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The rich silver mines of Potosí were like veins through which flowed, as one contemporary put it, “the blood of the political body” of the Spanish empire. Born in Asunción, Paraguay, Pedro Vicente Cañete y Domínguez (1749/50–1816) worked his way up as an “enlightened” functionary of the colonial administration in the late eighteenth century. In his impressive compendium, Historical, Geographical, Physical, Political, Civil, and Legal Guide to the Government and Intendancy of the Province of Potosí (1787), Cañete recounted the history of the silver mines and described the forced labor system known as the mita, by which the state provided Indian workers for the city’s mines and ore-processing mills. He recognized the arduous work of the corvée mineworkers (mitayos), but justified forced labor on the grounds of Indians’ purported sloth and argued that the decrease in the number of mitayos was not due to mortality caused by the mine work, but rather due to plagues and workers’ systematic flight. As adviser to the intendant of Potosí after 1793, Cañete and the leading mining industrialists proposed a major increase in the number of forced workers, which met with fierce opposition led by Victorián de Villaba, the state’s offcial Protector of Indians. Villaba ultimately prevented publication of the Guide by convincing the leading mining entrepreneurs, who had already given Cañete a first advance, that the book made them look bad in their treatment of the mitayos.

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