/This Used to Be the Richest City in the World

This Used to Be the Richest City in the World

At 4090 meters high, Potosi Bolivia is one of the highest cities in the world. Maybe more impressively, it was also once the richest. The city was built by Spanish colonists in the 16th century on one of the largest silver deposits in the world. For decades, Potosi Silver mines produced untold fortunes. This silver was shipped directly to the Spanish mint, where it bankrolled a century of Spanish colonialism.

Potosi itself was founded in 1545 and shortly thereafter became world renowned for its silver mines and production. The story of Potosi’s silver seems like it has been ripped right out of the pages of colonial folklore. As the legend goes, Diego Huallpa, a local Inca was searching for his lost llama and got cold in the Potosi chill. Diego stopped at the base of the mountain known in Quechua as Potosi to build a fire and when he did the ground began to exude a shiny silver liquid. With Diego Huallpa and his lost llama the legend of Potosi and its riches was born.

Between 1556 and 1783 over 41,000 metric tons were mined from the city proper. Mining the city of Potosi was no easy fete. Indian laborers were employed to do most of the work, and employed is a term loosely used in this context. During the time, the Inca system of Mit’a labor was in place and consisted of mandatory public service made to the empire. Under Spanish colonial rule the system was modified and Mit’a labor became more a form of slavery. The mitayo workers of the minds were required to do most of the excruciating labor no one else wanted to which included working 12 hour shifts and remaining underground for up to four months at a time. Eating and sleeping, along with working was all done deep down in the silver mines. It was not uncommon for mine workers to die due to the harsh conditions of Mit’a labor life.

For decades, Potosi silver mines produced untold fortunes. This silver was shipped directly to the Spanish mint, where it bankrolled a century of Spanish colonialism.

 

Because of the dwindling workforce in Potosi, the Spanish empire sent slaves from Africa to finish the job. Incredible amounts of slaves were brought over each year to work the mines and it is estimated that a couple million Africans were brought to Potosi during the Spanish colonial times. Today, these slaves are the ancestors of Bolivia’s small Afro community.

Naturally the African slaves did not last any longer than the native mitayos. It is thought that in the three the mines operated under Spanish rule, over eight million workers perished in Potosi’s underground. Despite issues involved with keeping mining employees alive, by 1672 Potosi was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world. That year, a mint was established to coin the mined silver, more than 80 churches were built and along with the riches, the population of Potosi grew.

This image from a 1715 map of South America depicts the rich mine in Potosi

In most legendary tales however, there is almost always a downfall; the story of Potosi is no different. By the early 19th century the silver in the city began to diminish, the prior three centuries of exaggerated mining having depleted most of the cities precious resources. To add insult to injury, Potosi was ransacked and nearly destroyed during the struggles of independence in the greater Alto Peru. Along with the trails and tribulations of the city, Potosi’s population shrank to less than 10,000 and the price of silver experienced a similarly quick steep decline.

 

Potosi’s silver mines never recovered and today only small amounts of the precious resource are extracted. The story of the city is not wholly one of riches to rags coupled with despair. In 1987, UNESCO placed the city on its renowned and respected World Heritage Site list, naming Potosi’s rich colonial and tragic history as a universal cultural treasure. Visitors to Potosi are greeted with impressive architecture, stunning scenery and a living antiquity. Descending down the dark mine shafts is one of the more popular attractions and also allows those who visit Potosi to not only witness the city’s history but also to experience it.