Miners of the Red Mountain: Review

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

Peter Bakewell’s Miners of the Red Mountain: Indian Labor in Potosí, 1545-1650 makes a targeted intervention into Andean colonial history by analyzing evolving labor systems at the colonial silver mines of Potosí.[1] Given the central role that Potosí played in Spanish America, this book, or a similar publication, should be required reading for any student in the field.

Bakewell questions the assumption that the mines were operated overwhelmingly by forced laborers, showing instead how declining silver output and new refining technologies gave rise to a competitive market for specialized, free-wage workers during the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries. The book revolves around the central argument that as high-grade ore at Potosí was depleted, the need to implement new amalgamation techniques was necessary to maintain production levels.

Silver refining became a capital-intensive process that gradually shifted from an Indian-controlled industry to a Spanish-controlled one because the new refining processes required a host of hard to procure ingredients, such as mercury.[2] With the new refining process, the need for specialized labor to extract the lower-grade ore increased, giving rise to a competitive wage market by the early-seventeenth century.[3]

Similar to the author’s 1971 monograph on Zacatecas, Silver Mining and Society in Colonial Mexico, wage labor developed as Indians serving as mitayo workers in Potosí increasingly tried to pay fees to escape labor drafts and then subsequently hired themselves out at a higher wage, a process much different than previously thought.[4] In this respect, Bakewell highlights the negotiated process of colonial policies, even in areas as fundamental to the empire as silver mining at Potosí. When compared to Stern’s treatment of the balance between voluntary labor contracts and labor coercion, Bakewell places much more importance on wages than coercion.[5]

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 in the different positions at the mine. “Horror and loathing” of the worst jobs often led to staunch resistance, included fleeing and seeking shelter by working for other Spanish colonial industries, such as agricultural haciendas.[6] Bakewell argues that this resistance ultimately forced mine owners to offer different pay rates and better conditions to attract enough workers to keep production going. This is one of the author’s most intriguing arguments. Not only was there a thriving free-wage market around the mines, but the mines may have represented a space of relative refuge from the other multiple burdens of colonial life. By allowing a worker to escape the worst tasks of silver mining, such as the gathering and carrying of the unrefined ore, done by unskilled mita workers, skilled workers gained greater control over their labor. However, he argues that Indians who moved permanently to work as professional miners in Potosí often lost ties with their family communities and traditional lifeways, drifting into Hispanicized society.[7]

Bakewell organizes the book around four core chapters, complemented by an introduction and conclusion that both synthesize the book’s central arguments as well as provide reflection on the larger impact of Potosí in colonial Andean history. His arguments are supported with documents from archives in Europe and South America, including the AGI in Seville as well as the Archivo de la Universidad in Seville. He also worked at the British Library and at national and regional archives in Argentina, Peru, and Bolivia. According to Bakewell, the copious amount of material on labor at Potosí that he encountered in his research, carried out between 1970-1974, justified the separate publication of this monograph.

Like other Andean historians, Bakewell relied on first-hand colonial accounts from authors like Cieza de Leon’s Cronica del Perú. He also used Luis Capoche’s Relacion general de la Villa Imperial de Potosí, Theodor de Bry’s sixteenth-century drawings of Potosí, the writings of Juan Polo de Ondegardo, as well as Viceroy Toledo’s correspondence. All of which gives a degree of detail that captures the reader’s interest. For example, in chapter two, “Indios varas, indios ventureros,” Bakewell uses tribute documents to analyze the Hispanicization of Indians living in Potosí.[8] By estimating the amount of food and llamas needed to mobilize an average mita, what that would cost a village, how it was paid for, and what it would cost to return home, he presents a compelling argument for why Indians may have chosen to remain in Potosí after their mita service was over.[9]

Bakewell also shows how the early years of mining differed from later periods insofar as independent and skilled workers were able to profit on the mining system more easily in the early years by controlling the smelting process with guayras (wind kilns) to extract silver.[10] As the guayras were replaced by patio-process amalgamation, control of refining passed into Spanish hands. This change, which marked a shift in the political economy of the region, was spurred by the depletion of the rich ore found in early extraction efforts and marks the end of Potosí’s first silver cycle.[11]

The reader sees signs of on Viceroy Toledo’s troubled thoughts about creating a formal mita, and how he eventually chose silver over Indians.[12] In an interesting aside, Bakewell reflects on the Crown’s dereliction of duty by not responding to Toledo’s requests for input in the ultimate decision to implement the mita until well after the viceroy was dead.[13] Interestingly, Bakewell also shows how Indians reacted to the depletion of rich ore at the mines by, perhaps unsurprisingly, going elsewhere.[14]

It is at this point that Bakewell also attempts to revisit the Black Legend created by the British around the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Did the mines kill thousands, or just hundreds each year, he asks? Bakewell concludes that hundreds is more likely supported by the archival evidence.[15] Furthermore, he argues that Toledo insisted on draft wages as a form of protection against European abuse, giving formal legitimacy to the payment system and providing a precedent for the wage market that took shape in the following decades.[16]

His discussion of mingas is probably of more interest to Andean specialists, delving into the minutia of colonial wage markets, though it sheds light on the incentives of specialized labor over forced mita drafts. He argues that in the implementation of the mita, indigenous leaders were crucial. Yet as ore grades fell and epidemics ravaged the population, new methods were needed to attract indigenous workers to Potosí.[17] Bakewell ruminates on how and why Indians may have used more-permanent types labor contracts with Spanish employers to avoid going on mitas. He also provides meditations on the incentives for Spanish employers to contravene colonial laws to shelter Indians and capture their labor.[18]

The author also presents interesting data on the later practice of female-run guayras, the traditional wind-furnaces used for smelting the ore, which became a source of labor for women accompanying their families in Potosí. According to Bakewell, when women brought food to their family members at the mines, they would take back pieces of ore taken by the miners to supplement their wages.[19] None of the other authors considered in this essay present comparable insight into the role of women in the mining process, or how Andeans in the earliest periods of colonization were able to work the system for their own profit. In that respect, Bakewell’s work stands out.

Finally, the monograph is well-written, with concern for rhythm and style that engages the reader. While some chapters are weighed down by the presentation of quantitative data, it is a testament either to his editor’s indulgence, or to the degree of controversy implied by his arguments that Bakewell felt the need to present so much evidence in the body of the text, as opposed to the notes or in appendices. Yet even where densest, Bakewell seasons this history with interesting analysis well-worth the reader’s time.

[1] P. J. Bakewell, Miners of the Red Mountain: Indian Labor in Potosí, 1545-1650, 1st ed. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984). [2] Ibid., 80. [3] Ibid., 82. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid., 134. [6] Ibid., 84, 112-13. [7] Ibid., 187–88. [8] Ibid., 49. [9] Ibid., 44. [10] Ibid., 46, 60. [11] Ibid., 60. [12] Ibid., 64, 74-75, 82. [13] Ibid., 74–75. [14] Ibid., 76. [15] Ibid., 146. [16] Ibid., 79. [17] Ibid., 84, 108. [18] Ibid., 112–13. [19] Ibid., 141–42.

N. H. Gill, 2017

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