Stephen Ferry
The Monacelli Press

the review:
Monument to the Conquest

I first went to Potosí in 1991, as the South American correspondent of a photojournalism agency, in anticipation of the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to America. Rather than glorify the Age of Discovery, I felt it was important to show the other side of the coin. My goal was to focus on a particular place and document the long-term effects of the conquest on the native people there. But why choose Potosí, a forgotten mining town in the barren highlands of Bolivia, as emblematic of the whole era?

The lust for treasure that motivated the Spanish was sated when they first cut into the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) of Potosí in 1545. For over two hundred years, the mountain yielded more than half of the world’s production of silver. This flow of wealth financed Spain’s empire, influenced the course of European economic development, and bolstered Europe’s trade relations with China. During the colonial period, the Cerro Rico became world-famous, the subject of chronicles, poems, and paintings that celebrated its grandeur and generosity.

At the same time, the mining project in Potosí provoked one of the worst demographic disasters in history. In 1575, the viceroy of Peru, Francisco de Toledo, created the m’ita, a forced-labor system that remained in place for 250 years. Under the m’ita, some three million Quechua Indians were forced to work in the mines. Hundreds of thousands died there, of disease, from accidents, and at the brutal hand of their masters. Peasants fled as best they could, abandoning the land, but many were forced

 

into reducciones, concentration areas where they could be counted and conscripted.

Although historians disagree over the size of the pre-conquest population, they concur that over the course of the mita (1572–1825), the native population of the Andes declined by 80 percent.

I went to Potosí to find traces of this great crime in the daily life of the ten thousand or so mining families still working there. These miners, who are direct descendants of the Quechua enslaved during the colonial period, successfully resisted the destruction of their culture, and over the centuries they have developed powerful symbolic ways of interacting with the Cerro Rico and with their own past. But in economic terms, the Quechua never recovered from the mita: the Department of Potosí is the poorest place in all the Americas, a place where 230 babies out of 1,000 die by the age of five. I looked at both the rich culture of the miners and their economic plight as windows onto history.

Life in Potosí has the feel of a cruel myth. Men there are compelled to repeat the past, working themselves to death in the very mountain that was the tomb of their ancestors. Inside the Cerro Rico, the miners worship a devil, a rapacious deity with the clothes of a miner and the beard of a Spaniard. Several times a year, they sacrifice llamas to this being, adorning the mouth of the mine with blood, so that he will not eat them. At carnival time, the miners dance out their history, dressed as Spanish lords, African slaves, and the devil. Ever present, the Cerro Rico looms iconically over the city, as if it were a giant monument to the conquest of the Americas.
© Stephen Ferry,
The Monacelli Press.