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View series: The Portuguese and Spanish Empires

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Gold and silver from the New World

This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of The Portuguese and Spanish Empires.

One of the key factors in the conquest of the New World was the search for gold and precious metals.

On their arrival in the Antilles, and later on the American continent, the Spanish Conquistadors took all the gold amassed by the Indians, mostly in the form of jewels and religious objects. The enormous ransom paid in gold and silver to Pizarro by the Incas for the liberation of the Emperor Atahualpa, followed by the plundering of their capital Cuzco, are indicative of this predatory approach. 

But looting can only last so long, and gradually the discovery and exploitation of mineral deposits made it possible to export precious metals to Seville.

Gold was found mainly in the western areas of New Grenada, in what is now Colombia. Exploitation of the gold mines required labor which was provided by black slaves transported from Africa to Cartagena by Portuguese ships.

Throughout the 16th century, new silver deposits were discovered and, after 1530, more silver was shipped from the New World than gold.

The main silver mines were in Mexico and the Andes.  The largest of these, found in 1545, was the Potosi mine. For nearly a hundred years, more than 100 tons of silver were extracted annually from the Cerro Rico, or “Rich Mountain” and Potosi became, for a while, the most densely populated town in the New World.

Silver mining in the Andes was facilitated by the discovery of a mercury mine at Huancavelica. Mercury made it easier to separate silver from base metals by using amalgam techniques.

Until the end of the 16th century, the quantity of silver arriving in Seville increased, but began to decline dramatically in the following decades. 

While the mines continued to produce large quantities of silver throughout the 17th century, Spain had difficulty maintaining its monopoly over trade with the New World.