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A History of Mining in Latin America

From the Colonial Era to the Present

Kendall W. Brown

Publication Year: 2012

For twenty-five years, Kendall Brown studied Potosí, Spanish America’s greatest silver producer and perhaps the world’s most famous mining district. He read about the flood of silver that flowed from its Cerro Rico and learned of the toil of its miners. Potosí symbolized fabulous wealth and unbelievable suffering. New World bullion stimulated the formation of the first world economy but at the same time it had profound consequences for labor, as mine operators and refiners resorted to extreme forms of coercion to secure workers. In many cases the environment also suffered devastating harm.

All of this occurred in the name of wealth for individual entrepreneurs, companies, and the ruling states. Yet the question remains of how much economic development mining managed to produce in Latin America and what were its social and ecological consequences. Brown’s focus on the legendary mines at Potosí and comparison of its operations to those of other mines in Latin America is a well-written and accessible study that is the first to span the colonial era to the present.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press

Front Cover

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Title Page

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pp. vii-viii

Graphs, Figures, and Maps

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xix

In June 1995 I traveled to Potosí, Bolivia, to do research in its archive. For a quarter century I had studied Potosí, Spanish America’s greatest silver producer and perhaps the world’s most famous mining district. I read with fascination about the flood of silver that flowed from its...

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1: The Lure of Gold, the Wealth of Silver

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pp. 1-14

Writing in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, who had overseen gold smelting in the Caribbean and in New Spain for the Crown from 1514 to 1532, reported the story of three Spanish peasants who sailed to the Caribbean in search of...

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2: Potosí and Colonial Latin American Mining

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pp. 15-45

Of all Latin American mining districts, Potosí most fully embodied the industry’s grandeur and decadence, its dazzling wealth and miserable poverty, the euphoria and the pain of mining. Indigenous artists pictured the Hill as Pachamama, the Andean earth mother who created and...

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3: Spanish and Portuguese Colonialism and Mining Labor

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pp. 46-70

Population at Potosí waxed and waned with the prosperity of the mines. In 1545, shortly after the Spaniards learned of the Cerro Rico’s riches, less than two hundred Spaniards and three hundred Indians resided at the site. Within two years the lure of silver had increased the population to...

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4: Workers’ Response to Colonial Mining

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pp. 71-90

Although direct and indirect coercion played a crucial role in the supply of labor for the colonial mines, it did not explain completely why workers went to work at Potosí, Guanajuato, or the Brazilian gold and diamond fields. Nor did it explain why some coerced workers stayed on at the mines at...

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5: New Nations Resurrect Their Mining Industry

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pp. 91-122

Between 1808 and 1825, independence freed the Latin American colonies from Iberian domination and promised to liberate the mining industry from colonial modes of exploitation. In some places, however, colonial mining institutions, legal practices, and working conditions survived...

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6: The Technological and Social Dimensions of Modern Mining

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pp. 123-149

Simón I. Patiño recalled many years later his anxious wait for the assay results of ore from his first mine, La Salvadora: “I believe that I never had a greater impression of discouragement. I didn’t want silver. If it had been silver, it would have upset all my...

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7: Miners and Revolution

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pp. 150-172

In April 1952 the MNR overthrew the Bolivian government in a bloody rebellion. To help defeat the Bolivian army in La Paz and Oruro, the mine workers seized weapons and distributed them among the rebels. The movement leaders promised great benefits to the mine laborers and to their...

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8: Mining, Harmony, and the Environment

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pp. 173-200

Too often, mining has meant despoiling nature rather than living in harmony with the environment. Regardless of the size of the mine or refinery, processing ores with reagents poses some of the greatest environmental dangers. Indigenous miners smelted their ores. Colonial...


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pp. 201-226


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pp. 227-233


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pp. 234-249


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pp. 250-257

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780826351074
E-ISBN-10: 0826351077
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826351067
Print-ISBN-10: 0826351069

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 15 halftones, 3 maps, 3 graphs
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Diálogos
Series Editor Byline: Series advisory editor: Lyman L. Johnson, University of North Carolina at Charlotte


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Subject Headings

  • Mines and mineral resources -- Latin America -- History.
  • Silver mines and mining -- Bolivia -- Potosí -- History.
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