Potosi, Eduardo Galeano and ‘Open Veins of Latin America’
“The city that has given the most to the world and the one that has the least.”
In his book ‘Open Veins of Latin America,’ Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano details “five centuries of the pillage of a continent.” It’s an economic, historical account of post-Columbus Latin America that describes decades of looting, first by the colonial powers and later by multi-national conglomerates. The image of veins spreading deep down into earth is an analogy to mine tunnels and are best seen in Potosi’s Cerro Rico (Spanish for “Rich Mountain”). The silver that was dug out and processed into the lucrative metal made Spain the wealthiest country in the world and, at the same time, inflicted one of the greatest atrocities in human history. It is estimated that over eight million mostly Indian inhabitants died during the 200 years that the Silver Mountain’s mines were at peak production from the mid-16th century to the mid-18th century.
We toured the Silver Mountain’s mines; it was a 2-3 hours slow walk, sometimes bending, sometimes crawling, in mostly dark, chilly, and wet conditions. It is a fascinating and depressing experience to see miners at work today and to imagine the inhumane work conditions of the past.
Later, when we visited the National Mint Museum, we learned that the high death toll was due to the toxic dust and fumes inhaled while processing the raw material into pure silver in addition to the dangerous mining itself. Further reading: How silver turned Potosí into ‘The mountain that eats men alive.’