Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
Home

Workers' Health and Colonial Mercury Mining at Huancavelica, Peru*

  • Kendall W. Brown (a1)

Extract

Mining had far-reaching ecological consequences throughout much of colonial Spanish America. It deformed the landscape, introduced pollutants such as sulfur, mercury and salt into the biosphere, and caused human settlement of sparsely populated or uninhabited regions. Forests succumbed to the charcoal makers' axes. Workers' lungs filled with silicosis-causing dust. Cave-ins snuffed out lives or crippled those they spared.

As unhealthy as mining was elsewhere in Spanish America, it was reported to have been especially harmful in the central Andes at Huancavelica. Workers there suffered the common diseases and injuries associated with the industry such as respiratory disease and broken limbs. They also had to overcome the challenges of arduous labor at high altitude. Most pernicious of all was the toxic nature of the mercury they were mining. Colonial critics asserted that Huancavelica was an environmental tragedy that placed workers in exceptionally dangerous conditions in order to produce the mercury needed by silver refiners to amalgamate and refine their ores. The critics claimed that the mercury mines' human cost was immoral, yet their cries of despair and outrage could not overcome quicksilver's crucial importance to the imperial economy. Killing and maiming, Huancavelica earned for itself an infamous reputation as the mina de la muerte (the mine of death).

Copyright

Footnotes

Hide All
*

The author is grateful for the helpful advice and suggestions of Enrique Tandeter, Alan Craig, John Fisher, Carlos Contreras, Noble David Cook, and the journal's anonymous reviewers, in addition to the financial support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Brigham Young University, which made the research possible.

Footnotes

References

Hide All

1 Historians of colonial Latin America are paying more attention to colonial ecology, as seen, for example, in the studies of Melville, Elinor K., A Plague of Sheep (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); and Murrieta, Cynthia Radding, Wandering Peoples: Colonialism, Ethnic Spaces, and Eco-logical Frontiers in Northwestern Mexico, 1700–1850 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997). A work that studies health conditions at the Almadén mercury mines is Navarro, Alfredo Menéndez, Un mundo sin sol. La salud de los trabajadores de ¡as minas de Almadén, 1750–1900 (Granada: Universidad de Granada, 1996). For colonial Brazil, see Miller, Shawn, Fruitless Trees: Portuguese Conservation and Brazil’s Colonial Timber (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

2 An excellent examination of charcoal-making to serve colonial silver smelters near San Luis Potosí in Mexico is Guadalupe Salazar González, “Las carboneras, para las haciendas de beneficio por fundición en la región minera de San Luis Potosí, siglo XVII,” unpublished paper presented at the IV Congreso Internacional de la Historia de la Minería (Guanajuato: Mexico, 1998).

3 General histories of Huancavelica include Whitaker, Arthur P., The Huancavelica Mercury Mine: A Contribution to the History of the Bourbon Renaissance in the Spanish Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941); and Villena, Guillermo Lohmann, Las minas de Huancavelica en los siglos xvi y xvii (Sevilla: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, 1949). Although Lohmann does not provide a systematic analysis of environmental conditions at Huancavelica, his book contains many references to the dangers that workers confronted. Also see Catala, José Sala, “Vida y muerte en la mina de Huancavelica durante la primera mitad del siglo XVIII,” Asclepio 39 (1987), pp. 193204.

4 Cobo, Bernabé, Inca Religion and Customs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), p. 45; and Georg, Petersen G., Minería y metalurgían el el antiguo Perú (Lima: Museo Nacional de Antropología y Arqueología, 1970), p. 6.

5 Prior to the Spaniards’ arrival, the Incas had required adult males to take turns laboring on public projects. Toledo adapted this custom, called mit’a or turn, to create the colonial mita.

6 From there the size of the Huancavelica mita gradually declined: to 3,000 in 1586, 2,274 in 1590, 1,600 in 1604, 2,300 in 1610, 2,200 in 1618, 1,400 in 1623, and 620 in 1645, where it remained for the rest of the colonial period. Lohmann Villena, Minas de Huancavelica, pp. 74, 101–103, 120, 145, 222–223, 266, 331–332. Of course, this was the quantity of mitayos the government contracted to provide the guild, and the provinces often failed to supply the stipulated number.

7 See, for example, the asiento or contract with the guild for 1623 (AGI, Lima 39, libro 2, attach-ment to letter no. 16, fol. 7r-13v); and for 1747–1753, “Raçón de las mitas concurrentes a Huancavel-ica,” Archivo Municipal de Huancavelica [hereinafter AMH], Expedientes coloniales, legajo 16.

8 See, for example, the asiento, or contract, between the mine operators and government negotiated in 1573, fol. 61r, Archivo General de las Indias [hereinafter AGI], Lima 463; and letter from Alvaro Vargas de Pecellín, 1599, AGI, Lima 116.

9 Alvaro Vargas de Pecellín to king, 30 December 1598, AGI, Lima 116.

10 Gaspar de Carvajal, Alonso de la Cerda and Miguel Adrián to the king, 7 March 1575, AGI, Indiferente General 314.

11 Alonso Pérez Merchán to the king, 2 December 1605, AGI, Lima 94.

12 Report of Pedro Osores de Ulloa, 5 Feb 1608, fol. 154, Biblioteca Nacional (Madrid) [hereinafter BNM] Ms. 3041.

13 Agia, Miguel, Servidumbres personales de indios (Sevilla: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Ameri-canos, 1946), p. 62.

14 Report of Damián de Jeria, 10 January 1604, AGI, Lima 34.

15 See, for example, bishop of Huamanga to the king, 27 January 1625, AGI, Lima 308.

16 “Memorial del capitán don Pedro Gutiérrez Calderón de algunas advertencias considerables al servicio de Dios,” 2 May 1623, AGI, Lima 154.

17 Velasco to the king, 5 May 1600, AGI, Lima 34.

18 Velasco to the king, 2 May 1601, AGI, Lima 34.

19 Navarro, Alfred Menéndez, “El Real Hospital de Mineros de Almadén: Génesis y florecimiento de un proyecto asistencial, 1752–1809,” Dynamis 10 (1990), p. 96.

20 Report of Damián de Jeria, 10 January 1604, AGI, Lima 34.

21 Alonso Pérez Merchán to the king, 2 December 1605, AGI, Lima 94.

22 Report of Damián de Jeria, 10 January 1604, AGI, Lima 34.

23 Report of Pedro Osores de Ulloa, 5 February 1608, fol. 151, BNM 3041.

24 “Copia de ciertas cartas que tratan del desmonte y otras operaciones en dichas minas,” 1605, AGI, Patronato 239, ramo 40.

25 Report of Pedro Osores de Ulloa, 5 February 1608, fol. 162, BNM 3041 ; and bishop of Huamanga to the king, 27 January 1625, AGI, Lima 308.

26 Chinchón to the king, 2 February 1630, AGI, Indiferente General 1777.

27 Franqués, José Parés y, Catástrofe morboso de las minas mercuriales de la villa de Almadén del Azogue [1778], ed. by Navarro, Alfredo Menéndez (Cuenca: Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, 1998), p. 114.

28 Analysis of Andean mummies indicates that tuberculosis in the Andes predated the Conquest. See, for example, Allison, M.J., “Paleopathology in Peruvian and Chilean Populations,” in Cohen, M.N. and Armelagos, G.J., eds., Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture (Orlando: Academic Press, 1984), pp. 531558; Allison, M.J., Mendoza, D., and Pezzia, A., “Documentation of a Case of Tuberculosis in Pre-Columbian America,” American Review of Respiratory Diseases 107 (1973), pp. 985991; and Allison, M.J., Gerszten, E., et al, “Tuberculosis in Pre-Columbian Andean Populations,” in Buikstra, J.E., ed., Prehistoric Tuberculosis in the Americas (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1981), pp. 4961.

29 “Memorial del capitán don Pedro Gutiérrez Calderón de algunas advertencias considerables al servicio de Dios Nuestro Señor y de su Real Magestad,” 2 May 1623, AGI, Lima 154.

30 Parés, Catástrofe morboso, pp. 183–184.

31 Parés, Catástrofe morboso, pp. 183–184.

32 “Copia del informe que Don Constantino de Vasconcelos hizo,” 4 July 1645, attached to Mancera to the king, 12 November 1645, AGI, Lima 52.

33 de Ulloa, Antonio, Noticias americanas, entretenimiento físico-histórico sobre la América Meridional y la Septentrional oriental (Buenos Aires: Editorial Nova, 1944), p. 221.

34 Ulloa, , Noticias americanas, pp. 219220.

35 Representation of Domingo de Luna, Protector General de los Indios, number 5, 30 May 1629, AGI, Lima 160.

36 Report of Damián de Jena, 10 January 1604, AGI, Lima 34.

37 “Parecer del médico Emetherio Ramírez de Arellano sobre las enfermedades de las minas de Huancavelica,” 8 April 1649, AGI, Lima 279.

38 Fernando de Córdoba y Figueroa to the king, 7 June 1623, AGI, Lima 154.

39 By, among other things, proposing mercury as a treatment for syphillis.

40 Paracelsus, , Four treatises of Theophrastus von Hohenheim, called Paracelsus, ed. by Sigerist, Henry E. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1941), p. 83.

41 Report of Joseph de Ribera, 1 July 1608, fol. 117–8, BNM, MS 3041.

42 Rosen, George, The History of Miners’ Diseases: A Medical and Social Interpretation (New York: Schuman’s, 1943), pp. 83121, surveys early modern theories about mercury and mercury poisoning.

43 The hospital originally opened with a royal subsidy of 1,500 pesos per year, which was soon raised to 4,000 pesos. “Petición de Juan Racionero sobre el hospital fundado en Huancavelica y la concesión de título de villa,” 14 November 1588, AGI, Lima 123.

44 Report of Damián de Jeria, 10 January 1604, AGI, Lima 34.

45 Rosen, George, History of Miners’ Diseases, p. 106.

46 Parés, Catástrofe morboso, p. 102.

47 In her study of convicts forced to work at the crown’s Almadén mercury mines, Ruth Pike concludes that “most of the men who labored continuously at the furnaces died from mercury poisoning.” Pike, , “Penal Labor in Sixteenth-Century Spain: The Mines of Almadén,” Societas 3:3 (1973), p. 203.

48 Lohmann, Villena, Minas, pp. 129130.

49 Lohmann, Villena, Minas, pp. 301304. Saavedra Barba called his invention the “dragon” oven. With minor enhancements it became the standard distilling technology at Huancavelica for the remainder of the colonial period. It was also adopted at Almadén in the 1640s when Juan Alonso de Bustamante, who had seen it in operation in Peru, introduced the new technique in Spain as his own discovery.

50 “Autos sobre el asiento celebrado entre los mineros de Huancavelica y el gobierno superior para el trabajo de las minas de azogue,” 1598, AGI, Lima 116.

51 At least most of the documentary references to it date from that period. See, for example, “Los autos seguidos sobre el nuebo prollecto que el Gl Dn Gaspar de la Serda y Leiba, Govr de Huancavelicaha formado para que arreglado a el se trabaje aquella mina en forma de Compañía por el litre Gremio,” undated, Archivo General de la Nación (Lima) [hereinafter AGNL], Minería 35; Cerda y Leyba to Ensenada, 20 January 1752, AGI, Lima 775; and Cerda y Leyba to General Superintendent of Azogues, 20 January 1752, Library of the Royal Palace [Madrid], MS 2864.

52 Quoted in Goldwater, Leonard John, Mercury; a History of Quicksilver (Baltimore: York Press, 1972), pp. 268269.

53 D’Itri, Patricia A. and D’Itri, Frank M., Mercury Contamination: A Human Tragedy (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1977), p. 121.

54 Parés, Catástrofe morboso, p. 97, reported this situation for late eighteenth-century Almadén. Similar conditions probably existed at Huancavelica.

55 Mancera to the King, no. 18,31 May 1640, AGI, Lima 50; and Lohmann Villena, Minas, pp. 308–312.

56 Indeed governors prohibited.the local population from setting off large fireworks, fearing the percussion might endanger the mine. “Instrucción,” appended to Márquez de la Plata to Gálvez, 20 April 1785, AGI, Lima 1329.

57 Lohmann, Villena, Minas, p. 311.

58 Mancera to the king, no. 2, 12 June 1642, AGI, Lima 51.

59 “Parecer del médico Emetherio Ramírez de Arellano sobre las enfermedades de las minas de Huancavelica,” 8 April 1649, AGI, Lima 279.

60 “Relación de Juan Luis López,” fol. 366, BNM, 2784.

61 López de the viceroy, 16 March 1686, in “Relación de Juan Luis López,” fol. 447–448, BNM, 2784.

62 Angulo to the Audiencia of Lima, in “V.E. manda se cierran las fundiciones de azogue de la villa de Huancavelica y que no se abran sin especial orden de este superior gobierno,” 28 March 1716, Biblioteca Nacional (Lima) [hereinafter BNL], C1057.

63 “Consulta del Consejo de Indias sobre la propuesta hecha por el Príncipe de Santobuono de cerrar la mina de Huancavelica y remitir el azogue desde España, “ 26 February 1720, fol. 22, AGI, Lima 350; and Kendall W. Brown, “La crisis financiera peruana al comienzo del siglo XVIII, la minería de plata y la mina de azogues de Huancavelica,” Revista de Indias 48:182–183 (1988), pp. 375–378.

64 Marqués de Casa Concha, “Relación del Estado que ha tenido, y tiene la Real Mina de Guancavelica. Y los intereses de la Real Hacienda, en las dependencias del Azogue, que haze el Marques de Casaconcha al Señor Doctor Don Alvaro Cabero su succesor en los cargos de Governador de Guancavelica, y Superintendente de la Rl. Mina y Caja,” 1726, paragraph 50, AGI, Lima 469.

65 Viceroy Castelfuerte to the king, 24 November 1724, AGI, Lima 411.

66 Brown, Kendall W., “La recepción de la tecnología minera española en las minas de Huancavelica, siglo XVIII,” in Cueto, Marcos, ed., Saberes andinos: ciencia y tecnología en Bolivia, Ecuador y Perú (Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 1995), pp. 7071.

67 Sola y Fuente to Marquis of Ensenada, 19 July 1750, AGI, Lima 1326.

68 Report of Pedro Bravo de Rivera, 24 April 1749, in “Expediente relativo a la provisión de azogue de España a las minas que utilizaban el de Huancavelica,” 1748–1749, AGI, Lima 1326.

69 Ulloa, , Noticias americanas, p. 222.

70 Beranger to the king, 8 December 1764, AGI, Lima 1327.

71 Report annexed to Ulloa to the king, 28 October 1765, AGI, Lima 775.

72 By the latter half of the eighteenth century, the amount paid per missing mitayo varied from province to province, apparently depending on the rate negotiated between the local corregidor and the Huancavelica guild. Some paid as little as 25 pesos per mitayo, others as much as 90 pesos. See, for example, “Expediente sobre la repulsa de las Provincias y Partidos a contribuir a las mitas para la mina de azogue de Huancavelica,” 1780–1812, fol. 1, 8, AGI, Lima 1334.

73 Pedro de Tagle to Viceroy Gil, no. 22, 29 May 1790, in “Libro de correspondencia de oficio conel Exmo Señor Virrey de estos Reynos por don Pedro de Tagle, 1789–1790, AGI, Lima 1352.

74 International Programme on Chemical Safety, Inorganic Mercury, Environmental Health Criteria 118 (Geneva: World Health Organization, 1991), p. 59.

75 See the report included with Ulloa to Charles III, 28 October 1765, AGI, Lima 775. On a tour of the Almadén facilities in 1987, I asked an engineer how they treated azogados. By putting them in a sauna, he responded. Either medical technology has not improved since the 1700’s or the Peruvians had stumbled upon something.

76 Parés, Catástrofe morboso, p. 135.

77 “Expediente sobre el precio de los barrenos,” 1786–1787, AGI, Lima 1330.

78 “Relación sobre el origen y progreso de la Real Mina de Azogue de S. M. y Villa de Guancavelica,” BNL, C1984.

79 “Expediente formado sobre el informe por este Gobierno al Excmo. Sr. Virrey para el arreglo de la mita que viene en gente para el trabajo de esa Real Mina y la nombrada de Faltriquera,” 1793, BNL, C1674; and Report of Ruiz de Castilla, 28 December 1793, fol. 39, in “Expediente sobre la repulsa delas Provincias y Partidos a contribuir a las mitas para la mina de azogue de Huancavelica,” 1780–1812, AGI, Lima 1335.

80 “Autos seguidos sobre el nuebo prollecto que el Gl Dn Gaspar de la Serda y Leiba, Govr de Huancavelica ha formada para que arreglado a el se trabaje aquella mina en forma de Compañía por el litre Gremio,” fol. 10Iv-102r, AGNL, Minería 35.

81 See, for example, the oven sites identified on the map “Primer Plano Geométrico y Prospectos,” AGI, Mapas y Planos, Perú y Chile 225.

82 Diegues, Antônio Carlos, “Os impactos da mineraçâo sobre as áreas úmidas da Amazônia e suas populaçôes humanas,” in Barbosa, Lívia, Lobato, Ana Lucia and Drummond, José Augusto, eds., Garimpo, Meio Ambiente e Sociedades Indígenas (Niterói, Brazil: EDUFF), p. 15.

83 Methylmercury, p. 69.

84 Y, Reiko, Rikuo, Doi R, et al, “Residual Neurobehavioral Effects Associated with Chronic Exposure to Mercury Vapor,” Occupational & Environmental Medicine 51:1 (January 1994), pp. 3541.

85 Andersen, A., Ellingsen, D.G., et al, “A Neurological and Neurophysiological Study of Chloralkali Workers Previously Exposed to Mercury Vapour,” Acta Neurologica Scandinavia 88:6 (December 1993), pp. 427433.

86 Kishi, Reiko, Rikuo, Doi R, et al, “Subjective Symptoms and Neurobehavioral Performances of ExMercury Miners at an Average of 18 Years of the Cessation of Chronic Exposure to Mercury Vapor. Mercury Workers Study Group,” Environmental Research 62:2 (1993), pp. 289302. Eighteenth-century workers at Almadén reported that after coitus they felt “terrible pains in the region of the chest, the effect having begun to be felt with a dull pain that soon became piercing.” Parés, Catástrofe morboso, p. 146.

87 Rowland, A.S., et al, “The Effect of Occupational Exposure to Mercury Vapour on the Fertility of Female Dental Assistants,” Occupational & Environmental Medicine 51:1 (January 1994), pp. 2834.

88 Kobal, A. and Dizdarevic, T., “The Health Safety Programme for Workers Exposed to Elemental Mercury at the Mercury Mine in Idrija,” Water, Air and Soil Pollution 97 (1997), pp. 169184.

89 Report of Damián de Jeria, 10 January 1604, AGI, Lima 34.

90 “Situación de la mita a Huancavelica. Se examina largamente el caso de la provincia de Vil-cashuamán, y la mita, 1694–170¾” AMH, Expedientes Coloniales, Siglo XVII, legajo 23.

91 Tascón, Antonio Matilla, Historia de las minas de Almadén, vol. II: Desde 1646 a 1799 (Madrid: Instituto de Estudios Fiscales and Minas de Almadén y Arrayanes, 1987), pp. 7374.

92 Pike, “Penal Labor,” pp. 203–205.

93 González, Rafael Dobado provides an overview of health problems at Almadén in the second half of the eighteenth century, in “El trabajo en las minas de Almadén, 1750–1855” (PhD dissertation, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 1989), pp. 684727.

94 Superintendent of Almadén to Patiño, 11 July 1736, AGI, Indiferente General 1781.

95 “Quentas de la Cárzel de los Forzados y Esclavos,” 1721–1737, AGI, Contaduría, 1014. The administration at Almadén provided the crown with annual reports of the number of convicts and slaves on hand, the number received, the number who died, and the number freed, along with occasional comments about their condition.

96 The Almadén hospital, built in the second half of the eighteenth century to serve miners and their families, devoted a sizeable part .of its resources to caring for the victims of such epidemics. Menéndez Navarro, “El Real Hospital,” pp. 103–130. The infirmary, dating from 1568, focused its attention primarily on the forzados and slaves.

97 Pedro Camargo to the king, 12 March 1595, AGI, Lima 35.

98 The most serious attempt to use convict labor at Huancavelica occurred during the governorship of the Marquis of Casa Concha in the 1720s. See “Relación del Estado que ha tenido,y tiene la Real Mina de Guancavelica. Y los intereses de la Real Hacienda, en las dependencias del Azogue, que haze el Margues de al Señor Doctor Don Alvaro Cabero su succesor en los cargos de Governador de Guancavelica, y Superintendente de la Rl. Mina y Caja,” 1726, paragraphs 98–106, AGI, Lima 469.

99 The most notable attempt to use prisoners for labor at Huancavelica occurred during the governorship of the Marquis of Casaconcha, in the mid–1720s. When ordered to abolish the mita at Huan-cavelica, he built a jail near the mine entrance to house convict labor. But the prisoners were too few in number and too costly to guard to make them a practical solution to the labor shortage. When Casaconcha reinstituted the mita, he abandoned the use of convicts. See, for example, “Testimonio de la real cédula que reglamenta el trabajo de los indios al servicio de la mita,” 1733, BNL, C4387. Once the government abolished the guild and began operating the mine itself in the 1780s, talk of utilizing convict labor resumed, but the state did not implement it. “Expediente sobre establecimient de tropa reglada para resguardo de la mina de Huancavelica e intereses de la Real Hacienda que en ella se custodian, propuesto por Fernando Márquez de la Piata, gobernador intendente de aquella villa,” 1786–1790, AGI, Lima 1332. Neither the crown nor the viceroy supported the proposal.

* The author is grateful for the helpful advice and suggestions of Enrique Tandeter, Alan Craig, John Fisher, Carlos Contreras, Noble David Cook, and the journal's anonymous reviewers, in addition to the financial support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Brigham Young University, which made the research possible.

Workers' Health and Colonial Mercury Mining at Huancavelica, Peru*

  • Kendall W. Brown (a1)

Metrics

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed