INTRODUCTION
Inot
n thewords of an early seventeenth-century visitor, ‘‘Hewho has
seen Potosí, has not seen the
Indies.’’1
From its founding in
1545, this colonial Andean citycaptured Old World imaginations.
The wealth produced by Potosí and its silver mines was an ex-
tremely captivating image in an era of colonial expansion. Moreover,
the city’s silver fortunes symbolized the enormous potential of colonial
power.ThemountainofsilverloomedlargeinEuropeanportrayalsofthe
city (see figure 1). For those Europeans who gained status through colo-
nial rule, silver seemed easy to acquire. Nicolas del Benino told his audi-
ence that the quantity of silver was so great it ‘‘seemed almost a
fable.’’2
Visitorstothetownwereequallyinaweoftheluxurygoodsthatcrowded
marketplaces and homes.When Spanish friar Diego de Ocaña wrote of
a meal that he had consumed in Potosí it was so lavish he feared no one
would believe him: ‘‘I write this with fear; but on a priest’s word, I tell
the
truth.’’3
This colonial scene was portrayed as so rich it defied Euro-
pean imagination. The tales that came from the silver city mixed reality
with hyperbole. No one could discuss Potosí without resorting to myth.
Whenonetakesintoaccountthebasichistoryofthecity,thispenchant
for exaggeration is understandable. The population in the mining town
reached one hundred thousand well before the close of the sixteenth cen-
tury, rivaling European metropolises like Amsterdam and London. The
fact that so many people came together, in such a short time span, in a
severe location at thirteen thousand feet in the Bolivian highlands, was
fuel for the imagination.
Thegrowthoftheminingcityalsosparkedurbanandregionalecono-
mies that resisted characterization in European terms.Commerce in the
city quickly became as remarkable as the silver. In Ocaña’s view the mar-
ketplace of Potosí was not merely abundant, but
‘‘abundantísima.’’4
To
sustainPotosí’sgrowingpopulation,foodtradesmultiplied.Themajority
of the inhabitants no longer produced food, alcohol, or even clothing
for themselves as they had in rural communities but instead purchased
theseitemsfromvendorsandstoreowners.WhatdefiedEuropeanimagi-
nation in these trading spaces was not simply the pace of commerce, but
theproducts,thepeople,andtheexchanges.Beforetheeyesofobservers,
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