The discovery of a mountain of silver (and a new way to extract it) transformed this remote Incan hamlet into the economic centre of Spain’s empire – larger than London, Milan or Seville. But then the silver ran out …
“For the powerful emperor, for the wise king, this lofty mountain of silver could conquer the world.” So read the engraving on an ornate shield sent by Spain’s King Felipe II in 1561 as a gift to the city of Potosí, in what is now southern Bolivia.
Felipe was all too aware of the vast riches hidden beneath this remote Andean settlement. The conquistadors may never have found El Dorado, but they did find a mound of silver so large it would turn an isolated Incan hamlet into the fourth largest city in the Christian world in just 70 years, fund the creation of the most advanced industrial complex of its era, and define economic fortunes from China to western Europe.
At its peak in the early 17th century, 160,000 native Peruvians, slaves from Africa and Spanish settlers lived in Potosí to work the mines around the city: a population larger than London, Milan or Seville at the time. In the rush to exploit the silver, the first Spanish colonisers occupied the locals’ homes, forgoing the typical colonial urban grid and constructing makeshift accommodation that evolved into a chaotic mismatch of extravagant villas and modest huts, punctuated by gambling houses, theatres, workshops and churches.
High in the dusty red mountains, the city was surrounded by 22 dams powering 140 mills that ground the silver ore before it was moulded into bars and sent to the first Spanish colonial mint in the Americas.
The wealth attracted artists, academics, priests, prostitutes and traders, enticed by the Altiplano’s icy mysticism. “I am rich Potosí, treasure of the world, king of all mountains and envy of kings” read the city’s coat of arms, and the pieces of eight that flowed from it helped make Spain the global superpower of the period.
Potosí was “the first city of capitalism, for it supplied the primary ingredient of capitalism – money”, notes the author Jack Weatherford. “Potosí made the money that irrevocably changed the economic complexion of the world.”
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