Afro Bolivian - History of Slavery in Bolivia

History of Slavery in Bolivia

In 1544, the Spanish Conquistadors discovered the silver mines in a city now called Potosí, which is on the base of Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) in Bolivia. Almost immediately, they began enslaving the natives as workers in the mines. However, the health of the natives working in the mines became very poor, which is why the Spanish began to look towards a new group for labor. By the beginning of the Seventeenth Century, the Spanish mine owners and barons began bringing in African slaves in high numbers to help work the mines with the natives who were still able.

The conditions that the slaves had to work in were horrible. In fact, the slaves working in the mines survived no more than 6 months. First off, Potosí is 14,000 feet in elevation, making it the highest city in the world. Naturally, the slaves were not used to working at such a high altitude. Also many of the lives of these Native and African workers fell short because of the toxic smelter fumes and the mercury vapors that they were inhaling while working the mines. Also, because the slaves had to work in the very dark mines for about four months, once they finally left these dark mines, they had to be blindfolded to protect their eyes from the sunlight, which they hadn’t seen in a long time.

Although it was a requirement for the Natives and Africans over 18 years of age to work in the mines for 12 back-breaking hours, younger children were still put to work in the mines. These children worked fewer hours; however, they were still exposed to the extremely harsh conditions, including asbestos, toxic gases, cave-ins, and explosions. It is estimated that as many as eight million Africans and Natives died from working in the harsh conditions of the mines from a time span of 1545, when the Spaniards first put the Natives to work, until 1825, the end of the colonial period. This colonial period is certainly the worst human rights abuse of Europe’s colonial era.

The Spaniards' way of fortifying the slaves against the harsh conditions in the mines was to chew coca leaves. Coca, which would eventually become a very important element of Bolivian culture, is an agricultural product that is consumed in Bolivia, but can also be processed into cocaine. By chewing the coca leaves, the slaves numbed their senses to the cold, as well as preventing the feeling of hunger and alleviating altitude sickness.

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