spain and mexico's silver curse -- 11/12/19

Today's selection -- from The Mexican Wars for Independence by Timothy J. Henderson. Under Spain in the 1700s, Mexico became the largest producer of silver in the world through the direction of the Spanish king's agent, José de Gálvez. And yet Spain's world-leading horde of gold and silver only served to weaken it on the international stage as its easy wealth distracted it from developing the industrial capabilities of the dawning Industrial Revolution:

"Gálvez was ... keen to revive the mining of silver, a metal he believed gave 'spirit and movement to all human occupations and to the universal commerce of the globe.' To that end, he halved the price and increased supplies of mercury, a necessary ingredi­ent in the amalgamation process that separates pure silver from ore. (Mexico's miners were entirely dependent on Spain for their supplies of mercury, which were mined at Almaden in central Spain.) He also granted a variety of tax reductions and exemp­tions to miners, set up special courts to hear mine-related cases, created a credit bank and a mining college, issued a new mining code, and rewarded successful miners with titles of nobility.

Portrait of Gálvez, 1785

"The results were spectacular. Although mining remained a no­toriously risky and expensive enterprise -- only two out of every ten speculators in Mexico's silver mines ever realized a profit -- for the lucky few who succeeded the rewards were handsome indeed. The Count of Valenciana spent a fortune and several decades sinking the world's deepest mine shafts into a forlorn hill in Gua­najuato, eventually striking veins that alone yielded more silver than the combined output of Peru and Bolivia. The Count of Regla, who began his career as a poor Spanish immigrant, became the wealthiest man in the world: so wealthy he was able to make the Spanish government a gift of two fully equipped war­ships, and could boast that, should the king ever visit Mexico, he would travel the nearly three hundred miles from the coast to the capital on a road paved entirely with silver ingots. By the late eigh­teenth century, Mexico was producing ten times more silver than all of the mines of Europe -- fully two-thirds of all the silver mined in the world. Sixteen mine owners were elevated to the nobility."


Timothy J. Henderson


The Mexican Wars for Independence


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2009 by Timothy J. Henderson


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