Mercury, Mining, and Empire: The Human and Ecological Cost of Colonial Silver Mining in the Andes

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On the basis of an examination of the colonial mercury and silver production processes and related labor systems, Mercury, Mining, and Empire explores the effects of mercury pollution in colonial Huancavelica, Peru, and Potos, in present-day Bolivia. The book presents a multifaceted and interwoven tale of what colonial exploitation of indigenous peoples and resources left in its wake. It is a socio-ecological history that explores the toxic interrelationships between mercury and silver production, urban environments, and the people who lived and worked in them. Nicholas A. Robins tells the story of how native peoples in the region were conscripted into the noxious ranks of foot soldiers of proto-globalism, and how their fate, and that of their communities, was-and still is-chained to it.

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1. Amalgamating an Empire

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When Francisco Pizarro and his band of conquerors landed on the coast of Peru in 1532 they, like many of their compatriots, were inspired in no small measure by the legendary success of Hernán Cortés in New Spain. In 1521, following an epic and bloody saga, Cortés and his followers finally conquered the Aztec empire. Their victory rendered to Spain, and themselves, one of the New World’s most powerful empires and its seemingly infinite riches. Like Cortés and thousands of conquistadores throughout the Americas, Pizarro and his followers were generally men of modest means and little formal education, whose independent spirits were matched by their ruthless ambition.

Unlike most of their contemporaries, however, Pizarro and his men would encounter a highly developed civilization whose achievements in constructing roads, bridges, and buildings astonished them. Taking a page from Cortés’ playbook, Pizarro would exploit internal divisions within native society and hold a native king, Atahualpa, hostage in order to wrest control of his empire. After Pizarro promised to spare the Inca king’s life in exchange for filling three rooms with tons of gold and silver, the conqueror then ordered him killed, fearing he was plotting an uprising. The sheer amount of gold and silver that Atahualpa was able to gather before being garroted demonstrated beyond any doubt to the Spaniards that the empire they had seized was endowed with almost unimaginable wealth.

 

2. Toxic Travails: Mining in Huancavelica

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“It Appeared as if the Kingdom Was Moving”: The Dreaded Dispatch1

While Toledo was censured for his execution of Túpac Amaru, it was his adaptation and implementation of the mita which would have a much broader, longer lasting, and destructive effect on the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of Indians and their communities for generations to come. For those who lived in towns subject to either the Huancavelica or Potosí mita, the months before departure were a time of fear, force, negotiation, increasing desperation, and extensive preparation. Two months before the mitayos were to depart, a crier would announce the upcoming dispatch. So dreaded was this service that some Indian mothers would baptize their male children as females, or even maim them, to spare them the fate of the mines and mills, while others who had been chosen and had no way to buy their way out hanged or poisoned themselves. In 1670, Viceroy Lemos described how curacas would “use bloody and rigorous means, hanging the Indians by the hair and in many places they set up gallows, they throw them . . . in jails and whip them cruelly.”2

 

3. Blood Silver

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“There Is Potosí because There Is the Mita”1

So wrote the mining guild to the crown in 1702, revealing in a single sentence their tendency to exaggeration and their single-mindedness. Although Potosí in the days before amalgamation had thrived on the basis of free labor, the mining guild became addicted to this human subsidy that almost all other mining centers in the Andes had prospered without. The mita underwrote extravagance, inefficiency, abuse, and debt as much as it did silver production.

The arrival in Potosí of those mitayos who did not flee on the weeks-long journey was a time of commotion, as they were assigned to hovels located between the ribera and the Cerro Rico, where they lived with other members of their community. Not only did they pay rent during their servitude, but they were prohibited from living with their wives or daughters, who often worked as servants for, and were subject to the depredations of, the Spanish and Creole elite.2

 

4. Connecting the Drops: The Wider Human and Environmental Costs

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In order to gauge the health effects of mercury exposure on the residents and workers of Huancavelica and Potosí, it is necessary to understand how a multitude of dynamic factors interact. These include the amount of mercury and silver actually produced, how and under what climatic conditions quicksilver was lost to the atmosphere and waterways, and the effects of elemental mercury on people and animals when it is absorbed through different means. Fortunately, the Spanish authorities maintained detailed records concerning mercury and silver production, and contemporaries described the characteristics and inefficiencies of the respective refining processes, as well as the issue of contraband. By integrating the historical record with modern air-dispersion modeling and current medical knowledge of mercury’s effects, we can approximate the nature and range of the human and ecological effects that mining had at different times during the colonial period.

A Tremulous Toxin

Although mercury has no known use in the human body, it is present in minute quantities in the soil we cultivate and the air we breathe. As an element, designated as Hg in the periodic table, mercury can neither be created nor destroyed, and it has been found in every continent, and even on the moon. There are two sources of this element in the environment: those released through natural weathering processes of mercury-containing rock, and man-made, or anthropogenic, sources. Today, the latter are usually associated with electricity production, industrial applications and byproducts, and municipal and medical waste incineration.1

 

5. From Corrosion to Collapse: The Destruction of Native Communities

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“Neither Livestock nor Lands nor Houses”: A Horrific Homecoming1

The mita, mercury, and silicosis did not just kill and maim individuals, they also did the same to countless indigenous communities throughout the altiplano and valleys as their effects reverberated throughout the region. As a key element in the colonial exploitative equation, the mita exacerbated both the ongoing abuses against Indians by their overlords as well as divisions among the elite as they competed for Indian labor. Further complicating the situation were the myriad physical and mental effects of quicksilver and silicosis previously described. In addition, while Potosí was for many years the most important mining town in the Andes, silver production and mercury pollution occurred throughout the region on both small and large scales. As a result, both free and forced laborers, mine owners, colonial officials, clergymen, artisans, and anyone or anything else in these areas that breathed were at a high risk of being poisoned. Governors, priests, officials, and commoners did not stay in one place but often moved as they sought better lives or purchased new jurisdictions, positions, and parishes. The result was that the human effects of mercury and silver production were by no means limited to Huancavelica, Potosí, and other mining centers, and those who were poisoned became carriers who imported their afflictions to towns and cities that did not produce silver or mercury. Such was the profoundly exploitative nature of colonial society, however, that mercury only exacerbated entrenched practices and abuses. Examining what natives had to contend with in their villages rounds out the picture of what awaited them if they returned home from the mita, and underscores the broader, regional effects of the amalgamation economy.

 

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