Considered as it now stands, Contreras’s brief book is a disappointment, adding little of interest to what Guillermo Lohmann Villena has told us about Huancavelica in the period discussed. The chapters on foundation, bureaucracy, and local market and supplies offer few surprising ideas or facts. The treatment of social and ethnic groups has more to commend it. Contreras is especially struck by the emergence into social and economic prominence of Huancavelica’s merchants in the mid-seventeenth century. He attributes this to the dwindling of the mercury miners’ previous economic strength. This decline resulted, so he proposes, from a shortage of forced labor, which in turn derived from the sixteenth-century governmental attacks on the encomienda, and shrinkage of the mita in the seventeenth. He does not, surprising to say, try to connect the miners’ fortunes with their production of mercury, nor—more distantly, but necessarily—with shifts in the market for that mercury.
If taken as a sketch for a larger study of Huancavelica in the future, however, this work shows promise—especially considering that it is a reworked chapter from a senior undergraduate thesis (at the Pontificia Universidad Católica of Peru). The author is asking the right sort of questions, and evidently has the necessary expertise in primary research. He now needs to dig wider and deeper.
Lofstrom’s study is more accomplished, if of intrinsically slighter interest. His protagonist, Uriburu, was a native of Salta, who in 1825 went to Potosí as the agent of the porteño merchant group that planned to invest in silver mines there. Possibly the most striking point of the study is precisely this Argentine attempt to place capital in Bolivia—an extension on a minor scale, perhaps, of the previous, though fruitless, military forays into that territory. The effort rested ultimately, however, on British capital; and when the London capital market collapsed at the end of 1825, the porteño venture came to as sudden a halt as did direct British attempts to invest in silver production in Potosí. Uriburu persisted, moving to the small mining center of Portugalete in the south of the Potosí district, where he produced a little silver until 1828. But shortage of mercury and of capital, and the obstacle offered by an apparently effective Bolivian policy of blocking access by foreign speculative capital to the richer ore deposits of the country, in the end combined to overcome his tenacity.
In scrutinizing one would-be miner’s efforts (“empresario” really seems too large a label for Uriburu), Lofstrom conveys vividly the state and the difficulties of the silver industry in the infant Bolivia. This small monograph adds detail and texture to his valuable, though regrettably unpublished, doctoral thesis, “The Promise and Problem of Reform: Attempted Social and Economic Change in the First Years of Bolivian Independence” (Cornell, 1972).