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Treasure of the World

*I am rich Potosí

Treasure of the world

King of all mountains

And the envy
of kings*

The first time I heard the name ¨Potosí¨ was in my 12th grade European
History class. It was our unit on the golden age of exploration- the age of
discovery and conquest of new lands, of the establishment of colonies in
the Americas. And in the section about the Spanish Empire, tucked in
amongst descriptions of Incas and Aztecs, was the mention of Potosí.

Potosí: a city of immeasurable wealth which poured silver into the coffers
of the Spanish Crown. Spain then used this silver to pay off debts to other
Europeans countries, and this influx of capital into the European economy
is credited by some as leading to the development of industry and
capitalism.

Spain’s silver was also in high demand in China, where it was one of the
only Western commodities the Chinese were willing to trade their exclusive
luxury goods, like silk and tea, in exchange for. The silver from Potosí
joined the silver from Spain’s mines in Mexico to journey across the
Pacific, via the Phillipines, to the East, opening valuable new trade
routes.

Potosí silver also was widely circulated in the American colonies, before
and after the American Revolution. It’s thanks to the Potosí stamp on the
coins, a symbol made up of the superimposed letters PTSI, which due to use
eventually faded until it looked just like a superimposed S and I, that we
get our $ sign.

Potosí: a city which, at it’s peak, was bigger than it’s contemporary
cities of London, Paris, Boston or New York.

Potosí: a city which, when I first stumbled across it’s name, I never
thought I would ever visit. I don’t think I even knew that it was in
mondern day Bolivia, or that the city still existed and the mines were
still functioning. For a city once upon a time so famous, it has fallen
far.
But when I heard that visiting Potosí was an option for our Expedition, I
knew I had to go. It was a name straight out of the history textbooks,
credited with changing so much of our world, but a place I knew relatively
little about. I enthusiastically volunteered to be part of the group in
charge of coordinating the Potosí section of our Expedition. With 3 other
groupmates, I read up on Potosí and planned activities. Even when our
Expedition schedule got completely flipped due to illness in the group, I was still super excited for our time in Potosí.

But I have to say, when I arrived in Potosí for the first time early on Sunday morning, I was disappointed. I knew that Potosí had fallen on harder times, but I had still hoped for some of the splendor of 17th century Potosí that I had read about. Instead, Potosí appeared slightly run down and the streets were deserted. I huffed and puffed my way up the 4 flights of hostel stairs (not an easy task at an altitude of 14,000 feet) and sat on my bed, wondering what I would do during the next two and a half days.

Despite my initial disappointment, my time in Potosí ended up being eye-opening and informative. The next day, a Monday, the streets were filled with school children and the stores and restaurants were open. The initial sense of emptiness ended up being due to the fact we had arrived on a Sunday, and with the addition of a lively population in the streets the city felt much more alive. I also got the chance to walk around Potosí and began to appreciate the charm of the city. Yes, some of the houses are a little scruffy and there are no longer the streets paved with silver and fabulous mansions mentioned in history textbooks, but the city still possesses some beautiful architecture and pretty streets. After visiting the Casa de Moneda (the old national mint), the Convent of Santa Teresa (filled with gorgeous religious art and artifacts), and seeing some of the ornate old churches, I got a glimpse of the old Potosí.

But more so than getting a taste of the old wealth of Potosí, I enjoyed learning about modern Potosí. Potosí isn´t a city frozen in time, stuck in some textbook. It’s a living, changing place. We got the chance to learn about the history of the mines and the enslavement of indigenous and African workers, thrown into the ¨man eating mountain¨ to quickly die in terrible conditions. But what would have just been an average history lesson was changed into something much more relevant when we visited the mines ourselves and talked with an ex-miner. Getting the chance to see how the modern mining conditions compare to the past and learning about the mining cooperatives and laws took a history lesson and made it life. People are still working in tough conditions, risking their lives to make a living for their families, hundreds of years after the mines originally opened. Watching a documentary on a fatherless child miner who entered the depths of the mountain to try and afford schooling and food for his siblings made working with NATS, an organization that works to support safe jobs for child workers in Potosí, much more pertinent.

I can’t say that I wasn’t happy to leave the breathless altitude of Potosí for lower climes. But despite the tough environment of Potosí and my many struggles up the steps, I really enjoyed my time in Potosí. It may not have been the shining city of silver that textbooks painted pictures of, but it is a city with a fascinating history and a people who face old and new challenges of living in the shadow of the mines. A great reminder of how history isn’t stagnant- the past of Potosí and legacy of the mines is still very much a part of modern life for the people who live there.