Mining, Gold, and Silver

Kris Lane

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online May 2011 | | DOI:
Mining, Gold, and Silver

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
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  • Regional and National History


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The search for gold and silver spurred Atlantic exploration, and from the 15th to 19th centuries, mines in West Africa and what became Latin America supplied much of the world’s bullion supply. Early modern Atlantic-basin mining encompassed other, more prosaic minerals, including iron, copper, mercury, salt, and even petroleum tar, but historians have focused most attention on the precious metals of Ibero-America. This is apt considering their key role in Atlantic-basin economic development, and also because records regarding their production and transport are plentiful. Studies of Ibero-American precious metals for a long time focused on either mining labor or on tallying the amounts of gold and silver exported to Europe. More recently, scholars have explored other themes, including the importance of mining camps and towns in articulating regional economies and delimiting jurisdictions; the peculiarities of mining-town societies, including relatively fluid gender, class, and race relations; the environmental and health effects of preindustrial mining; and the lives of entrepreneurial mine owners. Others have recently studied the mining and export of lesser-known minerals, including gemstones. Scholars of bullion flows have turned their attention to quantifying the gold and silver that flowed not to Europe but to Asia, giving what was once a firmly Atlantic topic a global cast. West Africa’s fabled gold derived from alluvial deposits; men and women divided mining tasks in the agricultural off-season, turning over their yields to headmen and kings as tribute. Gold mines in colonial Spanish America and Brazil were also mostly of the streambed or alluvial variety and were typically staffed by enslaved Africans and their descendants. Silver mining, by contrast, was always an underground affair, usually reliant on drafted or paid Native American male workers. Enslaved Africans often engaged in silver refining and minting. Silver mining grew tremendously in scale and complexity in Spanish America beginning in the 1530s, and innovations in mercury amalgamation after 1554 spurred several mining booms, first in Mexico, then in the Andes. Indigenous demographic decline, however, plus falling ore quality and flooding led to busts. New finds after 1600 prompted new cycles, but the most productive silver mines remained those discovered in the 16th century. Key to reviving these mines was access to labor and credit rather than major technical improvements. The 18th century witnessed a revival of Mexico’s silver mines, in particular, as well as the expansion of slave-based gold mining in Brazil and in what is today Colombia. The 1849 California Gold Rush marked the beginning of a Pacific, and even global, era in mining history.

Article.  7664 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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