Potosí: The Silver City that Changed the World (Video)


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  • Hello, my name is Kris Lane. I'm a Professor  of History here at Tulane University.  
  • I've been here since 2011. I taught previously  at the College of William and Mary in Virginia
  • for 14 years and before that at the  University of Miami in Florida for one year.
  • I did my PhD at the University of  Minnesota and my undergraduate degree
  • at the University of Colorado Boulder. My most recent book is called, Potosí:  
  • The Silver City that Changed the World, published  by the University of California Press in 2019.
  • And this is my first foray into a book about a  city specifically, although I've written about  
  • Quito, Ecuador; more about the region  surrounding Quito then the city itself. And
  • I've written about emeralds in Colombia. So most  of my work has been focused on the Andes region of  
  • South America. It took me a while to get to Potosí  as a scholar, but it was a place that interested  
  • me from the time when I was an undergraduate.  It turns out Potosí was the world's most  
  • concentrated and productive silver deposit, or  mining region, between its discovery in 1545 and  
  • about the year 1650. It continued to produce  silver after that and it is still producing  
  • silver today. I visit Potosí when travel is  possible, about every year or every other year.  
  • And I've been going back there to work  in the archives and also to talk to  
  • local folks many times. There's also a  great deal of information about Potosí  
  • in archives in Spain, and some in archives in  the UK, and the US, and France, and Germany as well.  
  • What brought me to write this book really was an  interest in globalizing Latin American history.  
  • As you know, the Stone Center for Latin American  Studies here at Tulane is one of the largest in  
  • the country. The reason that I came to Tulane was to  want to be a part of that large, really incredibly  
  • diverse gathering of people working on Latin  America from every possible disciplinary angle.  
  • But also to to globalize the story of Latin  America in the early modern period, so the time  
  • of Columbus to about the time of Simón Bolívar  or thereabouts. We sometimes think of that as the  
  • colonial period or the early modern period. Either  way, it's often assumed that Latin America was on  
  • the receiving end of globalization, it was not an  agent of globalization and although it produced  
  • products like silver in the case of Potosí, or  gold in the case of Columbia, or emeralds, or pearls,  
  • but these things were sugar in the case of  Brazil; that these things really didn't alter  
  • the Latin American societies in the way that  other places were altered by globalization. And  
  • I try to argue basically the opposite, and to say  that the situation of Potosí and the way that it  
  • changed the world was not simply by supplying  a raw material, in this case precious metals,  
  • on a very large scale, an unforeseen scale, but also Potosí was a place of transformation, social  
  • transformation and self-realization. It's kind of a tricky story to tell as a global history  
  • because the city itself is fascinating in its own  right and very well documented. The Spanish were  
  • very interested in silver production and  so they kept pretty careful records here. And as  
  • much as they tried to control silver production  they really couldn't. It was always slipping out 
  • of their hands. So there are stories of indigenous  mine workers doing their own thing. Certainly many  
  • of them suffering tremendously and being abused;  it's not a pretty story. There are many enslaved  
  • Africans brought mostly from West Central Africa,  from Congo and Angola by Buenos Aires who end up  
  • in Potosí and their story has not been told. I try  to tell that at least in a nutshell in this  
  • book. The stories of women who become very powerful  in the city as owners of mines and refineries but  
  • also as religious women and market vendors. So  there's really a space for everyone in  
  • this crazy boom town, a kind of Deadwood South,  a very violent place. So a part of the story is  
  • is to take on the myth and truth about the  frontier violence of Potosí. It was a place where  
  • people challenged each other to duels pretty  regularly, people were poisoning each other.  
  • There's lots of history of violence in  this place and I try not to overdo it. 
  • But also to show that one of the curious  things about mining towns, whether it's Potosí,  
  • or could be Central City Colorado, or, you  know, somewhere in the Comstock Lode in Nevada,  
  • or even Deadwood, South Dakota, one of the  curious things about mining towns is that  
  • in spite of their reputation for being  out of control, super violent, lawless even,  
  • people figure out a way to to enforce rules. And  even though they're fighting over mining claims  
  • and, you know, access to merchandise, and land,  and all sorts of other things; there's lots  
  • of social stratification and fighting. There's  also plenty of evidence of people cooperating. 
  • And so what I see is a story of tension more  then a story of exploitation and destruction.  
  • All of that is the sob story- the sad story  of Potosí has been told and I didn't want to  
  • just add another chapter to that. I wanted to look  for evidence of people making the most of a tough  
  • situation, not to be overly optimistic about it.  Because clearly, when you look at the environmental  
  • part of the story, which is another factor in the  book, another feature that I'm trying to bring  
  • up to date because the history has become much  richer more textured- to show that environmentally  
  • Potosí is a disaster, there's nothing positive  about it, it's mining itself is poisoning the water,  
  • refining silver with mercury and  other types of solvents is clearly adding  
  • all sorts of toxic substances to the water  and the soil and the air. And people complain  
  • about it at the time, they talk about Potosí as  a dangerous place even in the 16th and 17th  
  • centuries. It's a place where you can't drink  the water, where food is very expensive, where  
  • nasty smoke is spewing into the air. There's all  sorts of sound pollution because of the mills  
  • in town crushing ore all night long, all day long,  and much more. Working in mines of course  
  • exposing workers to cave-ins and the list goes on.  So in some ways it's also a kind of a harbinger of  
  • an industrial world to come. Potosí is  industrial before industry was cool. And it's  
  • a place where, as I said, in spite of all of  the bad things that happen, all of  
  • the negatives that we associate with mining  and with the Spanish conquest and all of that,  
  • we also find extraordinary ingenuity. So another  part of the story, you know, this is the last one  
  • I'll mention now, is technological savvy. The  usual image of the Spanish is that they were  
  • always behind the rest of Europe when  it came to technology and science,  
  • and what we find in Potosí is that they're  actually at the forefront. There's certainly  
  • certain people who are coming up with  radically new ways of refining ore, and  
  • developing a sense of chemistry that's pretty  sophisticated in a time when alchemy was king, and  
  • also the creation of some pretty alarmingly  large-scale engineering projects, mostly to control  
  • the flow of water into the city to use for water  powered crushing mills to refine silver ore  
  • into silver. And I guess the last thing I should  say is there's a- there's some stories in here  
  • about fraud, which is my current project. How it is  that the king's mint, the king's money factory, is  
  • taken over by local, very savvy people, some of them  officials and some of them private individuals. And  
  • it shows again the tension between government  and private enterprise and neither comes out  
  • looking too good, but that's the story of Potosí:  The Silver City that Changed the World. Thank you.
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