Ten thousand kilometres from my place of birth, beyond the Atlantic Ocean and soaring above the verdant Amazon jungle, on the arid mountain plateau of the Andes, where the lack of oxygen muddies your thoughts and the light is so strong it seems that the sun has been hooked and reeled closer to the earth, labours a broken city.
Spread haphazardly beneath the rusty red Cerro de Potosi, the looming mountain which simultaneously blesses and curses the city, lies a dusty plethora of terracotta roofed buildings, the colour blending with the surrounding hillside so that from a distance it appears as though the mountain has bled its contents into the valley; the corroded heart of the rock tarnishing everything within its reach. At this desolate altitude trees are limited and thus the beauty of those that do exist, in the plazas and churchyards, is unusually striking. The centre of the town echoes with faded wealth. Peeling paint and refuse-strewn avenidas do not hide the ghost of prosperity, which still lingers in the grandiose architecture of better times. The Cathedral is ornate and magnificent; there are many fine colonial buildings and a liberal scattering of venerated Iglesias, constructed centuries ago by the fiercely Catholic conquistadores, their bell towers and crucifixes silhouetted against the burnt ochre mountain.
This city was once renowned for its affluence. The envy of kings, this was the fabled land of riches, the financial resource of the Spanish empire. The pirate treasures of legend were mined here; wealth beyond the wildest dreams of men was extracted from the rocks and sent on the backs of humble llamas to the coast, where galleons transported their precious burden to Europe. A myth, lost in time, whispers that the city’s mint mark - the superimposed letters ‘PTSI’ - is the origin of the modern dollar symbol, such is the strength of the association with fortune.
How the mighty fall. Without doubt this settlement was a goliath of its age, but now, defeated by time, it is a mere shadow of its former glory, the splendour of the dwellings declining as the outskirts of the city are approached; from comfortable, to poor, to desperate. The mountain itself, blessed with abundant metal, is depleted, its profile decimated by the greedy hand of man. It is not love or faith that moves mountains, merely the insatiable thirst of the weak hearted.
It is strange how certain arrangements of atoms can be of such value to us, we who in reality are nothing more than advanced apes. Forty-seven protons, sixty or sixty-two neutrons (depending on your preferred stable isotope) all held together by the mysterious strong force and orbited by five shells of electrons that you can’t ever see, regardless of how hard you look for them: a substance that we call silver. In the history of this city, this particular arrangement of matter is worth more than that other mystifying item that cannot quite be explained by science, that is, a human life.
Around eight million people perished to extract this silver ore. This figure is historically accurate, without exaggeration or artistic licence, simply the horrific truth. The dead made the town rich; the devil consumed countless lives in his black mountain realm. An honourable Incan custom; a form of public service called Mit’a in Quechua, was defiled by the conquistadores who effectively transformed it into slave labour, forcing thousands of indigenous into a lifetime of toil. So many of this original workforce died that the Spanish imported millions of African slaves to supplement their labour force. Unlike other historical examples of human trafficking on a vast scale, there is chillingly no evidence of any descendant of these god-forsaken people in the city, such was the extent of death's reach.
The miners lived, worked, ate and slept underground for four months at a time, unforgiving twelve hour shifts in sweltering, dust riddled gloom with meagre food. The conditions in the mine were beyond abysmal, unimaginably brutal for even the most depraved mind. Life expectancy was barely forty years. Mining accidents, exposure and silicosis pneumonia eradicated thousands, and much of the remainder died painfully through mercury poisoning as a result of the silver extraction process. Words cannot account for the magnitude of human suffering that occurred in the depths of this mountain.
Today, in our modern age of medicine and communication, the conditions in the mine are little improved.