Kris Lane

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online July 2012 | | DOI:

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Humans mined and refined gold, silver, copper, tin, and other minerals long before Columbus first crossed the Atlantic in 1492. But it was only after that year that mining, especially of precious metals, became an activity of transoceanic and ultimately global importance. Miners mattered more than ever. Europe in the time of Columbus was experiencing a bullion shortage, offset only partially by the gold of sub-Saharan Africa and the silver of central Europe. Base metals such as iron, lead, and copper were mined in Sweden, Finland, Wales, and Spain, and Cornwall in southwest England was long famous for its tin. We know very little about gold, copper, or iron mining in medieval or early modern Africa, but in parts of Europe bona fide mining cultures emerged after 1450, and miners and refiners from Tyrolia, Cornwall, the Basque Country, and other enclaves began to migrate—first to the Americas and then beyond. The Americas had their own indigenous mining traditions, especially in Mesoamerica and the Andes, but it was only with the arrival of Europeans that tens of thousands of workers were forced to take up mining as a livelihood. Whereas European miners were generally free, miners in the Americas were often coerced and either enslaved or drafted. Forced labor faded in some regions, but even in 18th-century Virginia large crews of enslaved Africans mined and refined iron. In the Caribbean, colonialism began with Europeans forcing native peoples and enslaved Africans to mine for gold and to dive for pearls. Some Africans may have had prior experience in metals mining and refining, and some became blacksmiths. Abusive treatment of indigenous mineworkers led the Spanish crown to establish a system of quasi-serfdom known as the encomienda, by which tribute could be paid in gold dust and later silver. By contrast, Africans and their descendants were treated in the Roman fashion as war captives “condemned to mine.” Penal labor was practiced in Spain itself in the mercury mines of Almadén, which grew dramatically following the American discoveries. The 1519–1538 conquests of Mesoamerica and the Andes opened new mineral frontiers, most famously the great silver mines of Potosí (Bolivia), discovered in 1545. Mercury deposits were found soon after at Huancavelica, Peru. Mercury enabled silver production on a huge scale, ending Europe’s so-called bullion famine. By the 1570s, Spanish officials organized indigenous draft systems, most famously the Andean mita, a revival of the Inca corvée system. The Potosí mita sent over 10,000 Andean workers annually to the silver mines and refineries. The Huancavelica mercury mine draft was smaller, but work there was far more deadly. Gold mines in lowland Spanish America and Brazil were typically staffed by enslaved Africans and their descendants, but the silver districts of the Andes and Mesoamerica witnessed a general shift away from indigenous drafts toward wage work. Mining in Europe and Africa generally declined as American mining grew in the late 16th century, but this reversed with the Industrial Revolution, when demand shot up for coal, iron, base metals, and salts. Miners thereafter formed the backbone of many European working classes.

Article.  5378 words. 

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

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