Kris Lane's interpretative history of the famed Bolivian silver city of Potosí offers a nuanced and masterfully told story of the boom, bust, and stubborn survival of a city whose existence seems to both define and defy Spanish imperial aspirations. The introduction, which offers a brief historiography of the city, summarizes the difficulty in presenting such a narrative—extant histories that address Potosí do so almost exclusively as mining histories, thus the stories told center on the economic, environmental, or health-related impacts of the industry, losing, perhaps, the story of the rise of a New World city in the process. Lane offers a comprehensive history that integrates the complex webs of commerce and community, framing the city as an exemplar of “early modern global urbanism and extraction in action” (xvi).
Though the author lists the discovery of silver ore in 1545 and the arrival of Simón Bolívar in 1825 as the bookends that define the scope of the narrative, the book centers primarily on the silver boom period of the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries; roughly half of the chapters cover this time frame. Organized thematically and chronologically, each of Potosí's eight chapters centers on an important controversy or dialogue, such as the sweeping reforms instituted by viceroy Francisco de Toledo (r. 1569–1581) and the effect of the Bourbon reform on the local community (chapters 4 and 6, respectively). The epilogue brings Potosí through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and offers a brief but satisfying coda to the rich history presented in the preceding chapters. The appendices, a handful of transcribed and translated first-person accounts of the city dating to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and a bibliographical essay, further enrich the volume.
Though Lane brings together a wide body of knowledge of Potosí and mining history more broadly, he turns consistently to primary sources to enliven his narrative, evidencing a human-centered approach that often turns to the stories of women and enslaved people. While these stories don't make the bulk of his argument, their inclusion helps tether the narrative to the city and insists upon the importance of these experiences alongside the global effect of the mining enterprise. He also interjects with accounts of powerful women and indigenous mineros, seemingly working against monolithic notions of the assumed power balance in mining operations belonging solely to peninsular and criollo men in Potosí. Lane further troubles this notion by showing that division existed among peninsulares based on their provincial affiliation; this conflict most pointedly came to a head during the Basque-vicuña gang wars that erupted in Potosí in 1622 and lasted until royal amnesty was established in 1625.
Throughout the book, Lane effectively positions Potosí as a driver of global economy, a crucial nexus around which a complex web of extraction economy was spun. Including manuscript images from around the world that depict the famed Cerro Rico alongside hard data regarding the volume of silver ore produced there, the author leads by making explicit the almost unimaginable wealth of Potosí, the city that produced almost half of the world's total silver during its first century and whose discovery helped end the global bullion shortage of the sixteenth century. Importantly, he also demonstrates how seemingly unrelated local economies (such as cloth and ready-made clothing) were in fact closely tied to mining operations. The ability to bridge the local and global brings the city into sharp focus and sets the work apart as a deft and compelling take. Additionally, Lane's penchant for beautifully turned phrases and evocative language—one metaphor refers to poorer quality minted coins shrinking “like bagels in hard times”—makes the book an imminently enjoyable read (127).
Lane's history of Potosí offers a nuanced view of a city whose own history has been treated as secondary to its effect on the world's coffers. It also opens new avenues of research for the field. One has the sense that beneath the scattered stories of women merchants and indigenous miners lies another history of how disenfranchised individuals adapted and thrived. Notably, the book scantly addresses cultural production and does not consider the parallel religious history of the city other than to note which sodalities were present. Various vices and decadence are touched upon, including an eye-popping description of an advanced case of syphilis teased out from a legal document; parallel descriptions of sermons or morality plays might bring home the contemporaneous perspective of these issues.
Potosí: The Silver City That Changed the World is a valuable read for scholars and advanced college students interested in Latin American history and visual culture or the global turn in early modern studies. Due to its thematic organization, chapters would also make enriching selections for undergraduate students.