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Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas

Captive Passage
has been made
possible in part by:
National Endowment for the Humanities
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Arrival: Life in the AmericasPreference for AfricansThe Slave Markets
European RewardsSlave Populations in the AmericasThe Ships Return to EuropeEconomics
Sugar IntroductionSlavery in North AmericaReligionSilver Mines of South America

Silver Mines of South America

In the silver mines of South America, as much as 100,000 metric tons of silver were produced between 1500 and 1800. One of the most famous South American mines was located on the mountain of Potosi, in the nation of Bolivia. Potosi produced great amounts of silver that provided enormous wealth for Spain.

The Native Americans, or Indians as the Spaniards called them, were put to work, mining the land. The Spanish encountered problems using Indians as slaves. They found the Indians could not handle the heavy labor that was required to work in the mines. They also had little resistance to European diseases such as smallpox and typhus, and they began to die by the thousands.

Enslaved Africans were put work in the mines to replace the Indians. Spanish records show more and more Africans were requested and that the Spaniards considered Africans to be essential in the operation of the mines. Africans were rewarded by their hard work and received special privileges the Indians did not get, such as the right to carry weapons and wear European clothing.

Miners would work from dawn to dusk, and it is estimated that the average working life of a miner was six to eight years. They were subjected to hard labor in dark, poorly ventilated tunnels and exposed to the dangers of cave-ins, floods, fires, and explosions. Despite the working conditions, Africans preferred mining to plantation work. Miners were allowed more freedom of movement, and they received rations of tobacco and brandy. They had opportunities to enrich themselves as well. Mine owners often allowed slaves to prospect for themselves once they met a certain quota. By such means, many mine workers were able to purchase their freedom. Some migrated to cities where they found new trades, but many remained in the mining areas and continued to work as independent prospectors.

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