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Potosi is a city and the capital of the department of Potosi in Bolivia. It is claimed to be the highest city in the world at a nominal 4,090 m . It lies beneath the Cerro de Potosi sometimes referred to as the Cerro Rico ("rich mountain") a mountain popularly conceived of as being "made of" silver ore, which has always dominated the city. The Cerro Rico is the reason for Potosi's historical importance, since it was the major supply of silver for the Spanish Empire. Cerro de Potosi's peak is 4,824 meters above sea level.

Origin of name

There is no satisfactory etymological study of the word Potosi. According to legend, circa 1462, Huayna Capac, the eleventh monarch of Peru, "set out for Ccolque Porco and Andaccaua, the location of his mines from which were taken innumerable arrobas of silver." (An arroba is a Spanish unit of weight equivalent to approximately 25 pounds.) "Before leaving there, he saw [Potosi], and admiring its beauty and grandeur, he said (speaking to those of his Court): 'This doubtless must have much silver in its heart'; whereby he subsequently ordered his vassals to go to Ccolque Porco ... and work the mines and remove from them all the rich metal. They did so, and having brought their tools of flint and reinforced wood, they climbed the hill; and after having probed for its veins, they were about to open those veins when they heard a frightening thunderous noise which shook the whole hill, and after this, they heard a voice which said: 'Do not take the silver from this hill, because it is destined for other masters.' Amazed at hearing this reasoning, the Incan vassals desisted in their purpose and returned to Porco and told the king what had happened; relating the occurrence in their own language, on coming to the word noise, they said 'Potocsi' which means there was a great thunderous noise, and from that later was derived (corrupting a letter) the name of potosi."

It is currently believed that the etymology of Potosi is Quechua. However, in Quechua the phoneme ''p'otojdoes not refer to a thunderous noise, whereas it does in Aymara. Thus, if Potosi encompasses the idea of a thunderous noise, the locution would have an Aymaran root rather than a Quechuan. The actual sharp structure of the term is contrary to the nature of both Aymara and Quechua. Another explanation, given by several Quechua speakers, is that potoq is an onomatopoeic word that reproduces the sound of the hammer against the ore, and oral tradition has it that the town derived its name from this word.


Founded in 1546 as a mining town, it soon produced fabulous wealth, becoming one of the largest cities in the Americas and the world with a population exceeding 200,000 people.

In Spanish there is still a saying, valer un potosi,"to be worth a potosi" . For Europeans, Peru — Bolivia was part of the Viceroyalty of Peru and was known as Alto Peru'' before becoming independent — was a mythical land of riches. Potosi appears as an idiom for "extraordinary richness" in Miguel de Cervantes' famous novel, Don Quixote . One theory holds that the mint mark of Potosi (the letters "PTSI" superimposed on one another) is the origin of the dollar sign.

It is from Potosi that most of the silver shipped through the Spanish Main came. According to official records, 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico from 1556 to 1783. Of this total, 9,000 tons went to the Spanish monarchy. Indian laborers, forced by Francisco de Toledo, Count of Oropesa through the traditional Incan mita institution of contributed labor, came to die by the thousands, not simply from exposure and brutal labor, but by mercury poisoning: in the patio process the silver-ore, having been crushed to powder by hydraulic machinery, was cold-mixed with mercury and trodden to an amalgam by the native workers with their bare feet. Fernand Braudel, The Wheels of Commerce 1982, vol. II of Civilization and Capitalism illustrates the process (p. 326) in an eighteenth-century drawing in the library of the Hispanic Society of New York. The mercury was then driven off by heating, producing deadly vapors.

To compensate for the diminishing indigenous labor force, the colonists made a request in 1608 to the Crown in Madrid to begin allowing for the importation of 1500 to 2000 African slaves per year. An estimated total of 30,000 African slaves were taken to Potosi throughout the colonial era. African slaves were also forced to work in the Casa de la Moneda as acemilas humanas (human mules). Since mules would die after couple of months pushing the mills, the colonists replaced the four mules with twenty African slaves. (Angola Maconde 1999)

In 1672, a mint was established to coin silver and water reservoirs were built to fulfill the growing population's needs. At that time more than eighty six churches were built and the city's population increased to nearly 200,000, making it one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Latin America and in the world.

After 1800 the silver mines became depleted, making tin the main product. This eventually led to a slow economic decline. Still, the mountain continues to be mined for silver to this day. Due to poor worker conditions (lack of protective equipment from the constant inhalation of dust), the miners still have a short life expectancy with most of them contracting silicosis and dying around 40 years of age. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Indians died under the harsh working conditions.

During the War of Independence Potosi frequently passed between the control of Royalist and Patriot forces. Major blunders by the First Auxiliary Army from Buenos Aires (under the command of Juan Jose Castelli) led to an increased sense that independence was needed and fostered resentment towards him. During that occupation there was anarchy and martial excess, and Potosi became unfriendly to the point where it could not be defended.

When the second auxiliary army arrived it was received well, and the commander, Manuel Belgrano did much to heal the past wounds inflicted by the tyrannical minded Castelli. When that army was forced to retreat, Belgrano took the calculated decision to blow up the Casa de Moneda. Since the locals refused to evacuate this explosion would have resulted in many casualties, but by then the fuse was already lit. Disaster was averted not by the Argentinians who at that time were fleeing, but by locals who put the fuse out. Two more expeditions from Buenos Aires would seize Potosi.

The city of San Luis Potosi in Mexico was named after Potosi in Bolivia. In the United States, the name Potosi was optimistically given to lead-mining towns of Potosi, Wisconsin [*] and Potosi, Missouri, and also to the silver-mining town of Potosi, Nevada.


Angola Maconde, Juan. "Raices de un pueblo: cultura afroboliviana." La Paz: Producciones CIMA, 1999.

Arzans de Orsua y Vela, Bartolome. Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosi. Edicion de Lewis Hanke y Gunnar Mendoza. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1965.

Cobb, Gwendolin Ballantine. "Potosi, a South American Mining Frontier." Greater America: Essays in Honor of Herbert Eugene Bolton. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968, 1945, pp. 39-58.

Hanke, Lewis. The Imperial City of Potosi. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1956.

See also

Tinku - A local combat ritual and agricultural fertility rite.

External links

Potosi Travel Guide

Weather in Potosi

Introducing Potosi

Potosi Guide

Cerro Rico 2003

The Devil's Miners - A documentary about child miners in Potosi

Travelogue Potosi

The Mountain That Eats Men - Slate Magazine

Photographs of Potosi and environs

Scream of the stone - scene from a documentary about depleting mines in Potosi and its social consequences

Photographs of three mines and explications (in French)

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