Miners of the Red Mountain: Peter Bakewell

Peter Bakewell’s Miners of the Red Mountain: Indian Labor in Potosí, 1545-1650 (1984) looks at the changing systems of labor and production used at the silver mines of Potosí in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Bakewell questions the long-held assumption that the mines were overwhelmingly worked by forced laborers, arguing instead that declining silver output and new refining technologies fueled the growth of a competitive market for specialized, wage-earning workers.

In the earliest years at Potosí, Bakewell says silver mining and refining was dominated by Andean workers, who were able to profit off the system by controlling the smelting process with wind-powered kilns, known as guayras, to extract silver. Rare for the time, Bakewell presents a fascinating study of the guayra system, which was a source of labor for many women who accompanied their families to Potosí. According to Bakewell, when women brought food to their family members, they would take back pieces of ore collected by the miners to supplement their wages. Besides being one of the first studies of the role of women in the colonial mining, it demonstrates the extent to which Andean communities resisted Spanish plans and worked to turn the system in their favor.

By the late sixteenth century, silver production had collapsed as the highest-grade ore was depleted. To maintain production, new amalgamation techniques were needed. As the guayras were replaced by patio-process amalgamation, a more capital-intensive process that requires a host of hard-to-procure ingredients like mercury, control of the refining process passed into Spanish hands, marking a major shift in the political economy of the region. The new refining techniques created a need for specialized laborers to extract the lower-grade ore, as well as unskilled laborers to dig and transport the mineral, giving rise to a competitive wage market by the early-seventeenth century. 

Bakewell says indigenous workers supported the rise of wage labor, to a degree, in part to avoid the worst elements of the forced-labor drafts. Similar to his work on silver mining in Zacatecas, Mexico, Silver Mining and Society in Colonial Mexico (1971), he argues that mitayo laborers sought to hire themselves out at higher wages in different, safer positions in the mines and use those wages to pay a fee to avoid their ordinary labor service, a process different than previously thought. According to Bakewell, less skilled workers were often given the dangerous jobs as cargadores, hauling ore up to the surface along miles of rickety ladders running deep underneath the earth. 

Without minimizing the suffering or contributions of forced labor in the development of the mine, Bakewell identifies a spectrum of coercion and wages needed to make indigenous laborers work. The “horror and loathing” of the worst jobs often led to staunch resistance, including fleeing and seeking shelter by working for other Spanish colonial industries, such as agricultural haciendas and less-onerous mining posts. As such, resistance ultimately forced mine owners and Spanish officials to offer higher wages and improved working conditions to attract enough workers to keep production going. But while specialized jobs in colonial mines and may have represented a relative refuge from the other burdens of colonial life, those who moved permanently to work as professionals in Potosí often lost ties with their home communities and drifted into Hispanicized society.

Bakewell, P. J. Miners of the Red Mountain: Indian Labor in Potosí, 1545-1650. 1st ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.

By N. H. Gill
Chapel Hill, 2017

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