Bolivian Sojourn: Potosi, By the Numbers

The story of the town of Potosi and its Cerro Rico ("Rich Hill"), the mountain of silver that bankrolled the Spanish Empire for two-and-a-half centuries, is one that can be told with numbers:

13,420 = The elevation (in feet) of Potosi, the highest city in the world, almost two and a half miles high.

1544 = The year (according to legend) that llama-herder Diego Huallpa, while keeping warm one night after searching for a lost llama, lit a fire at the base of Cerro Rico and saw liquid silver running from underneath it. The Spaniards soon were mining the mountain.
1572 = The year that Spanish Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, in an effort to boost sagging productivity, instituted La Ley de la Mita, whereby all indigenous and African workers over 18 would work 12 hour shifts, not leaving the mine for 4 months at a time.
1672 = The year a mint was established in Potosi in order to coin the silver.
1825 = The year of Bolivian Independence.
1908 = The year that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ventured to southwestern Bolivia to rob mining companies’ payroll accounts.
1987 = The year UNESCO named Potosi a “World Heritage Site” for its legacy of riches and misfortune.

14,000 = Population of Potosi in 1547, a few years after the Spanish learned about the silver within Cerro Rico.
200,000 = Population of Potosi around 1672, at the height of its wealth and population. For a time it was the richest and largest city in the Americas.
10,000 = Population of Potosi in 1825, at the time of Bolivian independence, once the silver had effectively run out.
140,000 = Population (approximate) of Potosi in 2009

0 = Number of experts who agree with each other on the amount of silver extracted from Cerro Rico during the colonial era. Here’s a sampling of estimates taken from the web, for varying time periods: 70,000 metric tons, 2 billion ounces, 45,000 tons, 62,000 metric tonnes, 137,000,000 pounds and 60,000 tons.
86 = Number of churches in Potosi at the height of its wealth in the late 1600’s.

8,000,000 = Estimated number of miners who have died between 1545 and 1825, mainly from silicosis pneumonia and accidents.
30,000 = Estimated number of African slaves imported to Potosi to work in the mines during the colonial era
115 = (Degrees Fahrenheit) routinely experienced in the 4th and 5th levels of the mine. To breathe easier, miners take off their protective masks, which further increase their chances of contracting silicosis pneumonia.
10-15 = (Years) Range of life expectancy of miners after starting work in Cerro Rico. Few miners live beyond 40.

1,124 = (US dollars) Yearly Gross Domestic Product (per capita) in Bolivia in 2006 (IMF)
3 = Rank of Bolivia amongst the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. (IMF; nominal GDP 2006)

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