Economic Contribution: The Gift of Silver


Colonial Potosi

Nothing from our impossible past has died.

-Mirna Martinez, in Zoe Anglesey, ed., Ixoc Amar*go, 249


The communal traditions of the Indians shaped the political structure which the Founding Fathers constructed, but Indians were not responsible for the economic system based on accumulation that the Europeans imported from the “old world.” The Incan Indians of the Andean nations provided the forced labor that impelled a world economic transformation that shaped generations and gave rise to a capitalist world economy.

The silver mined from the Cerro Rico of Bolivia initiated a new currency, which, unlike gold, could be used by the emerging merchant class of bakers, fisherman, candle makers, and cloth weavers. Never before had this common sector of society been major actors in the economy:

Never before in the history of the world had so much silver money been in the hands of so many people. Kings, emperors, czars, and pharaohs had always accumulated great wealth in their jewels, their hordes of gold, and their coinage, but the total amount of gold and silver was quite limited by the scarcity of precious metals... This changed with the opening of the Americas... Precious metals from America superseded land as the basis for wealth, power, and prestige. For the first time there was enough of some commodity other than land to provide a greater and more consistent standard by which wealth might be measured.  This easily transported and easily used means of wealth prepared the way for the new merchant and capitalist class that would soon dominate the whole world.

Even though the Indians made possible the greatest economic boom in the history of the world…they still languish in poverty... Potosi, the city which supplied the silver for the rise of capitalism, is now out of silver... The great mint of Potosi that swallowed eight million Indian miners and turned out billions of coins from the sixteenth century into the twentieth century operates now as a museum for visiting children.

-Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers, 13, 18-19

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