To the Spanish, the phrase “valer una cosa un potosí” (to be worth a potosí) is to be worth a small fortune. This phrase comes from the name of a silver mine of nearly mythical proportions. Located in Potosí, Bolivia, the majority of the silver that the Spanish conquistadores acquired in the New World came from this special mine.
Bolivia once belonged to the Viceroyalty of Peru and it was known as Upper Peru before it became an independent country. Potosí was founded in 1546 and rapidly developed into a major city because of the wealth of its silver mines.
From the mid 16th century to the end of the 18th century, tens of thousands of tons of silver were hauled out of the Cerro Rico (rich mountain) by forced labor under extremely brutal conditions. An estimated eight million African slaves and native Indians died, many due to acute mercury poisoning.
The Spanish used a mercury amalgamation process to extract the silver from the ores , a technique long since discarded due to its extreme health and environmental hazards.
Although silver is still mined in Potosí today, after the early 1800s, it became more economical to focus instead on tin and zinc deposits, which are found in greater abundance.
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