A decade after the Spanish Conquistadores toppled the Inca Empire (1532-34), an indigenous Andean prospector, Diego Gualpa, in 1545, stumbled onto the richest silver deposit in the world on a high mountain of 4,800 meters (15,750 feet) in the eastern cordillera of the Bolivian Andes.
Here in the shadow of what the Spaniards called the “Cerro Rico” (“Rich Mountain”) at 4,000 meters (13,200 feet) a mining boom town quickly developed. By the end of the sixteenth century, it had become one of the largest and the highest cities in the world, and in 1561, Philip ll of Spain, decreed that it should be known as the “Villa Imperial de Potosí.”
Peru already had a reputation as the source of unfathomable treasures thanks to the ransom in gold and silver gathered for the Inca emperor Atahualpa seized by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro in an ambush at Cajamarca which had amounted to a million pesos of fine gold and silver when melted down. A similar amount was seized from the Inca treasury of Cuzco. Pizzaro ordered Atahualpa executed by garrote in July 1533. When the Inca treasure arrived in Seville in 1534 it was enough precious metal to upset the money markets in Europe and the Mediterranean.
16th Century Potosi and Global Trade
During the sixteenth century the population of Potosi grew to over 200,000 and its silver mine became the source of 60% of the world’s silver. Between 1545 and 1810 Potosi’s silver contributed nearly 20% of all known silver produced in the world across 265 years. It was at the core of the Spanish Empire’s great wealth. The Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, called Potosi “the Treasury of the World.”