In 1965 the Brown University Press published in three large, annotated volumes the Historia de la villa imperial de Potosí of a Creole chronicler, a native of that city, Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela (1676-1736), edited by the distinguished scholars, Lewis Hanke and Gunnar Mendoza. For two centuries this colorful, gossipy chronicle of the social and cultural life of the phenomenally rich silver-mining city in the bleak highlands of Peru (now Bolivia) was never published in its entirety. It is an enormous canvass depicting the violent, turbulent events, miracles, fiestas, and personages who had their being in this remote and raw setting from 1555 until Arzáns’ death in 1736— a summary of which Professor Hanke gives in his admirable Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela’s History of Potosí (Providence, 1965). From this immense reservoir of Potosí lore and preceded by an illuminating introduction, Professor Padden has made thirty-two selections of episodes in chronological order, some of which are brief anecdotes. The last four are descriptions of processions and pageantry typical of colonial life everywhere in Spanish America.
The collection is a litany of accounts of gang warfare between Basques, Castilians, Andalusians, and Creole elements of society, of brutal murders, mayhem, rape, of cruel mothers who torture erring daughters, of the endangered species of beautiful virgins, of witchcraft, and the like. Of especial interest is the tale “Claudia the Witch” because of its discussion of the widespread use of coca leaves as a drug. Arzáns was not a gifted story-teller, as was a succesor of a century and a half later, Ricardo Palma (1833-1919), who dealt with similar aspects of viceregal Peru in his picaresque Tradiciones Peruanas. In contrast, the Potosí chronicler invariably slowed his narrative with numerous pious remarks and sententious observations. Nevertheless, in these Tales of Potosí Arzáns provides a broad and intriguing panorama of Baroque life in this great mining community, particularly in the seventeenth century.