The Mapping of Potosi's Cerro Rico in the 17th and 18th Centuries

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 4:30 PM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Heidi V. Scott, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Visual images of the Cerro Rico, Potosí’s silver-bearing mountain, circulated widely in European histories and travel narratives from the mid-sixteenth century onwards. In addition to published illustrations an array of cartographic images, from basic sketches to formal maps, were created between the early seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries. Made by miners, officials, and military engineers, these images, which remained unpublished throughout the colonial era, are considerably less well-known and have received limited scholarly attention. They offer, however, substantive insights into colonial map-making, into the use of maps in the context of mineral exploitation, and, along with the written texts that accompany them, into prevailing understandings of Potosí’s mountain and its geology.

The majority of extant maps of the Cerro Rico were made in the second half of the eighteenth century. In addition to reflecting a newly flourishing cartographic culture in the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata, the repeated mapping of the silver mountain was the product of ongoing efforts to reform and rehabilitate Potosí’s mining operations and in particular to drive new adits (socavones) into the mountain. These, it was hoped, would restore the site to its former opulence by draining the lower mines and opening access to unworked silver deposits believed by many to exist at the base of the Cerro Rico.

In this presentation, I consider how maps were created and deployed in support of competing visions of how the mines could be rehabilitated. At the same time, I show how these Enlightenment-era cartographic images grew out of and perpetuated understandings and debates about the Cerro Rico that were already in evidence in the late sixteenth century. Just as the late Bourbon era brought new modes of thinking about geology and mineral formation, so too it witnessed the perpetuation and redeployment of older traditions of knowledge.

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