Potosí (World Heritage)

The city on the mountain of the same name was the richest city in America in the 16th and 17th centuries due to its silver mines. The once free imperial city still has numerous colonial buildings such as the Casa Real de la Moneda, the royal mint. The Silberberg is perforated with more than 30,000 tunnels, it was the main source of the colonial Spanish silver wealth.

Potosí: facts

Official title: Potosí, city and silver mines
Cultural monument: originally »Potocchí«, under Charles V »Free Imperial City«, located at 4070 m, once the richest city in America near Cerro Rico (4830 m), also »Pan Grande« – »large loaf of bread ” – called; colonial architectural heritage, among others with the churches of San Lorenzo, San Sebastian, La Compañía and the cathedral as well as the Santa Teresa monastery, the Casa Real de la Moneda and the workers’ quarters »Èbarrios mitayos«
Continent: America
Country: Bolivia, Potosí
Location: Potosí, southwest of Sucre
Appointment: 1987
Meaning: in the 16th century the largest industrial complex in the world and the most important mining center of the viceroyalty of Peru with the colonial architecture of the “silver city”

Potosí: history

04/10/1545 City foundation
1553 Appointment to Villa Imperial
1572 Start of construction on Casa Real de la Moneda
1590 Construction of San Bernardo
1611 Population of 15
1685 Foundation of the Carmelite Monastery of Santa Teresa
1705 New construction of the La Compañía church
1707-26 Expansion of the Convento de San Francisco, founded in 1547
1728-44 San Lorenzo
1773 Completion of the new building of the Casa Real de la Moneda (Royal Mint)
1809-36 cathedral
1825 Bolivia independence
1952 Nationalization of mining, establishment of the Corporación Minera de Bolivia
1985 Acquisition of the mining rights in Cerro Rico by 45 cooperatives
1990 Restoration of San Lorenzo

The insatiable greed for silver

For centuries a mountain has determined the fate of the city of Potosí, located in the Bolivian central Andes according to neovideogames; not a threatening volcano, not a sacred seat of a powerful deity, but a bare mountain stump that hides a valuable secret inside: silver. The Cerro Rico, the “rich mountain”, towers admonishingly over this once so rich colonial city, which seems a little lost in the middle of the barren mountain world. Even today it is almost cut off from the outside world – only a few years ago an asphalt road was completed to the neighboring town of Sucre, 165 kilometers away. In its heyday in the 17th century, Potosí was one of the largest cities in the world with 150,000 residents; even London and Paris had fewer residents at the time.

The story of the ruthless exploitation of the native Indian population began with the discovery of the rich silver deposits in the first half of the 16th century, after the Spanish conquistadores had destroyed the once powerful Inca empire a few years earlier and subjugated the residents of western South America to their rule. The Spanish viceroy Francisco de Toledo used the Inca system of Mita, which obliged members of the Inca state to work for the state. Although the rights of the Indian workers were formally regulated, they were subject to the arbitrariness of the mine owners, who regarded them as serfs and treated them accordingly. So the battered Indians toiled day in and day out in the dark belly of the Silver Mountain, which a Dominican monk called the “gateway to hell” just a few years after the exploitation began. Thousands succumbed to the inhumane working conditions underground, and the rest of them only had a very short life expectancy, because they were not armed against the diseases brought in by the whites. “Vale un Potosí” is still a common term today and means “it’s worth a fortune”. For the Potosí miners he was a mockery.

Unimaginable amounts of the precious metal were transported in donkey caravans over impassable mountain passes to the coast and from there in the bellies of hundreds of sailing ships to Europe. It is said that a wide, pure silver road could have been built from Potosí to Seville, including a massive bridge over the Atlantic Ocean. This silver was not only the basis for the wealth of the Spanish kingdom, but also the basis of industrial development in the rest of Europe. But for the South American colony of Alto Peru, to which Potosí belonged during colonial times, little of the fabulous wealth fell away.

From the middle of the 17th century, mining this valuable mineral became increasingly difficult and therefore less lucrative. After 1800 silver was exhausted, but tin became the main product. This led to an economic decline. The population left the city en masse, and the Spanish crown reacted to the slowly dwindling source of income with drastic tax increases. Despite further silver ore discoveries in the city of Oruro, which soon developed into a new “boom town”, the heyday of silver mining in Upper Peru was over. Potosí was quickly sidelined, palaces and churches were left to decay. Although colonial buildings and impressive churches still adorn the image of the city center, little has changed for the people of the Bolivian mountains.

Potosí (World Heritage)