Atlantic History Mining, Gold, and Silver
Kris Lane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0084


The search for gold and silver spurred Atlantic exploration, and from the 15th to 19th centuries, mines in West Africa and what became Latin America supplied much of the world’s bullion supply. Early modern Atlantic-basin mining encompassed other, more prosaic minerals, including iron, copper, mercury, salt, and even petroleum tar, but historians have focused most attention on the precious metals of Ibero-America. This is apt considering their key role in Atlantic-basin economic development, and also because records regarding their production and transport are plentiful. Studies of Ibero-American precious metals for a long time focused on either mining labor or on tallying the amounts of gold and silver exported to Europe. More recently, scholars have explored other themes, including the importance of mining camps and towns in articulating regional economies and delimiting jurisdictions; the peculiarities of mining-town societies, including relatively fluid gender, class, and race relations; the environmental and health effects of preindustrial mining; and the lives of entrepreneurial mine owners. Others have recently studied the mining and export of lesser-known minerals, including gemstones. Scholars of bullion flows have turned their attention to quantifying the gold and silver that flowed not to Europe but to Asia, giving what was once a firmly Atlantic topic a global cast. West Africa’s fabled gold derived from alluvial deposits; men and women divided mining tasks in the agricultural off-season, turning over their yields to headmen and kings as tribute. Gold mines in colonial Spanish America and Brazil were also mostly of the streambed or alluvial variety and were typically staffed by enslaved Africans and their descendants. Silver mining, by contrast, was always an underground affair, usually reliant on drafted or paid Native American male workers. Enslaved Africans often engaged in silver refining and minting. Silver mining grew tremendously in scale and complexity in Spanish America beginning in the 1530s, and innovations in mercury amalgamation after 1554 spurred several mining booms, first in Mexico, then in the Andes. Indigenous demographic decline, however, plus falling ore quality and flooding led to busts. New finds after 1600 prompted new cycles, but the most productive silver mines remained those discovered in the 16th century. Key to reviving these mines was access to labor and credit rather than major technical improvements. The 18th century witnessed a revival of Mexico’s silver mines, in particular, as well as the expansion of slave-based gold mining in Brazil and in what is today Colombia. The 1849 California Gold Rush marked the beginning of a Pacific, and even global, era in mining history.

General Overviews

Mining has long attracted scholarly interest, especially among Latin Americanists and mining engineers, and some authors, such as Carlos Prieto, have attempted to appraise the early modern industry’s overall importance in hemispheric and even global terms (Prieto 1973). An older, history-of-science approach was taken by Bargalló 1955, which emphasized local technical innovations. Brading and Cross 1972 offered a concise structural overview of the colonial industry, emphasizing silver mining. Bakewell 1987 updated this approach based on extensive archival work, also discussing gold, and Tandeter 2006 offered an even more updated overview drawing in part on the author’s own work on the key district of Potosí. The essays in Craig and West 1994 link pre-Columbian and colonial mining trends, not just in precious metals, and the essays in Bakewell 1997 are valuable in part for encompassing the little-studied goldfields of precolonial West Africa as well as the better-known goldfields of Brazil. Sánchez, et al. 1997 ties Spanish American mining and refining technologies to mercury production in Spain, and offers a chapter on credit in late colonial Potosí. Rickard 1932 is a reminder of an older tradition that regarded American mining as mining in the United States.

  • Bakewell, Peter, ed. Mines of Silver and Gold in the Americas. Aldershot, UK: Variorum, 1997.

    A first-rate collection of reprinted essays on everything from medieval African gold caravans to early 19th-century Mexican silver beneficiation. Most of the essays are on Mexican and Peruvian silver mining, stressing labor and overall output.

  • Bakewell, Peter J. “Mining.” In Colonial Spanish America. Edited by Leslie Bethell, 203–249. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    An essential overview of mining in Spanish America by one of its most careful students, emphasizing silver but also treating gold placering.

  • Bargalló, Modesto. La minería y la metalurgía en la América española durante la época colonial. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1955.

    A classic survey in the history-of-science-and-technology tradition that focuses mostly on Mexican silver, but also treats Peruvian silver and mercury, plus Colombian gold.

  • Brading, D. A., and Harry E. Cross. “Colonial Silver Mining: Mexico and Peru.” Hispanic American Historical Review 52 (1972): 545–579.

    DOI: 10.2307/2512781

    A clear, schematic comparison of Mexican and south central Andean silver mining, treating geology, technology, crown intervention, capital structure, and labor.

  • Craig, Alan K., and Robert C. West, eds. In Quest of Mineral Wealth: Aboriginal and Colonial Mining and Metallurgy in Spanish America. Geoscience and Man 33. Baton Rouge: Geoscience Publications, Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University, 1994.

    A wide-ranging collection of essays by international scholars in geography, archeology, and history, covering mining and metallurgy from ancient to late colonial times. In addition to studies of Mexican and Peruvian silver, the volume includes work on ancient copper mines and colonial tar pits.

  • Prieto, Carlos. Mining in the New World. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.

    Easy to criticize for its naïve, heroic-nationalist argument, but still a rare attempt to synthesize and appraise colonial mining as a whole. Important material on Brazil was added by editor Marvin Bernstein. First published in Spanish in 1968.

  • Rickard, T. A. A History of American Mining. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1932.

    A triumphant account of US mining, with a short section on the colonial period, plus useful notes on 18th-century French and indigenous lead mining in the Mississippi Basin.

  • Sánchez Gómez, Julio, Guillermo Mira Delli-Zotti, and Rafael Dobado, eds. La savia del imperio: Tres estudios de economía colonial. Salamanca, Spain: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 1997.

    An oddly combined but valuable trio of essays on mining technology transfer to, and development within, Spanish America; the creation of the Bank of San Carlos in Potosí in 1751 and its effects; and the 18th-century production of mercury at Almadén (Spain) and the crown monopoly of its distribution in Mexico. Much abbreviated versions of these essays are translated in Craig and West 1994.

  • Tandeter, Enrique. “The Mining Industry.” In The Cambridge Economic History of Latin America. Vol. 1, The Colonial Era and the Short Nineteenth Century. Edited by Victor Bulmer-Thomas, John H. Coatsworth, and Roberto Cortés Conde, 315–356. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    A solid introduction to the topic of silver and gold mining in Latin America as a whole up to about 1850. Tandeter offers valuable insights into the troubled transition to industrial mining, mostly in British hands, that began immediately after independence in the 1820s.

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