‘Were I to pay thee, Sancho’, answered Don Quixote, ‘in proportion to the magnitude of the service, the treasure of Venice, and the mines of Potosi would be too small a recompense’.
Despite the traces of its colonial past (its numerous colonial buildings and churches, baroque façades, narrow streets with their balconies…), if you don’t know its history, it will difficult for you to imagine that, four centuries ago, Potosí was one of the richest and most populated cities in the world.
Before the colonial period, this place located at more than 4000 meters above sea level was uninhabited. The Incas knew there was silver in the Sumaj Ork’o – Cerro Rico (rich hill) in Quechua * – but they only mined it from time to time to make offerings to their gods. Supposedly, one day the mountain expelled them; a scary sound was heard and a voice said: ‘Don’t extract more silver from the mountain because it’s for other people’. They fled * the place repeating the word ‘Pptojsi’, which means ‘explode’ in Quechua. It is said to have happened about 80 years before the Spanish arrived in Potosi.
Decades later, a Quechua pastor found silver while looking for his llamas on the mountain. The Spanish heard about this discovery and started exploiting Cerro Potojsi. On April 1st 1545 the took possession of Cerro Rico and founded* the city of Potosi.
Quickly, tons of silver were extracted, which attracted more and more Spaniards. They re-established the mita system – forced labour, which already existed under the Incas, but which was imposed more forcefully then – ‘recruiting’ local workforce to exploit the mines. The extremely high mortality rate caused by exhaustion *, malnutrition, mercury poisoning and new diseases brought by the Spanish led the latter to find an alternative. That’s how the first African slaves arrived at the beginning of the 17th century. The Indigenous and African people were harshly exploited and, while it is said that a bridge could be built between Potosí and Madrid with the silver that was mined, it’s also said that another bridge could be built with the remains of those who died in the mines.
For centuries, the cerro’s silver contributed to the prosperity of the Spanish empire as well as to the development and fame of the city. In 1610, Potosi was one of the most populated cities in the world with about 160,000 inhabitants (comparable to Paris, Seville or London at that time). Potosi was one of the first three mints * in America with Lima and Mexico. It coined * more money than had ever been produced until then and became a very important place both economically and politically, attracting people from the entire world.
The Spanish expression ‘vale un Potosí’ (it’s worth a Potosi) refers to something extremely valuable. In colonial times, there was so much silver in Potosi and people trusted banks so little that they started hiding their silver in holes. Centuries later, these hiding places – known as tapados, ‘hidden’ in English – were found.
It seems that the names ‘Argentina’ and ‘Río de la Plata’ originated from Potosi’s silver in the 16th century. It is said that some Spanish conquistadores reached Potosi (before the cerro was really ‘discovered’ and exploited by the Spanish) and got silver objects there. When they went down south to what is currently known as La Plata in Argentina, they talked about silver mines in the Andes and people started believing that the rivers coming from there to what we now know as Río de la Plata carried silver from the mountain. ‘Argentina’ (from Latin argentum – silver) also arose * from this belief.
At the beginning of the 19th century, silver started losing value but at the end of that century, tin mining replaced silver mining; in the 20th century, tin was in high demand because of the wars raging in the world and the need for weapons. The mining companies were nationalized in 1952.
The tin mines were closed but Cerro Rico, pierced by thousands of kilometers of galleries, is still being exploited by Potosino * miners, who daily go down the mines in poor safety and health conditions.
* Supposedly, although the Spanish established a town there in order to mine silver, the city was never officially founded.