Visual images of the Cerro Rico, Potosí’s silver-bearing mountain, circulated widely in European histories and travel narratives from the mid-16th century onwards. In addition to these published illustrations an array of cartographic images, ranging from basic sketches to formal maps, were created between the early 17th and late 18th centuries. Made by miners, mining officials, and military engineers, these images, which remained unpublished throughout the colonial era, are considerably less well-known and have received only limited scholarly attention.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 18th century. In addition to reflecting a newly flourishing cartographic culture in the Viceroyalty of Buenos Aires, the repeated mapping of the silver mountain in this era was the product of ongoing efforts to reform Potosí’s mining operations and, prominent among these reform efforts, to drive new adits (socavones) into the side of the mountain. These, it was hoped, would restore the mining site to its former opulence by draining the lower mines and opening access to unworked silver deposits that were believed by many to exist at the base of the Cerro Rico.
Heidi Scott examines how the maps of the silver mountain were created and deployed in support of competing visions of how the mines could be rehabilitated. At the same time, Scott suggests that 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 16th 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 much older traditions of knowledge.
Sponsored by the Department of History.