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  • Potosí: The Silver City That Changed the World by Kris Lane
  • Sinclair Thomson
Potosí: The Silver City That Changed the World. By Kris Lane (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2019) 272 pp. $32.95 cloth $29.95 e-book

The great mining city of Potosí, in the highlands of what is today southern Bolivia, was the foremost source of silver in the early modern world, the crown jewel of the Spanish Empire in its heyday, and one of the world’s most populous urban settings in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries. One traveler called it “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” It was renowned for its fabulous wealth and panoply, as well as the misery of its forced laborers; its astonishing jumble of Andean, European, and African peoples; its moral laxity; and its rough-and-tumble [End Page 169] underside. Despite its spectacular importance, which has spurred rich scholarship, the “rich mountain” is not well known outside the Andean region; no volume in any language has offered a panoramic vision of its history. A book was waiting to be written, and finally it comes to us in Lane’s admirable and engrossing account.

Lane’s deft initial move is to tell the story as the rise and fall of “the world’s greatest early modern boomtown” (180). The early chapters recount the discovery of silver in 1548; the early bonanza days when production remained largely in the hands of indigenous workers using pre-Columbian technology; and the eventual overhaul of the mining system under Viceroy Francisco de Toledo (1569–1581), which entailed major infrastructural works, a shift to mercury amalgamation, and the supply of thousands of corvée laborers from southern Andean indigenous communities. Lane also depicts the social fabric of Potosí—featuring women, African slaves, and fortune seekers from the entire Iberian peninsula—as well as its moments of epidemiological, environmental, and financial crisis. Subsequent chapters track the long economic decline that was underway by the mid-seventeenth century and the sporadic efforts to rejuvenate the industry, while highlighting some of the city’s brilliant scientific, entrepreneurial, literary, and artistic figures. The uneven recovery of the mid- to late eighteenth century relied less on the success of “enlightened” Bourbon reforms than on increased exploitation of indigenous labor and thriving popular practices of extraction and refining.

The most innovative aspect of Lane’s book is its global framing, which parallels new trends in world history and a new wave of studies of early modern market integration. Potosí was at the center of this process as the leading supplier of silver bullion and currency, which Spain required to finance its wars and stay afloat economically. This silver circulated in courts and banking houses around Europe and beyond, and even in China as it shifted from paper money to coin. In return, Potosí received an influx of commodities, from local grains and coca to Venetian glassware and Asian silks. One notable section of the book, based on Lane’s original research, recounts the mint fraud of the 1640s, when debased coinage from Potosí wrought distortions in global currency markets.

The book does not address theoretical or methodological issues explicitly, although it meets two challenges successfully. The first is how to write world history from a grounded local standpoint and the second is how to write simultaneously for non-academic and scholarly audiences. Lane gives a rich portrait of mining production and urban life, while framing chapters and inserting material—such as the mint fraud or the visit of an alms-seeking Chaldean cleric from Bagdad in 1678—that illustrate global influences and repercussions. Some topics, such as the volume of Potosí’s bullion and currency flows to Asia, await further research, but Lane’s portrayal of the city’s prominent place in the world is a significant achievement. [End Page 170]

Lane’s intentionally “concise” history forces him to skim over many subjects in order to offer general readers a more compressed account and quickly paced narrative. However, this history is more than a synthesis of other scholars’ research. Lane turns his prospecting in Bolivian and Spanish archives to excellent advantage, delivering hard-won nuggets from notarial records...


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pp. 169-171
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