Rootsie's European Roots  

Potosi-the European Horror Story  
The story of Potosi is one I have held close to me for many years, and I have told it often. For me it encapsulates the ghastly history of the past 500 years. Through the lens of Potosi, I see all I need to know of racism, of capitalism, of colonialism and its toxic residues. It is a ghost story. The spirits of 8,000,000 cry out for the telling.

Potosi is a perfect reddish-hued cylindrical cone of a mountain towering over its neighbors in the Andes of what is now Bolivia, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The people of the Inca called it Sumaj Orcko, the beautiful hill. When the Inca Huayna Capaj first beheld it, the story goes that he was stunned by its beauty. He also supposed it contained precious stones and minerals, which were used for sacred ornamentation, and not ever for trade. The story goes that when he sent his miners to dig, they were struck to the ground by a thunderous voice: "This is not for you; God is keeping these riches for those who come from afar." Being accustomed to heeding the voice of God, Huayna Capaj obeyed. He could not have imagined that in a few short years Francisco Pizarro would climb to his mountain empire and lay waste to it.

Between 1503 and 1660,16 million kilos of silver were delivered up to the ports of Spain. And the boomtown of the same name, 14,000 feet up on the arid frigid altiplano, would become perhaps the most opulent and ostentatious boomtown in the history of the world.

"They say that even the horses were shod with silver in the great days of the city of Potosi. The Church altars and the wings of cherubim...were made of silver: the streets from the cathedral to the Church of Recoletos were resurfaced with silver bars..."

"This jugular vein of the viceroyalty, America's fountain of silver, had 120,000 inhabitants by the census of 1573. Only twenty-eight years had passed since the city sprouted out of the Andean wilderness and already, as if by magic, it had the same population as London, and more than Seville, Madrid, Rome, or Paris...It was one of the world's biggest and richest cities, ten times bigger than Boston-at a time when New York had not even begun to call itself by that name."

"By the beginning of the 17th century it had thirty-six magnificently decorated churches, thirty-six gambling houses, and fourteen dance academies. Salons, theaters, and fiesta stage-settings had the finest tapestries, curtains, heraldic emblazonry, and wrought gold and silver: multicolored damasks and cloths of gold and silver hung from the balconies of houses. Silks came from Granada, Flanders, and Calabria; hats from Paris and London; diamonds from Ceylon; precious stones from India; pearls from Panama; stockings from Naples; crystal from Venice; carpets from Persia; perfumes from Arabia; porcelain from China. The ladies sparkled with diamonds, rubies, and pearls; the gentlemen sported the finest embroidered fabrics from Holland. Bullfights were followed by tilting contests, and love and pride inspired medieval-style duels with emerald-studded, gaudily plumed helmets, gold filigrees saddles and stirrups, Toledo swords, and richly caparisoned Chilean ponies."

The metals taken out of America are what made the Industrial Revolution in Europe possible. Spain was profligate with its newfound wealth and was mortgaged to the hilt. In 1543, 65 percent of royal revenues went to paying interest on debts. The soon-to-be enormous European banks in Italy, Belgium, and Germany held the notes. And they still do, the very same families and banks, but now on a global scale. The wars of the Protestant Reformation were bankrolled by Andean silver. The Inquisition was on a frenzied search for heretics, burning books and cultural treasures and people with a single ferocity on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Everything is very dear in this city, the dearest in the world. Only chicha corn liquor and coca leaves are cheap. The Indians, forcibly seized from the communities of all Peru, spend Sundays in the corrals dancing to their drums and drinking chicha till they roll on the ground. On Monday mornings they are herded into the mountain and, chewing coca and beaten with iron bars, they pursue the veins of silver, greenish-white serpents that appear and take flight through the entrails of this immense paunch, no light, no air. There the Indians toil all week, prisoners, breathing dust that kills the lungs, and chewing coca that deceives hunger and masks exhaustion, never knowing when night falls or day breaks, until Saturday ends and the bell rings for prayer and release. Then they move forward, holding lighted candles, to emerge on Sunday at dawn, so deep are the diggings and the infinite tunnels and galleries.

A priest newly come to Potosi sees them arriving at the city's suburbs, a long procession of squalid ghosts, their backs scarred by the lash, and remarks: 'I don't want to see this portrait of Hell.'

'So shut your eyes,' someone suggests. 'I can't,' he says. 'With my eyes shut I see more.'"

In three centuries 8,000,000 men, women, and children died in the mines of Potosi. Seven out of every ten who were taken there never returned. The Laws of the Indies were scrupulously debated and written, laws that forbade exploitation of the Indians. They were openly ignored.

"The mita labor system was a machine for crushing Indians. The process of using mercury to extract silver poisoned as many or more than did the toxic gases in the bowels of the earth. It made hair and teeth fall out and brought an uncontrollable trembling. The victims ended up dragging themselves through the streets pleading for alms. At night six thousand fires burned on the slopes of the Cerro Rico [the 'rich vein'] and in these the silver was worked, taking advantage of the wind that 'glorious St. Augustine' sent from the sky. Because of the smoke from the ovens there were no pastures or crops in a radius of twenty miles around Potosi and the fumes attacked men's bodies no less relentlessly.

...The Indians were used as beasts of burden because they could carry a greater weight than the delicate llama, and this proved that they were in fact beasts of burden. The viceroy felt that there was no better remedy for their 'natural wickedness' than work in the mines. Juan Gines Sepulveda, a renowned Spanish theologian, argued that they deserved the treatment they got because their sins and idolatries were an offense to God. The Count de Buffon, a French naturalist, noted that Indians were cold and weak creatures in whom 'no activity of the soul' could be observed.

...In the seventeenth century, Father Gregorio Garcia detected Semitic blood in the Indians because, like the Jews, 'they are lazy, they do not believe in the miracles of Jesus Christ, and they are ungrateful to the Spaniards for all the good they have done them.'"

On such observations was European biological 'science' based.

Coca was used ritually by the Incas, but under the Spanish it became big business. In Cuzco four hundred merchants lived off the traffic. The Indians were forced to consumed huge amounts of coca because it possesses just the properties any slave-driver would treasure: it cuts hunger, murders sleep, and kills the pain that would tell the Indians they were being worked literally to death. In a story so full of ironies, coca, this prime enemy in the modern 'war on drugs', provides one of the greatest. It was the Europeans who turned coca into a drug of abuse.

Well, all good things must come to an end. There is not a single speck of silver left at Potosi. The Spaniards had the slaves sweep out the seams with brooms before they turned off the lights and closed the door on this chapter of imperialist triumph.. The city is a wretched freezing ghost-town, its treasures long ago pillaged, its people living in squalor in the ruins. And the great mountain itself is imploding, so honeycombed with caverns that frequent collapses have actually reduced its height. And the remaining Indians of Potosi live off the tin that the Spaniards left. Tin is poison. "Indian palliris in search of tin pick like birds, with hands skilled in weighing and separating, at the mineral debris." An old woman remarks that Potosi is "the city which has given most to the world and has the least." The Spaniards moved elsewhere to begin the cycle of exploitation over and over again, and then their star went out, and others rose to take their place. Here is the history of the last 500 years.

"Expropriation of the Indians-usurpation of their lands and their labor-has gone hand in hand with racist attitudes which are in turn fed by the objective degradation of civilization broken by the Conquest. The effects of the Conquest and the long ensuing period of humiliation left the cultural and social identity the Indians had achieved in fragments. Yet in Guatemala the pulverized identity is the only one that persists. It persists in tragedy. During Holy Week, processions of the heirs of the Mayas produce frightful exhibitions of collective masochism. They drag heavy crosses and participate in the flagellation of Jesus step by step along the interminable ascent to Golgotha; with howls of pain they turn His death and His burial into the cult of their own death and their own burial, the annihilation of the beautiful life of long ago. Only there is no Resurrection at the end of their Holy Week."
All quotations are taken from Open Veins of Latin America or Genesis: Memory of Fire, by Eduardo Galeano.


Rootsie's Homepage | Articles | Online Forum

Silver Bar
Copyright © 2003

Amazon Books

Genesis (Memory of Fire Trilogy, Part 1)
Genesis (Memory of Fire Trilogy, Part 1) by Eduardo H. Galeano (Preface), Cedric Belfrage (Translator)

Open Veins of Latin America
Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo H. Galeano, Cedric Belfrage (Translator)

The Golden Age of the Moor (Journal of African Civilizations, Vol 11, Fall 1991) by Ivan Van Sertima
The Golden Age of the Moor (Journal of African Civilizations, Vol 11, Fall 1991) by Ivan Van Sertima

King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild
King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild

Precolonial Black Africa: A Comparative Study of the Political and Social Systems of Europe and Black Africa
A Comparative Study of the Political and Social Systems of Europe and Black Africa by Cheikh Anta Diop