Atlantic History Miners
Kris Lane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0088


Humans mined and refined gold, silver, copper, tin, and other minerals long before Columbus first crossed the Atlantic in 1492. But it was only after that year that mining, especially of precious metals, became an activity of transoceanic and ultimately global importance. Miners mattered more than ever. Europe in the time of Columbus was experiencing a bullion shortage, offset only partially by the gold of sub-Saharan Africa and the silver of central Europe. Base metals such as iron, lead, and copper were mined in Sweden, Finland, Wales, and Spain, and Cornwall in southwest England was long famous for its tin. We know very little about gold, copper, or iron mining in medieval or early modern Africa, but in parts of Europe bona fide mining cultures emerged after 1450, and miners and refiners from Tyrolia, Cornwall, the Basque Country, and other enclaves began to migrate—first to the Americas and then beyond. The Americas had their own indigenous mining traditions, especially in Mesoamerica and the Andes, but it was only with the arrival of Europeans that tens of thousands of workers were forced to take up mining as a livelihood. Whereas European miners were generally free, miners in the Americas were often coerced and either enslaved or drafted. Forced labor faded in some regions, but even in 18th-century Virginia large crews of enslaved Africans mined and refined iron. In the Caribbean, colonialism began with Europeans forcing native peoples and enslaved Africans to mine for gold and to dive for pearls. Some Africans may have had prior experience in metals mining and refining, and some became blacksmiths. Abusive treatment of indigenous mineworkers led the Spanish crown to establish a system of quasi-serfdom known as the encomienda, by which tribute could be paid in gold dust and later silver. By contrast, Africans and their descendants were treated in the Roman fashion as war captives “condemned to mine.” Penal labor was practiced in Spain itself in the mercury mines of Almadén, which grew dramatically following the American discoveries. The 1519–1538 conquests of Mesoamerica and the Andes opened new mineral frontiers, most famously the great silver mines of Potosí (Bolivia), discovered in 1545. Mercury deposits were found soon after at Huancavelica, Peru. Mercury enabled silver production on a huge scale, ending Europe’s so-called bullion famine. By the 1570s, Spanish officials organized indigenous draft systems, most famously the Andean mita, a revival of the Inca corvée system. The Potosí mita sent over 10,000 Andean workers annually to the silver mines and refineries. The Huancavelica mercury mine draft was smaller, but work there was far more deadly. Gold mines in lowland Spanish America and Brazil were typically staffed by enslaved Africans and their descendants, but the silver districts of the Andes and Mesoamerica witnessed a general shift away from indigenous drafts toward wage work. Mining in Europe and Africa generally declined as American mining grew in the late 16th century, but this reversed with the Industrial Revolution, when demand shot up for coal, iron, base metals, and salts. Miners thereafter formed the backbone of many European working classes.

General Overviews

Mining in the greater Atlantic basin has been a topic of long-standing scholarly interest, although works focusing specifically on the history of mining labor have faded some since the 1980s. The most recent overview to put worker concerns at the center is Brown 2012. Brown focuses on the colonial Andes, but he also covers early modern trends in mining and refining in western Europe and the Americas. The collection of essays in Bakewell 1997 includes valuable pieces on labor, with a rare foray into the gold diggings of West Africa, and Bakewell 1987 and Brading and Cross 1972 contain useful discussions of colonial labor patterns, mostly for Spanish America. Tandeter 2006 does this in a more up-to-date way. Prieto 1973 focuses mostly on technical aspects but includes sections on mine labor across the region. Waszkis 1993 offers a more recent hemispheric overview, but it is similarly focused more on technology. Several essays in Craig and West 1994 treat mine labor, although it is not the main focus of the volume.

  • 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.

  • Bakewell, Peter J., 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.

  • Brading, David, and Harry Cross. “Colonial Silver Mining: Mexico and Peru.” Hispanic American Historical Review 52.4 (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.

  • Brown, Kendall. A History of Mining in Latin America: From the Colonial Era to the Present. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012.

    A superb treatment of mining and its relation to development—and underdevelopment—throughout Latin America. Miner culture is central, particularly in the Andes, and environmental concerns are treated throughout. Brown uses Potosí as his main example.

  • Craig, Alan K., and Robert C. West, eds. In Quest of Mineral Wealth: Aboriginal and Colonial Mining and Metallurgy in Spanish America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

    A wide-ranging collection of essays by international scholars in geography, archaeology, 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 this is still a rare attempt to synthesize and appraise colonial mining as a whole. Important material on Brazil was added by editor Marvin Bernstein. The original Spanish edition was published in 1968.

  • 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 Coatsworth, and Roberto Cortés-Conde, 315–356. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521812894

    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 on the troubled transition to industrial mining, mostly in British hands, that began immediately after independence in the 1820s.

  • Waszkis, Helmut. Mining in the Americas: Stories and History. Cambridge, UK: Woodhead, 1993.

    A concise overview of mining from Canada to Tierra del Fuego from Antiquity to modern times, with brief reflections on mining’s key contributions and negative effects.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.