This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
The arrival of Columbus in the Northern Caribbean with three Spanish ships in October 1492 marked the beginning of continuing European contact with the Americas. With his second voyage of 1493, permanent European occupation of the Caribbean began, with enormous consequences for the peoples and ecology of the region. Failing to encounter the wealthy trading peoples that Columbus had hoped to find by reaching Asia, Europeans in the Caribbean soon realized that they would have to become directly involved in organizing profitable enterprises. Gold mining in the northern islands and pearl fishing in the islands off the coast of Tierra Firme (today Venezuela) for some years proved enormously profitable but depended on Spaniards’ ability to exploit indigenous labor on a large scale. The imposition of the Spanish encomienda system, which required indigenous communities to provide labor for mining and commercial agriculture; and the large-scale capture and transportation of Native Americans from one locale to another wrought havoc among the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean, resulting in high mortality and flight. Spaniards in the islands soon sought to supplement indigenous labor by importing African slaves who quickly became a significant if not always easily controlled presence in the region.
As a result of these developments the Spanish Caribbean from the earliest years was a complex, dynamic, and volatile region characterized by extensive interaction and conflict among diverse groups of people and by rapid economic and institutional development. Although the islands became the launching grounds for subsequent Spanish moves to the nearby mainland, throughout the 16th century and beyond they played a crucial role in sustaining Spain’s overseas empire and integrating it into the larger Atlantic system.
From the time that Columbus arrived in the Caribbean until Spain surrendered power over its mainland American colonies in the early 19th century, Spanish and Portuguese colonial mines poured forth vast amounts of bullion, including some gold and a far greater quantity of silver, both in terms of weight and its overall value relative to gold. Fiscal records indicate that Spanish Americans officially refined gold worth approximately 374,000,000 pesos, each consisting of 272 maravedís, whereas the amount of silver produced reached a value of 3,432,000,000 pesos (to these figures need to be added contraband output, estimated to have been around 17–20 percent). In other words, the colonies refined nine times more silver than gold. While Columbus, Cortés, and other earlier explorers may have fantasized primarily about gold, it was the flood of American silver that touched off the price revolution in Europe and monetarized the emerging world economy, especially because China had a voracious appetite for silver, not gold. At the same time in the American colonies, mining distorted economic life because of the incentives the industry received from a silver-hungry monarchy. Mining also had profound consequences for indigenous society, severely exploited to provide workers for the mines and refining mills.
Colonial refiners used two methods to beneficiate their silver ores, smelting and amalgamation. Smelting was suitable for all types of American silver ores but required large amounts of fuel to heat the ovens. It remained widely used throughout Mexico during the entire colonial period. Amalgamation was a newer technology, adapted to American ores during the mid-16th century. Although it did not require large quantities of charcoal and other fuels, as smelting did, amalgamation depended on the availability of mercury. Nearly all quicksilver used in colonial Spanish American silver mining came from either Huancavelica (Peru) or Almadén (Spain), with occasional supplements from Idria (Slovenia). Whereas both smelting and amalgamation were used widely in Mexico, Andean mines relied on amalgamation.