The indigenous people that lived in the region which today forms part of south-western Bolivia, mined silver and were renowned for their craftsmanship and artistry. When the Inca empire conquered the area in the 15th century, the Inca ruler Huayna Capac is said to have coveted a mountain that was known to contain huge deposits of silver. However, during the first attempt by the Inca to mine the silver, a frightening and thunderous voice from inside the mountain said, ‘DON’T TAKE THE SILVER OF THIS MOUNTAIN, IT IS DESTINED FOR ANOTHER MASTER’. The Inca servants returned to give account to their ruler of what occurred, calling it 'potosi' or thunder voice. The known story is that the Inca heeded the mountain’s warning and halted efforts to mine its silver.
The Spanish conquistadors soon learned of the 'silver mountain'. Upon seeing the silver veins inside the cave mineshaft, they exalted in the discovery of a ‘Rich Mountain’ or ‘Cerro Rico’. The Spanish lords established the mining town of Potosi, at the base of the silver mountain. In 1545, extraction of the silver began on an industrial scale, with the use of local workforce, a combination of contracted and forced laborers. Conditions were appalling, and many laborers perished due to the "greed of the Spaniards" for silver (Spaniard Domingo de Santo Tomás to the Council of the Indies in 1550).
Regardless of the abysmal working conditions, the output dramatically increased when the Spanish lords introduced mercury (from their mine at Huancavelica), to refine the silver from Potosi (1571). The increased quantities of silver mined led to a true ‘silver rush’. Around 1650, Potosi’s population increased to 160,000 people, at that time, making it one of the most populated urban areas in the world.
It’s estimated that during colonial rule from the 15th to 19th century, a total of 62 million kilograms of silver were extracted from Potosi. The cost being humans, primarily the indigenous population. According to Eduardo Galeano, as a result of working the mines of Potosi, as many as eight million Andean people perished over that period.
In 1574 the Spanish established a mint at Potosi, and started production of silver coins that were known as 'Real De Ocho' or ‘Royal Piece of Eight’. The mint marked their coins with ‘PTSI’. The coins were transported overland and overseas to Cartagena on the Caribbean coast and from there shipped to Cuba. Together with the riches from Mexico, the Potosi silver was then transported, once a year, by armored fleet, to Spain.
The Netherlands, known at the time as the ‘United Provinces’, was fighting its war of independence against the Spanish Habsburg rulers. This Dutch rebellion, fueled by the Protestants and their economic interests (1568), would last for 80 years.
To counteract the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly on the Atlantic trading routes, the Dutch West India Company (WIC) was established in Amsterdam (1621). Together with the VOC or Dutch East India Company, these bond-issuing co-operations of wealthy sea merchants, bankers, and nobility, were united in their goal to maintain and expand their financial interests, regardless to the cost of the Spanish monarchy.
Piet Heyn, a privateer and admiral of a WIC pirate fleet, captured an entire Spanish Navy squadron at the Bay of Matanzas (Cuba) (1628). Heyn was celebrated at home as a national hero. The captured cargo included riches of 117,000 pounds of silver, gold, pearls, valuable trading goods- like indigo and cochineal-as well as hides, log wood, sugar and precious gemstones.
The WIC, calculated the total value to be 11,509,524 guilders-comparable to current day value at €100 million to €100 billion. For the Dutch, this influx of wealth funded their war against the Spanish and contributed to the independence of the Netherlands(1648). With riches and independence, the Dutch expansion overseas proceeded with settlements in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Holland's ambitions were realized, as they took a seat at the table of colonial power.
Fast forward present day, local Bolivians still mine Cerro Rico. The miners are taking out the last scraps of low grade silver, zinc, and tin. The mountain has been hollowed out so extensively over the last 500 years that engineers are seriously worried it may collapse completely. The miners are well aware of the risks their work involves and they are aware of trespassing. When entering one of the many mine shafts, at the entrances, effigies can be found, appearing as the robust ‘El Tio’ or ‘The Uncle’.
'El Tío' is the familiar name for the spirit owner of the mountain, also known as Huari or Supay. He is closely related to similar figures found in mines in Peru called 'muqui'. El tio personifies the relationship of patronage that the miners have with the spirit and associated with pre-Hispanic huacas and the Christian Devil.
The huacas are central to the ritual life of Bolivian mining communities. An icon of the Tío is situated in each mine shaft to receive sacrificial offerings of alcohol, coca, cigarettes, llama blood, and other ritual items, from the miners in return for his goodwill and his guarantee of good health and good fortune in the mines.
All images of the Tío embody his greed and insatiability – his mouth is open to accept cigarettes and coca, his hand is outstretched for offerings of alcohol, his erect phallus betrays his voracity. Surrounding the images are streamers or bits of confetti from past rites and the remnants of the offerings that the miners have made to satiate the Tío's voracious appetite. When an icon goes unattended for some time, the miners say he becomes hungry and the section of the mine in which the icon is located becomes dangerous because the Tío hungers for human lives.
It seems likely that this ‘el tio’ is the result of a linguistic double mix-up. When the Spanish tried to explain their ‘God’ or ‘Dios’ to the Quechua they took little notice of the fact that in Quechua, the sound for ‘d’ doesn’t exist. So ‘dios’ became ‘tios’ or ‘tio’. Then later generations translated that back to ‘uncle’. I guess every family has one of those uncles!