The Imperial City of Potosi: An Unwritten Chapter in the History of Spanish America

The Imperial City of Potosi: An Unwritten Chapter in the History of Spanish America

The Imperial City of Potosi: An Unwritten Chapter in the History of Spanish America

The Imperial City of Potosi: An Unwritten Chapter in the History of Spanish America

Excerpt

No city in all the vast territory of America won for the King of Spain -- save perhaps Mexico City -- has had a more interesting or more important history than Potosí, located in the Viceroyalty of Peru. The colorful story of this great mountain of silver began when the Inca Emperor Huayna Capac started digging almost a century before the Spaniards arrived. He was halted -- so legend has it -- by a terrible noise and a mysterious voice which commanded, in the Quechua Indian language: "Take no silver from this hill. It is destined for other owners." The conquistadores heard no such prohibitory voice in 1545 when they were told of the rich silver ore by Indians who had accidentally discovered it, and indeed, if they had, would doubtless have considered themselves the rightful owners. They immediately began to develop Potosí, which was to become one of the most famous mines in the history of the world.

Treasure seekers flocked from Spain and many other parts of the world to this bleak and uninviting spot high up in the Andes, to exploit the silver in the Cerro, or sugar-loaf mountain, which rises majestically over the plateau to a height of almost 16,000 feet above sea level. The first census, taken by Viceroy Francisco de Toledo about twenty-five years after the news of the lode first burst upon the world, showed the unbelievable total of 120,000 inhabitants. By 1650 the population had risen -- we are told -- to 160,000, and Potosí was incomparably the largest city in South America. At a time when Virginia and the Massachusetts Bay Colony were puling infant colonies, unsure of their next harvest, Potosí had produced such quantities of silver that its very name had become so common a symbol for untold wealth that Don Quijote quoted it to Sancho Panza. Vale un Potosí, the Spaniards expressed it. The phrase "as rich as Potosí" became current in English literature as well, for within a generation . . .

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