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Huancavelica, city and department of Peru made famous by colonial mercury mines. Located 150 miles southeast of Lima, the city lies in a steep mountain valley along the Icho River, 11,895 feet above sea level with a population of approximately 40,000. The famous Santa Bárbara mine of colonial times lay atop cliffs south of the city at an altitude of 14,300 feet.

Indians worked the quicksilver deposits during pre-Hispanic times, but the district became economically important only when the Spaniards began to refine silver through amalgamation. In 1563 Amador Cabrera, an encomendero (agent) from Huamanga, learned about the site from the kuraka (Indian headman) Gonzalo Ñavincopa. Miners and operators founded the Villa Rica de Oropesa, named for Viceroy Francisco de Toledo's home in Spain, on 4 August 1571. (After Toledo's departure the city gradually reverted to the name of Huancavelica.) Toledo expropriated the district for the crown in 1572. He then contracted with mine operators to produce mercury at a set price and agreed to provide them with cheap, forced Indian labor known as the Mita.

The Huancavelica mine quickly became a deathtrap for the Indian laborers. In its greed and inexperience the mining guild neglected to dig a ventilation shaft, and the mercury dust poisoned many. Indian villages subject to the mita looked upon the labor draft as a death sentence and were encouraged in their opposition by governors, priests, hacendados, and kurakas who wanted to exploit the workers themselves. As Indians died or fled, population in the mita provinces declined dramatically. Conditions improved in 1642 with completion of the Our Lady of Belén adit, which ventilated the mine. Thereafter more Indians were willing to work as wage laborers at the mine.

Huancavelica was the only American mercury mine of any significance, and until the 1770s it provided nearly all the quicksilver used by Peruvian silver refiners. It also made occasional shipments to Mexico, but the crown generally supplied the northern viceroyalty from its mines at Almadén, Spain. With the Peruvian mining expansion of the eighteenth century, Huancavelica struggled to meet mercury demand, its richest ores exhausted. Production costs were five times higher than at Almadén.

Blaming Huancavelica's problems on corruption and primitive technology, the royal inspector (visitador) José Antonio de Areche abolished the guild in 1779 and turned the Santa Bárbara mine over to Nicolás de Saravia, who agreed to produce greater quantities at a much lower price. When Saravia died unexpectedly the following year, Areche decided to turn the mine over to government administration, which had been very successful at Almadén. In 1784, because of the mercury mine, Huancavelica became a small intendancy, independent of the intendant of Huamanga's jurisdiction.

Nevertheless, Fernando Márquez de la Plata, the intendant, knew little about mining and allowed his unscrupulous mine director to extract the ore-laden natural supports of the mine to increase mercury output. On 25 September 1786 the top half of the mine collapsed. As head of a royal technological mission to Peru, Baron Thaddeus von Nordenflicht made comprehensive recommendations to renovate the mine in 1792, but his proposal died from lack of money and xenophobic resistance. Perhaps as important, Spanish authorities decided to halt Huancavelica production and supply Peru from Almadén in order to make the colonists dependent upon Spain for mercury.

Despite those imperial intentions, Almadén was unable to provide secure and adequate supplies, and Huancavelica intendants permitted private interests to work deposits outside the Santa Bárbara mine, where huge quantities of low-grade ore were available. Some production at Huancavelica continued after Peruvian independence, along with periodic attempts to reopen the great mine itself. The low price for mercury on the world market crippled those attempts, however, and Huancavelica stagnated in modern times, a colonial city dependent on grazing and wool for its scant existence.

See alsoMining: Colonial Spanish Americaxml .


Arthur P. Whitaker, The Huancavelica Mercury Mine: A Contribution to the History of the Bourbon Renaissance in the Spanish Empire (1941).

Guillermo Lohmann Villena, Las minas de Huancavelica en los siglos XVI y XVII (1949).

Robert G. Yates, Dean F. Kent, and Jaime Fernández Concha, Geology of the Huancavelica Quicksilver District, Peru (1951).

Henri Favre, "Caracteres sociales fundamentales de la aglo-meración urbana de Huancavelica," in Cuadernos de antropología 8 (1965): 25-30.

Gwendolin Cobb, Potosí y Huancavelica: Bases económicas del Peru, 1545–1640 (1977).

Carlos Contreras, La ciudad del mercurio: Huancavelica, 1570–1700 (1982).

Mervyn Lang, "El derrumbe de Huancavelica en 1786: Fracaso de una reforma borbónica," in Histórica 10, no. 2 (1986): 213-226.

Kendall W. Brown, "La crisis financiera peruana al comienzo del siglo XVIII, la minería de plata y la mina de azogues de Huancavelica," in Revista de Indias 40, no. 182-183 (1988): 349-383.

Additional Bibliography

Contreras, Carlos. Estado y Mercado en la historia del Perú. Perú: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 2002.

Patino Paúl, Mariano. Huancavelica colonial: Apuntes históricos de la ciudad minera más importante del Vierraynato peruano. Huancavelica: El Autor, 2001.

                                      Kendall W. Brown