18th century, 80% of the world’s silver supply came from this mine. According to Wikipedia:
After centuries of extractive mining methods that severely damaged the local ecology the mountain continues to be mined for silver to this day. Due to poor worker conditions, such as a lack of protective equipment against the constant inhalation of dust, many of the miners contract silicosis and have a life expectancy of around 40 years. The mountain is still a significant contributor to the city’s economy, employing some 15,000 miners.
According to the Lonely Planet guidebook for Bolivia, it is possible to tour the mines, though I seriously doubt the sanity of travelers who make the attempt.
The silver mined at Potosí was sent by caravan to Lima, Peru, from where it was transshipped from the Port of Callao to Panama, portaged across the isthmus to Colón, and placed on Spanish treasure ships bound for Spain. Many of those ships never made it, being sunk by Atlantic storms and pirates.
And the upshot? For all the gold and silver went into financing Spain’s wars, which were generally mishandled. In the end, Spain was taken by Napoleon who put an end to the Spanish monarchy of the time.