Potosi, over 4100 metres above sea-level (c. 660 higher than Lhasa!), was a sport, a freak; by far the highest city in the world, it was itself dominated by the Cerro. This immense ruddy cone rose nearly 650 metres higher still, and was riddled by veins of one of the world's richest ore-bodies; the surface exposure found in 1545 was ninety by four metres and 50 percent silver. Altitude and terrain were themselves advantages from a technical point of view, since there was no fear of flooding and much of the ore was accessible, to begin with at least, by adits and relatively short shafts. But these factors added a new dimension of suffering for the mitayo: an average winter day may range from -16 to +17 degrees centigrade; some mine entrances were at 4500 metres, nearly 15,000 feet. In the shafts, up which men and women carried heavy burdens on dizzying ladders, the air was hot and humid, poor in oxygen but rich in carbonic gas; at the exits, sweating and under-nourished bodies were plunged immediately into icy and rarified air, well above the altitudinal optimum even for Andean Indians. Well might it be said that only the heat of human greed could temper such a climate. Yet on this highly unfavourable site, too dry and cold for cultivation, rose one of the greatest cities, numerically, of the early modern world. It had some 120,000 souls of all colours in the late sixteenth century, and by 1650 claimed 160,000—as large as Amsterdam or any Italian city, probably twice as large as Madrid itself. The European populataion was numbered in thousands or even tens of thousands, and a very mixed lot it was.

The basis however remained, as it had to, the Indians, whether conscripted mitayos or more or less free 'fringe-dwellers' ... the mitayos lived mostly on chuño, frozen and dried potatoes, and kept themselves going by chewing coca leaves from the eastern Andean slopes and Chochabamba, whence also mine timbers had to be brought. Amalgamation needed great quatities of salt—1500 quintals a day in the 1630s—but this was available from the great salt-pans of the Altiplano 200 km or so to the west. Staple European foodstuffs came from Arequipa or from Salta, Jujuy, or Tucuman, which was also a great supplier of mules; further south the inland plains of La Plata supplied leather and tallow. While the official port of entry and outlet was Arica, this reaching down into the northern marches of modern Chile and Argentina was to become a major, though officially improper trade route ...

Alongside this mundane trade in subsistence and production goods was that in sinfully costly frivolities for the conspicuous consumption of the newly rich élite. Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela, the gloriously inconsequential eighteenth century chronicler of the city, gives a glittering and much quoted list of the luxuries which flowed in from all quarters of the world for the pleasures of the opulent Potosinos; many of these came in the back door, brought from La Plata by Portuguese merchants, the notorious Peruleiros—another leak from the official channels of exchange. Between these Perulieros and Peruleros, the merchant capitalists or their factors at Seville, the profits of Potosi were largely drained away; enough were left, however, to support a society raffish on a grand scale, out-Westerning the Hollywood West. Solid piety and good works did exist, but were overlaid by an atmosphere of fiesta and brawl: alongside the eighty churches were fourteen dance-halls and thirty-six gaming houses, staffed by 700 or 800 professional gamblers. Civil commotion was violent and endemic. Respectable Spanish women were relatively few, partly because childbirth at the high altitude was thought dangerous; but apart from many Indian women living by exercicios amorosos, there were 120 professional ladies, at their head one Doña Clara, who lived in a style ranking her with the grandes horizontales of the French Second Empire or Third Republic. And all around, gasping in the mine or shivering in the thin sharp air, the drafted relays of mitayos choked their lungs and lives out.

from The Spanish Lake

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