I had the pleasure of visiting the “House of Money” today in Potosi, Bolivia. The real name is the “Museo Casa de la Moneda” and it was originally built in the 1570’s and rebuilt in the 1800’s. It was the original Spanish Colonial Mint and today acts as a museum showcasing how the money was created back in the day as well as showcasing some local history and whatnot.
I’m not a big museum guy but I didn’t hesitate to visit this place when the opportunity became available. Basically there were something like 25 active mines during the few hundred years of Spanish Colonial times and the biggest one was Potosi Mountain aka Cerro Rico aka “Rich Mountain”. As a result, the money for Spain was being created here at the source and shipped overseas.
Supposedly somewhere between 4 and 6 million local indigenous people died during the era as they were working the mines. They would be paid one of the smallest coins for 36 hours of labor inside a mine, it’s mind boggling when you think about it and a mule would cost 8 of those coins. The first coins were really primitive and made with some vices and a hammer and as time went on, so did the technology used.
For part of the time they had gents melting the silver into blocks, then these massive machines that crushed the silver into a thinner /stronger piece before being pressed into coins. These machines were massive and the original one was imported from Buenos Aires, Argentina after it came from Spain. The rest were made locally and quite a sight to see.
They would have mules spinning the turbine of sorts that would power four machines 24 hours a day. Each machine had an indigenous person operating them. The labor was intense on the mules and they would die every few months and supposedly the floors were covered in blood from the harnesses; an eerie place to say the least. Also intense was the safety gear the workers used to wear in the mines if you want to call it safety gear…
In Wikipedia it says they used 20 African slaves instead of the four mules but that is false. The slaves were bought from Brazil and very expensive therefor mainly used for in and around the homes of the ultra-rich or helping with the boiling of the silver before making it into blocks. Slaves were expensive and so were mules so sadly it was the local people who took the brunt of the deadly and dangerous jobs.
Something beyond cool were the original strong boxes used to transport the gold. They were like booby trapped boxes where if you put the key in the wrong hole it would break. Only the person on the other side of the ocean know how to open the correctly. Often there would be 12 locks reinforcing the top of the box shut controlled by one key. They were also massive and so heavy that I can’t imagine transporting them filled with metals.
Everything about this place was intense from the stone they used which still stands today to the lumber they imported from all over S. America and had mules, slaves and locals transport by dragging it, hundreds of miles at times. In the 1800’s they fixed it up a bit and added brick but the floors are all the same and above the area where the silver was heated you still see the dark black stains.
After this part of the tour we saw some of the old weapons used in random wars the Bolivians fought and sadly lost. We also saw a host of minerals pulled form the mines as well as mummified babies from hundreds of years ago; some around here believed in the afterlife as well and tried to preserve bodies as well as possible.
Something else of interest was the elongated skulls of Inca elite; they would put pressure on the skulls from an early age and by the time they were older it almost looked alien like. After that we saw some interesting uses of silver before the tour ended. The tour cost about $5 or so and an additional $3 if you wanted to take pictures.
Very cool tour and recommend it if you should find yourself in the fine city of Potosi.