Indians Mining Precious Metals

Date: 1601
Owner: Houghton Mifflin Company
Source Type: Images


This 1601 source shows Indians mining precious metals in Potosi, a city located in present-day Bolivia. Mining and exporting gold, silver, and copper was a fundamental part of Spain's American empire, one that made Spain the richest and most powerful state in early modern Europe. On the other hand, ore mines demanded vast amounts of labor to dig and carry the metal, a burden that fell almost entirely on imported African slaves and America's native population. The brutal conditions of mining communities helped give rise to the Black Legend, the theory that the once vast Indian populations of Mexico and Peru were decimated exclusively by Spanish cruelty.

Despite the many evils of slavery and the mita that accompanied Spanish and Portuguese mines in America, the pursuit of precious metals did foster the improvement of the science of mineralogy. The constant demand to find new mines and extract as much ore as possible from them encouraged ambitious entrepreneurs who used empiricism to determine the best techniques for mining and processing ores. The most famous of these was Bartolome de Medina, a tailor who moved to New Spain and developed an advanced method of refining silver. Drawing on recent alchemical innovations in Germany, he used mercury (quicksilver) to draw silver away from natural impurities and then chemically removed the mercury to expose pure Ag.

The Spanish crown was eager to support entrepreneurs like Medina by granting them production licenses and many material benefits, a circumstance that fostered an unprecedented era of research and development that, in turn, strengthened and enriched the monarchy.

Reference: Barrera-Osorio, Antonio. Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

CITATION: Winsor, Justin, editor. "Mining" in The Later History, or British, Spanish, and Portuguese America: Narrative and Critical History of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889. p. 193.