Incan Silver and Spanish Exploitation
The exploitation of the Incas under Spanish colonial institutions is a widely acknowledged abuse. Bartolome Arzans de Orsua y Vela in his book Tales of Potosi brings to light another dimension of this mistreatment: the Spaniards enabling of the abuse of coca by the exploited Indians as a means to increase productivity, which is an aspect that has been overlooked by many theorists up to this point. Abuse of coca expanded the wealth of the Spanish Crown through gains in Native productivity. In order to properly analyze Arzans de Orsua y Vela’s commentary, it is necessary to understand Spanish colonial institutions in relation to this topic. As noted in the textbook Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, “the Spaniards sought to exploit the wealth of indigenous empires,” and “the foremost measure of that wealth and power was the store of gold and silver that they could accumulate for themselves and the monarchs they served.”  In 1945 the Spaniards came across a mountain of silver at Cerro Rico de Potosi, and it became one of the Spanish Empires most lucrative conquests. The city that grew up around the mountain “was, for over a century, the largest city in the western hemisphere.” The immense amount of silver obtained from this single Spanish colony “pumped so much silver into the networks of European commerce that it transformed Europe’s relationship to all of its trading partners, especially those in China and India. It also shook up trade and politics within Europe itself.” In order to maximize profit from this silver deposit, a system of forced labor was utilized. Although Queen Isabella of Spain issued an edict in 1503 that prohibited chattel enslavement of Native Americans, “the Crown began to systematize grants or encomienda to conquistadors for control over Indian labor.” Under these encomiendas, Spaniards could force Indians to work without pay in their mines. This system allowed for many abuses of the native population by individual encomenderos, and the outcry against these abuses led Charles V to abolish the encomienda system in 1542. A new system, called mita, brought the forced laborers directly under Crown control in an effort to eliminate abuse by introducing guidelines over the entire system. With the mita system, however, the Spanish Crown merely adapted a system that was already in place throughout the Incan Empire. “When the Inca emperors needed labor for public works, they drafted it from the most conveniently located provinces.” These “calls for public service were rotated among families so that no man would have to serve a second time until the rest had had a turn.” The conquering Spaniards adapted this system to suit their needs. “Since mita labor had not received any direct wages under the Inca emperors, the conquerors saw no reason why they should pay any.” After a rebellion in 1553, The Spanish government mandated that mita labor should be paid but the rate was substantially less than free-laborers. The initial rules regarding mita labor restricted the enforcement to villages located within twenty leagues of the mineral deposit and imposed a limit of seven percent of the male population of the village to be forced to serve. Unfortunately, the mita system in Potosi, as set up by Viceroy Toledo in 1574, ignored these obligations and was much more extensive. “The mita for Potosi extended to 180 leagues from the deposits, and all the villages within this radius had to send an annual contingent of workers, which constituted 12-17% of the male tribute paying population.” Carlos Assadourian notes that “in both regions [Peru and New Spain] a high proportion of the workforce was made up of women and boys below the age of tribute; it was only in Peru that colonial authorities forced Indian communities to send contingents of old men, youths, and small boys.” This concept of forced labor at Potosi, besides extending far...
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