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Culture of Chewing Coca: Origin in Enforced Slavery, Mercury Poisoning, Theft of Bolivia's Silver, and Colonial Spanish Genocide in Bolivia


The 1500s Expansion of Coca Chewing due to Evils of Spanish Colonialism


Coca leaf has been used for thousands of years in South America, much as a nutritional supplement through chewing (though maybe also used as a form of money in trade). However, in the 1500s, coca use spread "to the masses", as opposed to being used by the religious, aristocratic, and military classes. But this expansion, especially of coca chewing, had less to do with interests of the native Andeans (in parallel, the Spaniards were destroying much of their culture and religions, for example, destroying all of the quipus and the remains of Tiwanaku), and much more to do with many crimes committed by the Spanish colonialists dictated on Andeans, who were forced at swordpoint into slavery, and death, to mine silver for the wealth of Spain.

It is an ugly story, which must be told and re-told, especially as the modern Andean countries fight for greater coca use around the world, to share the many health benefits of coca. For such evangelization efforts in Europe, there should be no more vocal champions of legalized coca use than the people and government of Spain. It is an act of contrition that the Godos can perform to atone for the atrocities of their colonial past.


The Discovery of Silver in Bolivia (Potosi), and the Initial Co-Existence of Spanish and Incan Mining Businessmen


In the 1520s and 1530s, Francisco Pizarro and his followers completed their brutal invasion of Peru, with the bloody transfer of power from Atahualpa to Pizarro in 1532, along with the capture of Cuzco. One heinous legacy of this conquest was the exposure of the natives to smallpox, which lead to massive numbers of deaths, and weakening the health of those that survived. In the late 1530s and 1540s, Pizarro and his competitor, Diego de Almargo, turned their conquests south into the Altiplano, south of Cuzco. In 1538, Pizzaro's two brothers (Hernando and Gonzalo) established two towns near modern day Sucre in Bolivia (Spanish authorities in Lima didn't establish La Paz until 1548), in Porco, which had some silver.

In 1545, everything changed. Exploring rumors, Spanish conquistadors discovered the rich and extensive veins of silver in nearby Potosi, with its "Cerro Rico", creating a massive mining rush. For the next 20 years or so, everyone, Spaniards and native Andeans alike, benefitted from the silver mining, which at the time was the single richest source of a metal in the world. Initially, the Spaniards mined the easily accessible surface deposits, the 'tacana', the ores of which had a high percentage of silver. These ores were readily processable by a smelting technique which the native Andeans kept as a proprietary trade secret (the Andeans had invented portable wind ovens, 'huayras', which kept the silver from burning away when smelted). There were over 6000 open-hearth smelters controlled by the Andeans to, their profit, proftting alongside the Spaniards. A business harmony of a sort, with some Andeans becoming very wealthy.

Cerro Rico


Toledo Imports Mexican Mining Technology to Destroy the Inca's Profitable Monopoly on Smelting of Silver Ore


However, in the 1570s, conditions turned horrible for these Andeans. By the mid 1560s, much of the surface ore deposits had been mined, forcing more shaft mining, which had higher costs, and less pure ores that cost more to smelt. The Spaniards, fearing loss of much income, sent in the royal viceroy based in Lima, Francisco de Toledo. One of his first acts was to import a silver ore extraction technology from Mexico based on amalgamation of the ore with mercury. This destroyed the native Andean monopoly, and the 6000 native controlled open-hearth smelters were replaced by a few hundred mercury refining workshops controlled by the Spaniards. Toledo also seized, for royal control, the mercury mines at Huancavelica in Lower Peru (as well as requiring all of the mined silver to be minted at the royal mint in Potosi), leading to the complete control of silver mining by the Spaniards, and the complete exclusion of the native Andeans. Additionally, new mining laws were passed that favored the Spaniards (Klein, 41).


Toledo Demands Slavery of Bolivian Andeans to Satisfy Spanish Mining Demands


The transition to shaft mining was extremely costly for the Spaniards, especially because of the costs of labor of the miners. "To construct and maintain a proper mine shaft cost as much as it did to build a cathedral." [Klein, 42]. The Spaniards could not afford to pay the Andeans fair and reasonable wages, without drastically reducing their profits. So in 1570, Toledo ordered the enforced slavery of the Andeans (that is, the enforced slavery of natives not killed off 40 years earlier in the smallpox epidemic). And let's be honest, historians, it was slavery. Years later, Toledo died in jail in Spain, sadly, not for these crimes.

An Asshole's Death

Under the enforced slavery regime, Toledo demanded that one-seventh of the adult males in 16 districts from Potosi to Cuzco be forced to work in the mines, for a one year period, the 'mita' system. The native Andean slaves were paid next to nothing, not even enough for basic living needs, and had to supply their own food and transportation. Highly horrible for the Andeans (especially at the mercury mines in Huancavelica), since being sent to the mines was a virtual death warrant. But highly profitable for the Spaniards. From the 1570s to the 1650s, silver production soared at the Potosi mines. Half of the silver from the Americas came from Potosi. This stolen silver earned the Spaniards and Spanish crown hundreds of billions of dollars at today's prices, which funded its trade deficits with Asia. None of this would have been possible without the enforced slavery of the native Andeans and coca chewing. In part, the economy of modern Spain is built on their coca chewing.


How Mercury Poisoning of Andean Slaves, and Intolerable Working Conditions, Lead Spaniards to Promote Coca Use Amongst the Slaves


Prior to the enforced slavery of native Andeans for mining, the use of coca throughout what is now modern day Bolivia and Peru, was mostly a luxury in the diets of the Incan nobility, and used in religious ceremonies. The introduction of forced slavery in the mines greatly expanded the use of coca, for three reasons, while being used to alleviate another form of killing of native Andeans - the use of coca by the Spaniards to suppress hunger during outbreaks of famine.

First, Potosi is at an elevation of about 20,000 feet (about 6,000 meters), so that any physical activity, especially mining deep underground and carrying heavy sacks of ore on the backs of slaves, extremely arduous. The moderate stimulants provided by coca chewing made such work less arduous. The enforced slavery would not have been feasible or profitable without the expanded use of coca.

Inside Potosi Shafts

The horror of these working conditions can be seen in quotes of the times. "Some four years ago", wrote the Spaniard Domingo de Santo Tomás to the Council of the Indies in 1550, in a typical description, "to the complete perdition of this land, there was discovered a mouth of hell, into which a great mass of people enter every year and are sacrificed by the greed of the Spaniards to their ‘god’. This is your silver mine called Potosí.” Another Spaniard, Rodrigo de Loaisa, described the typical weeklong stint in the mines: “The Indians enter these infernal pits by some leather ropes like staircases ... Once inside, they spend the whole week in there without emerging, working with tallow candles. They are in great danger inside there ... If 20 healthy Indians enter on Monday, half may emerge crippled on Saturday." According to another Spaniard, Alfonso Messia, Indian laborers descended hundreds of feet into the mines, "where the night is perpetual. It is always necessary to work by candlelight, with the air thick and evil-smelling, enclosed in the bowels of the earth. The ascent and descent are highly dangerous, for they come up loaded with their sack of metal tied to their backs, taking fully four or five hours step by step, and if they make the slightest false step they may fall seven hundred feet."

Second, many Andeans experienced mercury poisoning from the mercury used in the refining process. The physiological weaknesses caused by this mercury poisoning were relieved in part by the expanded use of coca. In his book, "Mercury, Mines and Empires", Nicholas Robins documents how hundreds of thousands, mostly native Andean miners and their families, were poisoned and killed by use of mercury at Potosi that was obtained from the mercury mines at Huancavelica in Peru. Robins reviews these human rights and environmental crimes in: Mercury Production and Use in Colonial Andean Silver Production, (Environmental Health Perspectives, May 2012). Mercury poisoning is especially deadly to children, even to this day. Indeed, before the Spaniards arrive, the Incas had already banned the use of mercury for being too toxic.

Child Poisoned by Mercury

Third, the increased demand for coca lead to greater coca cultivation, in disease-ridden jungles of the Amazon, that led to appalling death rates, even with these slaves use of coca. Toledo solved this "problem" by importing 'camayos', African slaves, some of whose descendants are cultivating coca today in Boliva. So from mining to cultivation, the Spaniards profited while the native Andeans suffered and died.

In the centuries that followed, even after the end of slavery, the use of coca became part of the popular culture of Peru and Bolivia, with benefits that the Bolivians are now trying to bring to the entire world. It cannot be forgotten, then, that today's beneficial uses of coca flow directly from the deadly working conditions of the native Andeans under the enforced slavery of the Spaniards.


Spain's Moral and Political Debt to Modern Andean Desires to Legalize Coca Use


From the 1540s and 1590s, Spain stole over 300,000 pounds of gold, and 7.5 million pounds of silver, from their mines in Potosi (Bolivia) and Zacatecas (Mexico), worth between $1 and $10 trillion in today's money (HoS, 125), a theft that cost enormous suffering and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of native Andeans. This theft occurred at a time when the populations of Mexico and Bolivia together were comparable to the population of Spain. Had those monies remained in Mexico and Bolivia, then today these countries would be rich developed countries. Beyond moral and ethical debts modern Spain still owes Latin America, that this theft was based on coca-maintained slavery, leads to one moral and ethical imperative for modern day Spain. That is, in efforts to legalize coca use in Europe, the loudest and strongest champions of this public policy should be the government and people of Spain.

See related atonement argument: Europe still owes Caribbean countries reparations for crimes of colonial slavery, New York Times, 29 October 2013.

True, Spain suffered much economically despite this theft, under the gross mismanagement of King Felipe II, who spent beyond his means (most of the silver wealth was used to pay loans to bankers in Europe). Some of this waste included the costly building of a city far from any waterways (Madrid), fighting endless wars throughout Europe, and large expenses for personal properties - much of this funded with slavery of native Andeans made practical by coca chewing. The result, beyond the waste? In Spain, these stolen monies caused huge inflation, the collapse of local manufacturing, money diverted to government bonds instead of business investment, drops in agricultural productivity, smuggling and taxation corruption (HoS, 181). None of which is atonement for the theft and slavery that caused these problems. Again, the loudest and strongest champions of the goal of European legalization of coca use should be the government and people of Spain.


More on the Evil Legacy of Spain with regards to Potosi


An article in the 17 September 2014 edition of the New York Times reports on how today's miners at Potosi are also suffering: For miners, increasing risk on a mountain, Cerro Rico, at the heart of Bolivia's identity. And story: The ghosts of colonial Bolivia still haunt the mines of Potosi.

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