On a desolate, windswept plain amid barren mountains at almost 4100m above sea level, POTOSÍ is the highest city in the world, and at once the most fascinating and tragic place in Bolivia. It owes its existence to Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), which rises imperiously above the city to the south. Cerro Rico was the richest source of silver the world had ever seen: its mines turned Potosí into the richest jewel in the Spanish emperors’ crown, and one of the world’s wealthiest and largest cities. In the early seventeenth century its population was 160,000, far bigger than contemporary Madrid, and equal in size to London. The expression “eso vale un Potosí” (“this is worth a Potosí”) was used in colloquial Spanish to describe anything priceless. However, this wealth was achieved at the expense of the lives of millions of indigenous forced labourers and African slaves.
Today, Potosí, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a treasure-trove of colonial art and architecture; it has more than two thousand colonial buildings, many of which have been restored. Hundreds of town houses and mansions remain, complete with red-tiled roofs and decorative balconies. Even more striking are the 25 or so churches: the most exuberant of these is San Lorenzo de Carangas. The city’s most outstanding monument, however, is the Casa Real de la Moneda, the colonial royal mint, which has some stunning pieces of colonial religious art. Potosí’s tragic history weighs heavily though, and is evident in the sense of sadness that seems to haunt its narrow streets and the appalling conditions still endured by miners at Cerro Rico.
A brief history of silver in Potosí
Legend has it the Incas were on the point of mining Cerro Rico in 1462 when a supernatural voice warned them that the gods were saving the silver for others who would come from afar. Inca Huayna Capac subsequently declared the mountain sacrosanct, naming it Ppotojsi (Quechua for “thunder” or “burst”). The silver was apparently rediscovered in 1545 by llama herder Diego Huallpa. Caught out after dark on Cerro Rico, he started a fire to keep warm, only to see a trickle of molten silver run out from the blaze. News of this reached the Spaniards, and a silver rush was soon under way. Over the next twenty years Potosí became the richest single source of silver in the world.
This growth was based on the extraction of surface deposits with high ore contents, which were easily processed. As these ran out and shaft mining developed, the purity of the ore declined and production costs rose. Labour also became increasingly scarce, thanks to the appalling conditions in the mines. This crisis was overcome by Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, who arrived in Potosí in 1572 and orchestrated the construction of a massive system of dams, artificial lakes and aqueducts to power the water wheels that crushed the ore for processing. Toledo also introduced the newly discovered amalgam process for refining silver using mercury, established the first royal mint and regulated property rights. Most importantly, he tackled the labour shortage by adapting the Inca system of mandatory labour service, the mita. This provided an annual workforce of about 13,500 mitayos at almost no cost to the mine owners.
These reforms greatly boosted silver production, and Potosí boomed for almost a century. By the beginning of the seventeenth century Potosí’s population was 160,000 and the city boasted dozens of magnificent churches, as well as theatres, gambling-houses, brothels and dancehalls. The silver also had a global impact, funding Spain’s wars and fuelling economic growth throughout Europe.
The human cost
For the indigenous workers and imported African slaves who produced this wealth, however, the consequences were catastrophic. Staying deep underground for up to a week at a time and forced to meet ever more outrageous quotas, they died at a terrible rate; outside, the highly toxic mercury used in processing the silver posed an equal threat to workers in the large foundries. One sixteenth-century writer described the mines as a ravening beast that swallowed men alive. Estimates of the total number who died over three centuries of colonial mining in Potosí run as high as nine million, making the mines a central factor in the demographic collapse that swept the Andes under Spanish rule.
The end of the boom
From about 1650, silver production – and Potosí – entered a century-long decline, though the city remained rich enough to be hotly disputed during the Independence War. However, by the time independence was won in 1825, Potosí’s population was just nine thousand. From the end of the nineteenth century the city came to increasingly rely on tin mining – another metal found in abundance in Cerro Rico, but previously ignored. However, when the price of tin collapsed in 1985, the state-owned mines closed down or were privatized. Though cooperative miners continue to scrape a living by working Cerro Rico’s tired old veins for tin and other metals, Potosí never recovered from the decline of silver production, much less the tin crash.Read More
Casa Real de la Moneda
Casa Real de la Moneda
The unmissable Casa Real de la Moneda (Royal Mint) is one of South America’s most outstanding examples of colonial civil architecture and home to Bolivia’s best museum. The vast, eclectic collection includes the original machinery used in the minting process; some of Bolivia’s finest colonial religious art; militaria; archeological artefacts; and a huge collection of coins. Visits are by guided tour only: these start soon after the morning and afternoon opening times and are conducted in Spanish, English or French depending on demand. It can be very cold inside the complex, so wear something warm.
Constructed between 1759 and 1773 for over a million pesos de oro to replace the earlier royal mint, La Moneda is a formidable construction, built as part of a concerted effort by the Spanish crown to reform the economic and financial machinery of the empire in order to increase its revenues. Along with Lima and Mexico City, Potosí was one of only three cities in Spanish America authorized to produce coins. Occupying an entire city block, La Moneda is enclosed by 1m-thick stone walls with only a few barred windows, giving it the appearance of a fortress. Inside is a two-storey complex of about two hundred rooms off five internal courtyards. As well as housing all the heavy machinery needed to produce coins La Moneda also housed troops, workers, slaves and senior royal officials, who were responsible for ensuring that the Spanish crown received its ten-percent cut of all silver produced in Cerro Rico’s mines. A vital nerve centre of Spanish imperial power, it also served as a prison, treasury, and stronghold in times of strife.
Double meanings: the churches of Potosí
Double meanings: the churches of Potosí
With beautifully carved porticos and interiors dripping with gold leaf, Potosí’s churches are amongst the finest examples of the mestizo-Baroque style, in which Christian European and pre-Christian Andean symbolism are combined. The churches were built partly as a straightforward expression of religious faith, but gratitude for the wealth of Potosí also played a role: whereas Catholic churches almost always face west, those of Potosí look south towards Cerro Rico. They were also part of a determined effort to convert the indigenous population: with hundreds of thousands of indigenous people from different ethnic groups spending time in the city as workers under the mita system, Potosí offered a perfect opportunity for inculcating the Catholic faith. As well as the many churches and convents built for their own use, the Spaniards built fourteen parish churches for exclusive use by the indigenous mitayos.
In time, Christianity gained widespread acceptance amongst the indigenous population, at least on the surface. But as responsibility for building and decorating Potosí’s churches passed to indigenous and mestizo craftsmen and artists, a very distinct religious vision began to emerge. From the second half of the sixteenth century the religious art and architecture of Potosí began to incorporate more and more indigenous religious motifs in a style that became known as mestizo-Baroque. The sun, moon and stars – central objects in traditional Andean religion – appear alongside images of Christ and the saints, with the Virgin Mary represented in triangular form like a mountain, clearly conflated with the Andean earth goddess Pachamama.
These developments did not pass unnoticed by the Spanish authorities, but allowing a little Andean religious imagery into the decoration of churches may have seemed a small price to pay for getting the indigenous population to accept Christianity, albeit superficially.
Despite their beauty, however, these churches were the product of slave labour, and they could scarcely conceal the contradiction between the avowed Christian beliefs of the Spanish mine owners who funded them and the brutal reality of the mining regime these same men controlled. It was said that though God ruled in Potosí’s 34 churches, the Devil laughed in his six thousand mines.