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Ramon Cerra, photographer. Image courtesy of World Bank. The photo appeared in Peru: a country study (1993) by the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress

A short story about Potosi—the largest South American silver mine—in the Library’s Collections (Part 1)

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This is a two-part blog post by Pamela Padilla, 2022 Summer participant in the Library of Congress Internship (LOCI) program with the Hispanic Reading Room, and a Library Science and History graduate student at Queens College, City University of New York. Please check back at the end of the week for the second part of Pamela’s research project.

The best and finest Silver in all the Indies, is that of the Mines of Potosi, the principal of which are found in the Mountain of Aranzasse, where besides the prodigious quantities of Silver that have been taken out of Veins, in which the Mettal evidently appear’d, there is almost as great quantities of it found in places where they had not digg’d before… (1698, p. 47)


The quote that opens this story is part of the book, An account of a voyage up the river de la Plata, and thence over land to Peru. With observations on the inhabitants, as well as Indians and Spaniards; the cities, commerce, fertility, and riches of that part of America (1698), by Acarete du Biscay, who recounts his experience in South America. Among the Library of Congress collections about the Andean region are that of Potosí, the largest of the South American silver mines, and easily one of the most famous mines in the Americas. Throughout its most prolific period, Potosí had produced almost half of the silver in circulation globally and had ultimately accounted for nearly 20% of all “the known silver produced in the world across 265 years” if official records are to be believed (Lane, 2019, p. 8). Potosi’s wealth achieved globally recognition—with its name traveling beyond Europe to the Middle East and East Asia. The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha immortalized a brief description of its riches in comparison to the treasures of Venice in Italy.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, writer; John Ormsby, translator. Don Quixote of La Mancha. [192-?] Library of Congress
The discovery of Potosí in 1545 was a matter of chance.  Francisco de Toledo, a newly arrived viceroy in 1572 interviewed Don Diego Gualpa, an Andean man claiming to be from the Chumbivilcas Province, on his deathbed at nearly 70-years old. He recounted the discovery of the mine. Gualpa and a friend had been sent to the mountain in search of a huaca (wak’a in Quechua), which is a sacred monument dedicated to a resident spirit. After finding an offering to the spirit, Gualpa and his friend removed it but they became separated in the process. It was then that Gualpa claimed a powerful gust of wind hit him and knocked him from his feet. As he rose, he noticed that the dirt on his hands was rich in ore. He gathered a few pounds of this dirt in a blanket and brought it to his masters. Although the dirt had been rich in ore, his master and the other Spaniards were not convinced that the ore had come from the hill named Potosí. Accompanying him to the red mountain, Gualpa and a Spaniard arrived as another gust of wind knocked both down and verified Gualpa’s claims (Lane, 2019)

The mine’s discovery came in times of scarcity for precious metals resulting from a boom of population growth and commercial expansion in both Europe and Asia. Gold and silver were scarce (although silver was less so), and the gold mines that had been erected in South America were rife with abuse and mistreatment of Indigenous workers and enslaved African peoples. Potosí’s discovery was not the first or the last silver mine found in the Americas since Mexico’s silver mining had begun somewhat earlier in the 1530’s with relative success. In Mexico, for example, the owners of the mines had strict economic obligations and needed a large number of African slaves. Therefore, Indigenous workers had to be encouraged to work in order to have more labor in the mines.

Ewing Galloway, photographer. Potosi, Bolivia. Photograph shows Iglesia San Benito in front of Cerro Rico. Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Indigenous workers were incentivized and coerced to work in the mines, but the severity of either option depends heavily on the reports consulted. Works by missionaries such as Santo Tomás de Aquino and Bartolomé de las Casas highlighted the many abuses enacted against Indigenous workers in the mines. Some of these records conflict slightly with early notary records, whose documentation describes a less menacing depiction of life in the mines but does concur with Santo Tomas’ accounts of high food prices and forced resettlement. This resettlement was in part due to the encomienda system, enacted in South America under Spain’s ruling, which demanded tribute from Indigenous populations in the form of precious metals or labor.

Work in the mines was grueling. Recollections of the work by Luis Capoche in 1585 describe “observers [speaking] of workers chipping away at hard rock in near-total darkness, not knowing day from night. Apiris struggled to shoulder stacks of ore weighing seventy-five pounds, which they then had to carry even as they climbed ladders or squeezed through narrow, snaking passages” (Lane, 2019, p. 36). The development of a custom occurred—perhaps allowed to endure to provide an incentive that coercion could not—among Potosí miners called copra (later referred to as kaj’cha or kapcha), which allowed mineworkers to take a piece or two of high-quality ore as a personal reward for their labor.

The development of this custom and the market for ore nurtured the growth of the city of Potosí. It encouraged Indigenous women selling food, chicha, coca, and other services to accept copra as payment. It encouraged the development of a city whose population rose to over 50,000 inhabitants by the early 1570’s. For some Indigenous peoples, especially women, the mining boom allowed for upward social and economic mobility.

The establishment of chicha and the coca leaf as major sources of nutrition (eventually regarded as vices by the Spanish) for mineworkers provided primarily by female suppliers allowed for their establishment as staples in Potosí. The chicha market was lucrative and allowed some Indigenous and mixed-heritage women known as chicheras to grow moderately wealthy. Known for its properties as both a stimulant and a painkiller, people thought the coca leaf provided the recipient with strength and vigor. The coca leaf’s primary sellers were typically wholesale merchants with ties to Cusco but Indigenous women in outdoor market squares also excelled as vendors. (Lane, 2019)

Ramon Cerra, photographer. Image courtesy of World Bank. The photo appeared in Peru: a country study (1993) by the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress.

Please check back at the end of the week for the second part of my research about Potosí using the Library’s collections.


Discover more

Cultural Exchanges in Quechua Dictionaries, A history of encounters told through lexicons. StoryMaps are multimedia storytelling publications on Library’s materials that can include rare books, photographs, audio recordings, music, maps, and more. All the Library’s StoryMaps can be found here.

Interconnecting Worlds: Weaving Community Narratives, Andean Histories & the Library’s Collections. This guide facilitates research about Andean peoples, cultures, and knowledges. It also connects Library of Congress collections to the Quechua language, storytelling & literature, visual arts, and music.

Library of Congress Research Guides Library’s guides organized by research topic and collections – these include both online materials, and materials only available on site. The guides related to the Caribbean, Iberian, and Latin American Studies can be found here.

Handbook of Latin American Studies (HLAS): A Resource Guide The Handbook of Latin American Studies is a bibliography on Latin America consisting of works selected and annotated by scholars. This link takes you to a selection of resources about Potosí in HLAS catalog. 

The PALABRA Archive at the Library of Congress The PALABRA Archive is a collection of original audio recordings of 20th and 21st century Luso-Hispanic poets and writers reading from their works. This link takes you to the audio recordings of South American authors. This other link takes you to PALABRA Indigenous Voices Project, a subset of the PALABRA Archive focused on poetry and literature written and spoken in Indigenous languages.

The Library’s catalog contains millions of records for books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources. 

Subscribe to 4 Corners of the World – it’s free! – and the world’s largest library will send you cool stories about its collections from around the world!


  1. A concise, vivid account of Potosi’s enormous role in world history.

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