The Americas 58.3 (2002) 497-498
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To be sure, many an academic book overstates its thesis, such as José Deustua's central idea that silver mining continued on as a critical economic sector in nineteenth-century Peru. We might call this the method of exaggeration, which often spawns, as here, valuable new data and useful correctives on overlooked problems.
Deustua calls his approach a "social economy" and The Bewitchment of Silver is unusually sensitive to little-studied social and regional aspects of Peru's mining economy. The book goes beyond a known focus on silver and gold mining in the Andes to the beginnings of less brilliant industrial extraction during the course of the nineteenth century: copper, tin, lead, coal. The introduction and conclusion touch upon some obligatory theoretical concerns, but these may strike some readers as extraneous, and sometimes, silly. The book's strongest thesis, I believe, is to think of mining in more articulating spatial or internal-market terms, rather than measuring mining's impact solely by its direct contribution to the Lima state, large modern enterprises, or the Peruvian balance-of-payments. These geographic and everyday dimensions of life around Peru's small mines are intrinsically interesting and revealing to historians. Their value are sometimes obscured by the author's insistent and ambivalent adjectival arguments about the overall historical weight of mining in Peru: i.e., mining as "moderately important to nineteenth-century Peru" (p. 62).
Historians will learn about a number of under-studied topics here. After an evaluation of scattered statistics on production, we get a feel for the mine-owners, their scale, cost-structures and ownership patterns. There are studies of the mineworkers (5,000-9,000 overall, many part-time peasants and herders), wages, local migration, labor recruitment, and their social and ethnic backgrounds (they were not quite a proletariat). We learn about the regional distribution of mine centers; Cerro de Pasco district remained the most active but hundreds of small mines were worked across the Andes, in provinces such as Yauli, Hualgayoc, Huallanca. Many combined part-time mining with haciendas. We learn about mining's provincial networks (of physical inputs and trade) and the shifting routes that silver traveled across the Andes. We learn a good deal about transportation systems, early railways and the especially resilient muleteers who tarried for the mines. The larger trend was a brief recovery of Cerro de Pasco silver in the late 1840s to late-colonial levels, followed by a sharp and enduring collapse until the 1890s, when the first impact of foreign capital, new miners and industrial markets were felt. There was slight movement to industrial mining, but it is hard to see any structural transformation before 1895. [End Page 497]
I will admit not being fully convinced of Deustua's (oft-hedged) thesis of mining as a critical sector in nineteenth-century Peru. This problem needs wider perspectives. Previous analysts do not deny the survival of colonial mining forms: they stress that mining failed to develop in post-colonial Peru or failed to stimulate newforms of growth. In the depressed state of the century's Andean interior, even a stagnant colonial institution would remain a regional mainstay. However, by the nineteenth century, with transport and technological innovations revolutionizing mining throughout the world, Peru's mines stayed technologically primitive, with no known boosts of capital, labor, or technical improvements (Deustua does not actually show any such changes overlooked by prior studies). Peru fell way behind comparable mining countries. Deustua barely addresses this long-term growth problem. On the other hand, there's plenty of convincing evidence here on the artisan scale, relative backwardness, and organizational or technological stasis in mining. Much of what came out of Peruvian mines was actually scrapped from colonial slag heaps, rather than new veins, shafts, or ventures. If "recycling" of...