Invisible Miners in a Mountain of Mercury: Power and Local Archives in Colonial Huancavelica, Peru

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:30 PM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Mark Dries, Eastern Illinois University
As the only source of the mercury needed to efficiently refine silver in colonial Peru, the mining center of Huancavelica rose from obscurity to become a pillar of the Spanish imperial project in the Andes in the 1570s. In addition to occupying a central role in the mining economy, the use of forced labor in the toxic environment of the mercury mines made Huancavelica emblematic of the consequences of Spanish colonialism from the sixteenth century onward. Historians and colonial chroniclers alike have cited labor in Huancavelica as one of the most onerous colonial burdens. This narrative of the mines, based on documents produced by and for colonial officials in far off cities, reduces the Indigenous Andeans who lived and worked in the mines to the role of victims. This paper, in contrast, draws on the local archive in Huancavelica to document the importance of Indigenous Andeans not merely as laborers but as mine owners and operators in the early history of the mines. The partnerships between the local Andean population and Spanish entrepreneurs that made mining possible in 1560s laid the foundation for the inclusion of a group of Indigenous miners, known as the Indios Mineros, among those who received and exploited forced labor in the 1570s. Later, when circumstances threatened their position, the Indios Mineros leveraged their services to the crown to secure exemption from forced labor for their communities. The story of the Indios Mineros, visible only in the local documentary record, suggests the wealth of possibilities housed in numerous regional archives that remain in the small towns and villages of the Andes.
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