The first international city wasn’t London, Paris or Rome but a mining hamlet high in the Andes that supplied the world with silver in the 16th century. University of Tulane historian Kris Lane describes this boom-town in Potosí: The Silver City that Changed the World (2019) and offers up a cautionary tale of avarice and greed that seems uncomfortably familiar today. In a recent essay in Aeon, Lane catalogues the unexpected wealth of this mountain empire.
In the 1500s, a representative of the Spanish Empire, Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, transformed Potosí from a hardscrabble mining camp into a “motor of commerce and war,” erecting mills, dams and canals to supply the Imperial Villa with hydraulic power, and establishing a mint, filled with pieces of eight, handworked by African slaves.
The city was rife with all the problems we see today. Hundreds of thousands of Andeans became refugees and the land was denuded in the search for timber and fuel.
The production of mercury, needed to refine silver, fouled the region’s air and streams. The city’s refineries “belched lead and zinc-rich smoke,” guaranteeing that “children would suffer lifelong stupefaction.” Both the people and the land grew sick, while the new technologies prospered.
But that’s not all. In 1647, Potosi also became been the center of a financial boondoggle not unlike the one orchestrated by Bernard Madoff early in this century.
And here you have it — a scathing description of the first global economy, the ease with which it was corrupted, how its collapse ricocheted around the world and displaced so many people from their homes.
In 1678, a priest from Baghdad, Don Elias of Mosul came to Potosí, hoping to collect alms for his church. By then the mines were nearly exhausted. But Don Elias was astonished by the city’s royal mint, with piles of ‘pieces of eight’ fashioned nearly a century earlier. He saw them “heaped on the floor and being trampled underfoot like dirt that has no value.”
Read this fascinating article here.
And be sure to check out Aeon, a magazine of ideas that never fails to edify and amaze.