Potosi – The town with a silver lining
As a teenager I had heard of the infamous mines of Potosi, where indigenous and African slaves were used to exploit silver for the Spanish crown. Being in Bolivia I convinced Michelle to seize the opportunity to visit this city.
Situated at around 4100m above sea level, Potosi is the highest city on earth, and thus it literally takes your breath away, due to the lack of oxygen. Despite a gradual ascent through the Andes, we struggled to walk 1 km with our backpacks on when we arrived – what usually might have taken 15 minutes, took the better part of 30. Afterwards, we tried to make the most of the remaining sunshine but had to retire to a restaurant to have food and catch our breath.
Although Potosi is not particularly large (~180.000 people), it has a rich history and beautiful colonial architecture as it was once one of the richest cities in the world. This wealth stemmed from the silver the Spaniards extracted from the Cerro Rico (rich mountain) after colonizing this region. During 1556-1783 a total of 41.000 tons of silver were extracted in Potosi alone. Thus it became a magnet for adventurers, New World aristocrats, and artists, all seeking to benefit from the riches of Potosi and its population swelled to more than 200.000 (comparable to the size of London at that time). The fact that a whooping 86 churches were built in that period is another sign of that wealth.
By 1825 the silver was almost depleted and the population sank to a mere 10.000. In a way Potosi could be compared to places like Dubai, or Qatar, that achieved extreme riches because of a natural resource, and thus became a magnet for people from all over the world, but eventually faced the threat of obscurity once the resource was depleted. The only hope of the UAE and states like it is to successfully reinvent itself.
Another breathtaking site and hint of former wealth in Potosi is the Casa Nacional de la Moneda. Praised by the Lonely Planet as “being worth its weight in silver”, it is housed in one the largest colonial buildings in Bolivia, and was formerly used as a mint.
It displays colonial art, silver coins and silverware, as well as the different technologies used to process silver. Two coins displayed in the museum are from a galleon, the Nuestra Senore de Atocha, that sank off the coast of Florida in the US en route to Spain in 1622 and was discovered by the Americans in 1985. It was filled with silver bars and coins worth 440 million USD. Unfortunately, Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, only received a meager ‘donation’ of two coins, both of which are now on display in the museum.
This silver has another even darker side: The suffering and deaths of the indigenous and black African slaves used to extract the silver from the mines of Potosi. Spaniards never actually entered the mines, or got their hands dirty, instead they used a system of forced labour called mita, in which Indigenas were forced to ‘donate’ two months of the year to work in the mines. Sometimes these two months turned into four or six months, or as long as one survived. Forced to work shifts of 16h hours, with nothing but their bare hands, or primitive tools, some did not see daylight for days and most did not survive long. An estimated 8 million people are thought to have died in the mines of Potosi; the primitive conditions, use of child labor and deaths continue to this day.