In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mining

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Edited Collections
  • Biographies
  • Pre-Columbian America
  • Environmental Impact
  • Gender
  • Mining Labor
  • Revolution
  • Miners’ Culture

Latin American Studies Mining
Kendall Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0016


In many ways the story of Latin America, or at least the history of several countries in the region, has also been the history of mining. Spaniards found a little gold in the Caribbean but in Mexico and the Andes discovered more gold and incredibly rich silver lodes. Many of these had already been worked by the indigenous population before 1492, particularly the Andean natives, who had the most advanced pre-Columbian mining and metallurgy. During colonial times, Peru (including what would also become modern Bolivia) and Mexico were the main Spanish American mining centers, which yielded far more silver than gold. They used some slaves but primarily Indian labor to work the mines. New Granada, especially what became Colombia, was rich in gold rather than silver. The other great colonial mining region lay in Portuguese Brazil, where in the 1690s explorers found gold and three decades later diamonds. In the first quarter of the 19th century, Latin America gained its political independence, but mining remained central to life in the old mining colonies. Nonetheless, several important changes took place during the 1800s. For the first time Chile became a significant mining region, but its output consisted of copper and nitrates. Chile’s comparatively stable political conditions and liberal mining policies attracted foreign investment. The older mining regions (Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia) had more difficulty adapting to independence, in part because they remained too tied to their colonial mining laws and policies but lacked the resources to subsidize the industry as Spain had done. Besides gold and silver, other minerals became important. In the early 1900s, for example, Bolivia became one of the world’s leading tin producers, responding to international demand for tinned goods. Although it had another gold rush in the 1980s, Brazilian mining focused on industrial metals, such as iron (Brazil has the world’s largest iron reserves). By the late 20th century, Latin Americans were also questioning the benefits of the mining industry to national development and the well-being of the populace. It seemed that mining made corporations and owners rich, at the expense of workers who often toiled for a pittance in dangerously unhealthy conditions. Cries also rose regarding the environmental damage caused by mining. Thus, Latin American mining is a subject with a long chronology and many aspects. The topic’s potential bibliography is immense. What follows are some of the nuggets from that bibliography.

General Overviews

Given the tremendous size of the subject and its chronological length, Latin American mining still awaits its first satisfactory historical summary. Prieto 1973 self-consciously attempts the task but contains very little about the national period and omits important aspects of colonial mining. A very brief overview is Tenenbaum 1996. For colonial Spanish America, the best synthesis is Bakewell 1984, which has superseded Brading and Cross 1972, although it does not entirely replace their article, which can still be profitably consulted. Bargalló 1955 deserves special mention for its broad coverage of colonial mining and especially because of its valuable insights into colonial metallurgical technology, much of which prevailed in the national period until nearly 1900. Garner 1988 is a superb analysis of the long-term trends and production cycles for colonial silver output.

  • Bakewell, Peter. “Mining in Colonial Spanish America.” In The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 2, Colonial Latin America. Edited by Leslie Bethell, 105–152. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    A superb overview of mining in the Spanish American colonies by a historian who has written perceptively on both Mexico and Peru, the two centers of Hispanic American mining activity. Available online to subscribers.

  • Bargalló, Modesto. La minería y la metalurgía en la América española durante la época colonial; Con un apéndice sobre la industria del hierro en México desde la iniciación de la independencia hasta el presente. Sección de Obras de Economía. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1955.

    In Spanish by a professor of chemistry. Although most valuable for its sections on refining techniques, it contains other important information on many aspects of the colonial mining industry.

  • Brading, D. A., and Harry E. Cross. “Colonial Silver Mining: Mexico and Peru.” Hispanic American Historical Review 52.4 (1972): 545–579.

    DOI: 10.2307/2512781

    A brief but global look at silver production over the entire period. Discusses geology; mining techniques; refining methods; labor systems; and royal policies, including taxation, capital investment, and estimated production. Available online to subscribers.

  • Garner, Richard L. “Long-Term Silver Mining Trends in Spanish America: A Comparative Analysis of Peru and Mexico.” American Historical Review 93.4 (October 1988): 898–935.

    DOI: 10.2307/1863529

    The best analysis of colonial silver output in the two principal mining regions of the Spanish empire. Garner quantitatively shows that the great boom in Mexican production had already begun by the early 1700s rather than the second half of the 18th century. Available online to subscribers.

  • Barbara A. Tenenbaum “Mining.” In Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. Vol. 4. Edited by Barbara A. Tenenbaum, 58–65. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1996.

    Presents a brief but useful overview, with helpful bibliographic orientation. Contains three sections by different authors: colonial Brazil (Marshall C. Eakin); colonial Spanish America (Peter Bakewell and Kendall W. Brown); and modern mining (Eul-Soo Pang).

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

    One of a few authors to provide a historical synthesis, Prieto, a Mexican lawyer with close ties to mining, emphasizes the positive role the industry played in the development of Western civilization. It downplays the costs inflicted on workers and contains little on the national period. Lengthy bibliography.

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