Labor in the Mines

Colonial texts abound with discussions of mining labor. Although many discussions revolved around the question of how to secure and discipline laborers, some members of colonial society questioned the morality of compelling people to work below ground. In the highland mining regions of Peru and Mexico, the workforce was principally composed of indigenous draft laborers and wage laborers. In low-lying tropical regions where gold was mined, for example in Brazil, African slaves usually constituted the main source of labor.


16. Pedro de Arenas, Vocabulario manual de las lenguas castellana, y mexicana. En que se contienen las palabras, preguntas y respuestas mas comunes, y ordinarias que se suelen ofrecer en el trato, y comunicacion entre Españoles e Indios (Mexico, 1668).

First published in 1611, this phrase book was intended to help Spaniards in New Spain to communicate with indigenous people in Nahuatl. The selected phrases include a wide variety of commands commonly given to indigenous laborers, including those who worked in the mines.


17. Chile, Nuevas ordenanzas de minas para el Reyno de Chile (Lima, 1757).

In colonial Peru a significant proportion of mining labor was supplied via a draft labor system known as the mita. In Chile, where the mita system was not used, mine owners and officials believed that wage laborers enjoyed too many freedoms and frequently defrauded their employers. These ordinances sought to exercise greater control over wage laborers in Chile's mines.


18. Spain, Código carolino de ordenanzas reales de las minas de Potosí ([1794]).

This voluminous manuscript mining code, intended for use at Potosí, never received royal approval. The draft ordinances, however, reflect the colonial administration's desire to implement closer regulation of labor conditions with a view to ensuring labor supply and productivity. Ordinance number 5 stipulates that mine owners must provide secure and comfortable housing for the indigenous draft laborers.


19. Fray Benito de Peñalosa y Mondragón, Libro de las cinco excelencias del español que despveblan a España para su mayor potencia y dilatacion. Ponderanse para que meior se aduierta[n] las causas del despueblo de España: y para que los lugares despoblados della, se habiten, y sean populosos (Pamplona, 1629).


20. Sebastián Sandoval y Guzman, Pretensiones de la villa imperial de Potosí, propuestas en el Real Consejo de las Indias (Madrid, 1634).

Both texts reflect competition over labor supply between different sectors of the colonial economy and the efforts of mine owners and of their allies to ensure access to indigenous workers. The Spanish friar Benito de Peñalosa y Mondragón opposed wine cultivation in Peru partly on the grounds that it would cause a shortfall of indigenous workers for the mines. Sandoval y Guzman, city attorney for Potosí, suggested it was essential to import enslaved Africans for plantation and agricultural labor to allow indigenous workers to be assigned exclusively to the mines.

  the Exhibition may be seen in the reading room from April 2015 through august 2015.