Cerro Rico

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.

The Old World and the New

Columbus’s Landing on San Salvador in 1492

Because of my extensive travels in Latin America, I have become interested in the subject of how the discovery of the New World impacted on Europe. Due to the circumstances of my Coronavirus related social distancing, I have been reading up a storm. One thin book I noticed in my history collection was J. H. Elliott’s The Old World and the New 1492-1650 (Cambridge University Press, 1970).

The discovery of America was such a big event with so many aspects to it that Europeans had a difficult time wrapping their heads around it. Even though so much of the economy of Spain and the rest of Europe was affected by the flood of gold and silver brought to Seville by the treasure fleets, and even though so many new foods and social habits (smoking) spread across the continent, Europeans were somewhat nonplussed for the first couple of centuries after the conquest.

Elliott quotes 1 Corinthians 14:10-11 to summarize the effect:

There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.  Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.

In his essay “On Cannibals,” Montaigne speculated on the Brazilian natives through the eyes of the Greek philosophers:

These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but ‘tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are. I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them; for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.

Sometimes, I still think that Europeans still are trying to wrap their heads around the New World.

 

Home from Abroad

British Poet and Writer Laurie Lee (1914-1997)

I have just finished reading a wonderful book of Laurie Lee’s travels in Spain during the mid 1930s, when he walked out of his Gloucester village, wound up in Spain, walked for hundreds of miles across Spain to Andalusia—at which point Spain erupted in its Civil War. He was evacuated by a British destroyer in July 1936. His book, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, is a travel classic and gives a better picture of life in Spain than I have ever read. Doing further research on him, I discovered that Lee also wrote poetry, among which was the following poem about his travels:

Home from Abroad

Far-fetched with tales of other worlds and ways,
My skin well-oiled with wines of the Levant,
I set my face into a filial smile
To greet the pale, domestic kiss of Kent.

But shall I never learn? That gawky girl,
Recalled so primly in my foreign thoughts,
Becomes again the green-haired queen of love
Whose wanton form dilates as it delights.

Her rolling tidal landscape floods the eye
And drowns Chianti in a dusky stream;
he flower-flecked grasses swim with simple horses,
The hedges choke with roses fat as cream.

So do I breathe the hayblown airs of home,
And watch the sea-green elms drip birds and shadows,
And as the twilight nets the plunging sun
My heart’s keel slides to rest among the meadows.

For all his travels, Lee ended up in the Gloucestershire village from where he started. How curious!

 

You’ll Wonder Where the Yellow Went…

Can a Nation Ban a Color? Catalan Demonstrators in Barcelona.

Decades ago, I remember a stirring film about the Regime of the Colonels in Greece. The film, called Z (1969) and directed by Costa Gavras, ended with the announcement that the rightist Colonels had banned the use of the letter “Z” because it was used to signify that Grigoris Lambrakis, who had been assassinated in 1963 for the protests he had organized, was still alive.

Now, in a stunning repetition, Spain has banned the use of the color yellow, because it was used by Catalans to symbolize their aspirations for independence. They couldn’t altogether ban the color, because it’s one of the colors of the Spanish flag. You can read all about it on the BBC News website.

The Catalans Want to Be Independent of Spain

It’s interesting to me that Europe continues to fragment into ever smaller pieces. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the “segmentation” of the former Yugoslavia, we have a host of new countries: Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Slovakia. As the countries become smaller, they become ever more appetizing targets to be reabsorbed by some larger nearby power. This is what seems to be happening to Belarus and Crimea (formerly part of Ukraine).

I am part Slovak: My father was born near Prešov. For its long history, Slovakia was never independent; but it became so under the presidency of Václav Havel after the Slovaks and the Czechs came to blows over the governing of Czechoslovakia. Now there’s the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.

How much farther will nationalism go? The states of the Confederacy are threatening to secede again from the Union. Canada continues to have problems governing Québec and other French-speaking areas. On a more local level, several rightist-leaning counties in California want to secede from the state and form their own state, to be called Jefferson. Oh, yeah, like we need more conservative senators in Congress!