Many years ago, a fabulous city sprang up on the slopes of an incredibly rich mountain of silver. The country was a high desert region of mountains and canyons. The miners soon found that the local native Indian tribes had to be tamed before the full potential of the silver strike could be realized. Once the Indian problem was resolved, the mining resumed at a fast pace and the city grew to become the largest in the territory.
Before long, there was so much silver being taken from the mines, a mint was established to coin the silver. The mint later became a museum. The mine became the largest producer of silver the country has ever known. Much of the wealth from the mines was used to pay off debts from a long and bloody war. As always happens with mining boom towns, the ore eventually ran out and many of the thousands of fortune seekers either died from the hardships of their life in the mines or moved on. A few continue to this day, trying to revive the great successes of the old days.
I am sure most of you are thinking I have described Virginia City and the Comstock. In fact, this article is not about Virginia City. All these things are true of the Comstock, but they are also true of another place, thousands of miles away in Bolivia called Potosi. The similarities end with those described above. The differences between the two places are even more amazing than the similarities.
In 1546, the Spanish conquistadores founded the town of Potosi in South America on the slopes of a mountain named Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain). The native Inca Indians had mined silver from this mountain for centuries. The Spanish took over the mine and enslaved many of the local Inca Indians to work in the mines and mills at the mountain of silver. Later, African slaves were also brought in to supplement the native slave laborers. Working conditions in the mine were brutal and the slaves died at an early age from silicosis due to the dusty conditions. Those who worked in the mills died from mercury poisoning since they were forced to trod the ground-up ore with their bare feet in the amalgamation process. Hundreds of thousands of these workers died due to the deplorable working conditions. Some estimates suggest there were millions of work-related deaths.
By the 1600s the population of Potosi had grown to 200,000. This was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world at that time. There were 86 churches and the production of silver was estimated at 45,000 tons between 1556 and 1783. The elevation of Potosi at over 13,420 feet makes manual labor even more difficult. At that elevation, Potosi was the highest city in the world. The elevation at the top of Cerro Rico is 15,827 feet above sea level. The miners typically worked 12-hour days and there were no coffee or lunch breaks. They chewed coca leaves which kept them awake and warded off hunger. Very few of them survived beyond the age of 40.
The vast quantities of silver mined from Cerro Rico prompted the establishment of the first Spanish Colonial Mint to produce coins, mostly doubloons or “pieces of eight” from the silver. Before the mint was established, the silver was cast into ingots and shipped back to Spain or to mints in other countries. The old mint building has been refurbished and is now a museum.
Between the years 1530 and 1800, approximately $6-$8 billion worth of silver was shipped back to Spain. This was when silver was worth less than a dollar an ounce. In 1621 Spain still ruled the seas despite challenges from the English, French and Dutch. The Spanish were desperate to replenish their treasury due to the cost of fighting the Thirty Years War. Every year, the Spanish treasure fleet gathered gold, silver, emeralds and other treasure from each of their South American colonies and shipped the wealth back to Spain before the hurricane season hit. Every year approximately 20 percent of the treasure was lost to pirates or to ships being sunk in high seas or hurricanes.
In 1621 the treasure fleet met up at the harbor in Havana, Cuba to sail in a group back to Spain. One of these ships was the Nuestra Senora de Atocha or simply the Atocha. As the Atocha and a sister ship, the Santa Margarita approached the Florida Keys on their way back to Spain, a terrible hurricane hit the area and forced the two treasure laden galleons off course. Just a few miles east of Key West, Florida, near the Marquesas Keys, the two galleons broke apart and sank in shallow water.
After years of research and diving using several sunken ship hunting techniques, Treasure Salvage Company owned by Mel Fisher announced the discovery of the wreck of the Atocha on July 20, 1985. Recovery of the amazing cargo began and a museum was set up in Mel Fisher’s office in Key West where the items were brought for cleaning and restoration. While the recovery efforts were still being done, I had the opportunity to visit the office of Fisher and see for myself much of the treasure that had been recovered.
In front of the office there were two of the huge ornate bronze cannons that had been brought up from the wreck. Inside the office there were several hundred silver bars from Potosi stacked up like cordwood around the perimeter of the room. These were over a foot long and were stacked along the edges of the room to prevent the floor from collapsing due to the weight. Over 1,000 of these silver bars were recovered from the wreck of the Atocha.
A crew was busy cleaning and sorting gold bars, emeralds and over 100,000 silver “pieces of eight” (eight reals), the “dollar” of the Spanish empire. These were found on the bottom of the sea in chest-shaped conglomerates where the shipping chests had rotted away leaving blocks of fused and corroded silver coins. These were then separated and cleaned electronically. Most of these were minted at the Potosi Mint. Fascinated with these, I bought one of them from Fisher to add to my small collection of Carson City Mint dollars.
Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian. You can order his books at a discount on his blog at denniscassinelli.com.