Cerro Rico is a mountain in Bolivia, near the town of Potosi. Cerro Rico means rich mountain and it is aptly named.
Early in the 16th century the Spanish Conquistadores were told about the mountain’s vast silver deposits and began mining. The Cerro Rico mines became a source of fabulous wealth for the Spanish Empire.
Potosi became not only the largest city in South America but larger than London or Paris. In the 16th century, the area was regarded as the world’s biggest industrial site. Potosi attracted adventurers from all over Spain and the became lawless, governed by corrupt officials who wanted their share of the riches.
Between 1556 and 1783 the Spanish extracted 45,000 tons of pure silver. Some went to the Spanish monarchy and was largely dissipated in pointless wars. Soon the annual flow of silver was not enough to fund their military adventures and the monarchy started borrowing against future shipments. That got out of hand and repeated bankruptcies followed.
Perhaps half of the silver went to China. The Chinese had much that the Spanish wished to buy but the Spanish had little to sell in return. However, the Chinese wanted silver so bars and coins from Potosi were shipped to Mexico and then to Manila. There they were traded to the Chinese in return for silk, porcelain and many other items.
Huancavelica and Cerro Rico
Mercury was used to process the silver ore and this was obtained from mines in the mountain of Huancavelica. Mercury is highly toxic and conditions in the mercury mines were terrible.
At first the Spanish used Indians as miners at both sites. When this source of labour dried up they imported slaves from Africa. It has been estimated that between four and eight million miners died at Huancavelica and Cerro Rico in extracting and processing mercury and silver.
Working conditions in the mine and the processing works were very bad. Conditions at Huancavelica were reputed to be even worse than those at Potosi. Many must have either died or been crippled by mercury poisoning. Officials who dug up the bodies of miners in 1604 reported that the decomposed bodies left behind puddles of mercury.
Some of the workers were indentured labourers or African slaves. Some were free workers. Like those who work the mine today they would be free in the sense they could choose to leave and starve instead of working in the mine.
Mining continues for tin, zinc and a little silver and about 15,000 people still work in Cerro Rico. Conditions have changed little since the Spanish ran the mines. The mountain continues to kill miners. Deadly accidents are common, and most miners still die young with lung diseases caused by years of inhaling poisonous dust and gases.
Here is a description of a visit to the mine.