History's Legacy

How the Spanish Mercantile Empire
Paved the Way for Modern Capitalism

By Chris Kinder

It was an atrocity that hardly anyone noticed. What was likely the largest haul of sunken treasure that has ever been retrieved from the ocean deep, ha, as of February 2012, been sent to Spain, the country to which it was headed when the ship that was carrying it was sunk, early in the 19th century. Spain is the country which still “owns” this precious haul of minted silver pesos, according to U.S. courts, because of its ownership rights over the carcass of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercy), the Spanish galleon (some say it was a “frigate”) which bore this immense treasure from the “New World” to the Old. The Mercedes met its end when it was blown up in a navel battle with the British off the Atlantic coast of Portugal, near Gibraltar, in 1804, taking the silver and some 200 sailors to the bottom with it.

To both the discoverers of this wreck, and to the Spanish government, there was an outrage here; though the travesty was very different for each. To Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., the high-tech U.S.-based exploration outfit which found the Mercedes and its silver with their remote-controlled submersibles in 2007, it was an outrage that they (Odyssey) didn’t get to keep even a small portion of this immensely valuable haul. The find is worth several-hundred-million Euros, and Odyssey had spent millions, and years of effort, to find it.

U.S. courts back Spain

International salvage law is a complex web of conflicting interests, which should be well known to major salvaging outfits, but the experts at Odyssey Marine lost every single court battle over this treasure trove. The Spanish won, it seems, because the Mercedes was a naval vessel, and this was the grave site of Spanish sailors. Odyssey spokespersons whined that this was “a sad day for Spanish cultural heritage,” because after this decision, “no one will be incentivized to report underwater finds,” and future Spanish-related discoveries might be “hidden or even worse, melted down or sold on e-bay.”1 A stinging retort indeed! But, h-m-m, was this a threat to melt down future hauls of Spanish “cultural heritage,” after having shed crocodile tears over this “sad day” concerning the very same heritage?

Odyssey’s pique, however, was well outdone by Spanish officials, who acted as though they were still protecting the 16th Century “Spanish Main” of the Habsburg Kings of Spain! It seemed that they wanted to make Odyssey employees “walk the plank,” when they ordered Spanish warships to intercept and detain Odyssey vessels at sea—yes, they actually did this, twice, no less—in an attempt to confiscate the silver retrieved from the Mercedes. Odyssey operatives were detained by the Spanish to no avail in these incidents, however, since the silver had already been secretly flown to a company hideout in Tampa, Florida.

“A sunken man-o-war belongs to the flag”

The howls from the Spanish government over this potential loss of their “cultural heritage” were surely worthy of the most self-righteous conquistador. “A sunken man-o-war belongs to the flag,” said Jorge Dezcallar de Mazar, the Kingdom of Spain’s ambassador to the U.S., sounding for all the world like a 16th Century Spanish nobleman. “These are emotional and moving moments for me,” he said, as he and two dozen hangers-on witnessed the silver being loaded for a flight out of Tampa, following court decisions in Spain’s favor. “History will make us who we are, and today we are witnessing a journey that started 200 years ago… This is not money. This is historical heritage.”2

“Not money?” Why does he think these minted silver pesos were headed to the coffers of the Spanish crown in the first place? “Historical heritage?” Indeed, but whose heritage would that be exactly? And why do the pundits keep talking about how the silver was finally sent “back” to Spain, when it wasn’t from there in the first place, and never actually arrived there? If it were to go back to where it actually came from, a major historic reversal of course would be necessary. And lastly, what is so important to U.S. courts in backing Spain in this, if not to protect the very birth-cradle of capitalism against any modern questioning of its historically-derived “right” to expropriated property?

The government of Peru gave a small hint of the real back story on the “Spanish” silver when they made a belated submission to U.S. courts in an attempt to halt the drumbeat of Spanish “heritage” regarding the Mercedes’ bullion. In an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court—which was denied by Justice Clarence Thomas—Peru argued that the silver (and gold—there was some of that as well in this haul) had been mined, refined and minted in that country, which at the time was part of the Spanish empire. But was the Peruvian government arguing that the descendants of the workers that mined, refined and minted the silver should be the beneficiaries of the treasure today? Not so fast. In an earlier court submission (also rejected), Peru had claimed that it was the heirs and descendants of Peruvian merchants, who had (allegedly) owned the coins aboard the Mercedes, who were the rightful inheritors of the recovered treasure. (see footnote 2)

The legacy of the galleon trade

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of Black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the new era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”

—Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, International Publishers, 1954, p. 703.

As it made its way creaking and groaning into the rising Sun across the Atlantic, its sails filled with the following Westerlies, the ill-fated Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes represented one of the last of the infamous Spanish “Galleon Trade,” in which for 250 years previously, the precious metal resources of the Americas were dug up, pillaged, stolen and shipped out only to be squandered by dying kingdoms to both the East (Spain) and the West (China). Although the voyage of the Mercedes came toward the end of this trade, when the Spanish colonies and their trade monopoly were about to be terminated by nationalist uprisings throughout South America, it was still, in 1804, part of the annual dance of galleons across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that lay at the heart of the Spanish mercantile empire. This empire, based as it was on the knitting together of hemispheres which had until recently remained apart for millions of years, and utilizing the most horrific forms of exploitation imaginable, laid the basis for the rise of modern capitalism.

The Spanish conquistadors—who were nothing more than gangs of footloose nobles and treasure-seeking adventurers—were the vanguard of what Marx later called “primitive accumulation,” and they did it in the most barbarous way possible. After slaughtering Inca warriors with superior weaponry born out of centuries of endless warfare in medieval Europe, the conquistadors forced the conquered people to collect all their priceless gold artifacts. The Inca saw precious metals as a medium for art and spirituality, but for the Spanish, it was so much wealth to be melted down, turned into ingots, and used as money for the Spanish monarchy’s wars in Europe—a true harbinger of modern capitalism’s core pursuits.

Mercantile imperialists strike it rich

While the Spanish thirst for gold is perhaps the best-known pursuit of these conquerers of the New World, the silver they pillaged and later marketed actually played a more central role in transforming world economies, paving the way for modern capitalism. Prior to the mid-16th Century, silver mining took place in various places around Europe, including Spain. But no single event in the history of silver rivals the importance of developments in the Americas under the Spanish. By far the most important find took place in 1545, high on the altiplano, then in the Viceroyalty of Peru, in a place called Potosi—now in Southern Bolivia—on a cold, tree-less mountain at well over 13,000 feet.

Just as Columbus didn’t “discover” the Americas, the Spanish didn’t discover the silver at Potosi. No one knows the linguistic origin of “Potosi,” but a persistent tradition insists it was an Aymara (or Quechua) word, meaning “High Place.”3 It was also known as “Cerro Rico,” the rich place. It’s known that the Inca had retrieved some silver from this high place off and on, to be used for artistic/religious purposes. But...

Eduardo Galleano has a story about that:

“Indian miners had hardly dug their flints into the beautiful Cerro’s veins of silver when a deep, hollow voice struck them to the ground. Emerging as loud as thunder from the depths of the wilderness, the voice said in Quechua: ‘This is not for you; God is keeping these riches for those who come from afar.’ The Indians fled in terror and the Inca, before departing from the Cerro, changed its name. It became ‘Potojsi,’ which means to thunder, burst, explode.”4

One wonders if this myth might have been influenced somewhat by the Spanish who came later, and who indeed came “from afar.” They certainly used Potosi to turn silver marketing into a world-wide mercantile imperialists’ wet dream. This came at the great expense of native peoples, who were certainly not the beneficiaries of Cerro Rico.

The richest silver strike in history

The silver strike at Potosi was the richest in history. While most ores are a few percent silver, this ledge was 50 percent pure. Incredibly, the Spanish didn’t know how to further purify it, despite the fact that Spain had been a major source of silver for the Roman empire. (With the Moorish invasion of Spain, silver mining seems to have been interrupted. It migrated to sites in Central Europe.) The local Incas were able to do what the invaders couldn’t, in low-temperature smelters fueled by dry grass and llama dung. Soon, fifteen thousand Indian wind-ovens in full operation glowed like stars on the slopes of the High Place each night.5

Twenty-five years later, around 1570, a new technology was brought in to further transform production. Spaniards in Mexico had rediscovered an ancient Chinese technology for silver extraction known as mercury amalgamation, and, as if the Spaniards were born lucky, a huge mercury mine was being developed just around that time at Huancavelica, also in the Viceroyalty of Peru, and not far to the west (it’s in modern day Peru). The Spanish viceroy, Don Francisco de Toledo, immediately seized the mine at Huancavelica, and used its mercury in conjunction with the silver of Potosi to ramp up silver production to heretofore unheard of levels. Soon after that, silver production from the Americas (including Spanish Mexico) became 85 percent of world production, and stayed that way through about 1800. Its wealth transformed the world; and all of this was made possible by the most brutally exploited labor imaginable.

Puddles of mercury—miners’ corpses tell a tale

Huancavelica was the worst. Indian workers hauled ore out through cramped tunnels with candles strapped to their heads and no ventilation. Heat from the earth vaporized the mercury—a slow-acting poison—so workers stumbled through the day in a lethal steam. Many shook from mercury toxicity after a single shift. Huancavelica ore was refined in a ceramic oven, which caused the mercury to boil off and condense on the oven’s walls. If the oven was opened before it cooled—which mine owners anxious to start the next refining cycle often insisted upon—the result was a faceful of mercury vapor.

The Spanish colonial regime was not totally monolithic, and objections were raised to the horrific labor conditions at Huancavelica. Numerous official inspectors urged the crown to shut down the mine, but reasons of state always won out; the need for silver was too great. As the mine shafts went deeper into the mountain, the mine inspectors urged the state to dig ventilation shafts; but the first of these was not created for eight decades. As a result, officials who dug up graves in 1604 reported that when miners’ corpses decomposed they left behind puddles of mercury! No wonder that native parents had taken to maiming their own children so that they wouldn’t have to work in this mine.6

While the Spanish colonial empire actually had mine inspectors—which was a surprise to me—their usefulness was just as delimited by the profit motive, it seems, as mine inspectors are under today’s more “advanced” capitalism.

“Mitayos” work Cerro Rico, “the Rich Mountain”

Conditions at the rich mountain of Potosi were barely better than at Huancavelica. With the advent of mercury amalgamation, the Spanish were no longer dependent on the Inca for technology, but they were more in need of natives for labor. So, the Viceroy instituted conscription of Indian labor through the “mita,” in which community leaders were required to provide a specified amount of labor to their conquerers annually. With this edict, the Spanish compelled Indian communities for hundreds of miles across the altiplano to send complements of workers to contractors, and hence to the mines.

Paid a pittance and hugely exploited, gangs of these conscripted “mitayos” carried hundred-pound loads of raw ore up rope-and-leather ladders from the mine face. While skilled mine workers were still brought in, mostly from the Basque region of Spain, the natives were consigned the hardest labor. At first these workers were given rest periods, but later these vanished, and quotas were introduced. Failure to meet the quota would be punished by whips, clubs and stones. As the mine was gradually depleted, and silver quotas became harder to meet, whippings and clubbings became more frequent. The average life expectancy for miners was 40 years, due to rampant silicosis.

But that’s not all. In 1528, the Spanish authorities proclaimed that spouses could not be separated. Was this a protection of women against abandonment by men who were conscripted in the “mita?” Think again. The law was designed to make sure that the labor power of the men could be reproduced, and it meant that the women and children, forced under this law to accompany the men, could be compelled to do mine labor in addition to preparing food for the male workers. This resulted in whole villages being depopulated as both men and women fled to avoid the mines. Some of the men managed to obtain “mita” work on plantations or in other occupations instead of in the mines, but many of the women rebelled against the Spanish more completely, by heading for the high country, rejecting Catholicism, and reviving their old religion.7

“How could Christian leaders allow this?”

The primitive accumulation of nascent capitalism was racing forward, destroying native communal traditions and driving people off the land. For those who survived the holocaust of European-born diseases, it was exploitation on steroids. Horrified antislavery activists denounced the “hellish pits” of Potosi. “‘If twenty healthy Indians enter on Monday, half come out on Saturday as cripples,’ one outraged priest wrote to the Spanish royal secretary. How, he asked, could Christian leaders allow this?”8

Christian leaders could allow it, of course, and they did. Furthermore, the most “elevated” of Christian leaders, the monks of the Jesuit order—a regimen formed to “defend the faith” against the Protestant Reformation—were instrumental in instituting full-on chattel slavery in the mines at Potosi, and other sites throughout the Spanish empire in the Americas. As conscripted Indian labor became harder and harder to obtain, due to both resistance to work in the mines and the devastation caused by European diseases among native populations, the Jesuits came up with a convenient solution: they explained that while enslaving Indians was somehow a “sin,” Africans were fair game. The Jesuit hypocrites practiced what they preached, as in their sugar mills, where imported African slaves were exclusively used for hard labor. Although in Potosi numerous slave revolts against extreme conditions meant that native conscript labor had to continue to be used, the Jesuits were nevertheless in step with the times. By the 17th century, Africans were everywhere in the Spanish empire, almost entirely as slaves.9

High and desolate as it was (more than twice as high as Denver, Colorado), Potosi was Spain’s chief source of silver for a long time (Mexican mines at Ganajuato and Zacatecas later took up the slack, as Potosi’s veins gradually gave out). Potosi quickly became the world’s first modern boomtown, featuring a population explosion to match any in the modern world. There were more bars, duels, feuds, murders, and ethnically-based gang wars over the better jobs in the mine than you ever want to know about. Legions of miners, blacksmiths, tradesmen, and others populated the place, with merchants, priests and mine owners capping the social pyramid. Potosi’s (overwhelmingly male) numbers soon matched the biggest cities in Europe; and it was the largest and richest city in the Americas by far. As the town grew, and as the silver made its way around the world, countless indigenous and African slave miners lost their lives delivering the goods.

The “Lord of the Underworld” eats miners

Today, under modern capitalist governments including that of the “progressive” Evo Morales, conditions in the still-functioning mines at Potosi are barely improved. Working in a maze of over 20,000 tunnels, the miners look to find any scraps of the valuable minerals overlooked during Spanish rule. Silver is still sought, but other minerals such as tin and zinc now predominate. Nine-thousand miners, including hundreds of children, work in the mines of Cerro Rico using only primitive protection and equipment. The tunnels are ill-lit, the carts are pushed by hand, and the ventilation is inadequate. The children earn the Bolivian equivalent of $3 for a 12-hour workday. Fatal accidents are frequent, and most miners fall victim to black lung disease by age 40, the same fate as suffered by miners in the 16th century!

In an ominous reminder of an ancient past, hundreds of statues of the Devil in the shape of a goat are to be found throughout the maze of tunnels in Cerro Rico. Called “El Tio,” the uncle, he is known as the “Lord of the Underworld.” If not fed, he will take matters into his own hands and feed on human flesh. Miners leave offerings to El Tio—tobacco, liquor, cocoa leaves—in hopes that he will spare their lives. In the documentary “The Devil’s Miner,” two young miners, aged 12 and 14, are shown to be fervent believers in El Tio, leaving offerings in hopes of slacking El Tio’s bloodlust, which has claimed so many of their ancestors. It is estimated that Cerro Rico and other Bolivian mines have resulted in eight million deaths in the last 500 years.10

Capitalism: born of slavery and “entombment”

Hardly one to hail the crimes of primitive capital accumulation as “progress,” Karl Marx called the savage mistreatment of native labor in Spain’s New World silver mines the “enslavement and entombment in the mines of the indigenous population.” Marx identified this, and the mass enslavement of Black Africans for work in the “New World,” as the “chief momenta” of the primitive accumulation of capitalism. Great fortunes sprang up in a day, as the treasure captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement and murder, floated back to the mother country. The basis of modern capitalism was laid by the remarkable explosion of money capital and trade that followed directly upon the European discovery of the Americas, which first of all led to an exchange of commodities world-wide that had never before been possible. It started as both Spain and China sought silver to fund their endless military adventures. Both Europe and China were fundamentally affected by the flood of silver that poured in as a result of the Spanish galleon trade.

Spanish colonials defy the crown

“The modern history of capital dates from the creation in the 16th Century of a world-embracing commerce and a world-embracing market. …capital, as opposed to landed property, invariably takes the form at first of money; it appears as moneyed wealth, as the capital of the merchant and of the usurer.”

—Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, International Publishers, 1954, p.145

Spanish colonial merchants didn’t only send the silver of Potosi and the other mines of the Americas eastward to the Spanish crown. They actually preferred to look west, to China, the original goal of the Columbian expeditions, in which the Spanish had sought the riches of the “East.” Ironically, instead of finding riches in China, these Spanish traders brought their new-found silver riches to China. The silver was exchanged for marketable Chinese goods, to be sold at great profit in Europe, in a trade which exploded exponentially. The Chinese quickly became so adept at mastering this trade that they drove Spanish silk weavers and dressmakers out of business by copying European styles of clothing and other goods, which were then sold in Europe at lower prices than locals could match (sound familiar?)

The Spanish merchants who pioneered the trade of American silver for the goods of China often ran afoul of the royal court, which constantly demanded more of the silver for its own nefarious use in financing wars in Europe. It was the feudal dynasty versus commercial capital. The tension resulted in rampant smuggling, which according to researches today resulted in as much as half of the silver production of the Americas going to China—way more than the crown intended. Faced with an edict from the King that limited the number of galleons that could take silver west to China, the Spanish merchants built bigger galleons, so that their share of the silver could continue to expand.11

Two empires succumb, as Spanish silver floods the world

The reaction to this huge explosion of riches and inter-continental trade was similar in both Europe and China. In China, the closed Chinese imperial state was the center of the world as far as the Ming dynasty was concerned. It had everything, and wanted nothing from Spain, with one important exception: the new source of money that Spanish silver represented. Silver was required as revenue for the state, but silver sources in China were becoming scarce, and the court was constantly in need of hard currency to replace its increasingly worthless paper money. While not allowing foreigners to set foot in China itself, the court did allow a trade center to be be built up based in the Philippines, in which the Spanish brought silver direct from their port at Acapulco, to be exchanged for the ceramics, silks, spices and numerous other goods sought in Europe.

Chinese merchants brought the goods across the South China Sea to Parian, which became a huge Chinese trading outpost, dwarfing the Spanish population of its next-door neighbor, Manilla. Silver flowed into the coffers of the Mings, who used it to pay troops and finance wars. But inflation soon ran amok with the dynasty’s plans. While the subjects were required to pay their taxes in silver by weight, the Mings were continually running out of money, and falling into debt, largely because the value of a given weight of silver was going down, due to inflation. Unpaid soldiers began to mutiny, and soon the Mings fell out of power. Following a lengthy and bloody interlude, they were replaced by the Manchus (the Qing Dynasty).

“The Spaniards owned the cow, but others drank the milk.” —Eduardo Galeano

Meanwhile, in Europe, the wars of the Spanish Habsburg monarchy—which were driven by defense of dynastic inheritance as well as by opposition to rebellions—led this court into disastrous debt as well. The silver flowing in to Seville from South America—plus Cortez’s conquest of Mexico, which added even more wealth—failed to sustain the monarchy’s wars. The inundation of silver pesos transformed European commodity exchange, and the peso became the common currency all over Europe (including England). But its value fell as its prevalence increased, which led to the declining value of the Spanish crown’s treasury, and hence to its indebtedness.

From the very beginning, the Spanish kings borrowed from foreign bankers against the expectation of future revenues, which, largely due to inflation, never kept pace. The crown was literally mortgaged from day one, as it owed nearly all of its silver shipments before they even arrived. As a result, Spain had to go into default five times between 1557 and 1627! The bankers came back to the table each time because of the same expectation of riches from the New World that the King expected; but the crown wound up paying interest rates as high as 40 percent. Debt piled up hugely, mounting to 15 times revenues!

Bankers defeat feudalists with debt and usury

Despite this financing/debt spiral, the Spanish couldn’t keep up with paying their troops. For eight long decades, the crown sent huge numbers of soldiers (way more per capita than what the U.S. sent to Vietnam) to maintain a war against rebels in the Netherlands, which was then a Spanish colony. This effort was, ultimately, to no avail. Spanish expeditionary troops there mutinied 45 times between 1572 and 1607, over lack of pay.12

By the 1550s, the crown even resorted to impounding loads of bullion that came in on private ships—these were set-asides made by conquistadors and other colonists hoping to amass wealth for an early retirement. The expatriates’ ability to accumulate private wealth was eventually limited by law.13

Ironically, the richest nation on Earth—this dying feudalist hangover—was hurtling toward financial Armageddon. Such was the entry of capitalism onto the European scene, as Spanish silver flowed into banks in Italy, the Netherlands, Spain itself, and the Holy Roman Empire (roughly equivalent to modern Germany), while the crown’s debt catapulted out of control.

Immiseration of the masses

Meanwhile, in the last half of the 16th Century, prices of food and other basic commodities soared as the cost of living doubled across Europe, and tripled in some places. While the bankers became rich, the inflation increasingly contributed to a general immiseration of the masses. Peasants, the poor, and working people were driven into impoverishment, and revolts spread across Europe. The advantages that had accrued to the working people and peasant survivors of the Black Death of the mid 1300s—which wiped out a third of Europe’s population, thus increasing bargaining power for the rest—was effectively wiped out during this period.

In this way the nascent capitalists bankers not only transferred wealth into their hands at the expense of both the masses and the feudalists, but also developed a pattern of state debt which continues to be the dominant paradigm under capitalism today.

The “Columbian Exchange” produces the Little Ice Age

“You believe perhaps, gentlemen, that the production of coffee and sugar is the natural destiny of the West Indies. Two centuries ago, nature, which does not trouble herself about commerce, had planted neither sugarcane nor coffee trees there.”

—Karl Marx, “On the Question of Free Trade”14

The general immiseration of the European masses in the late 16th century was offset to some extent by the importation of new crops from the Americas, such as maize, beans, and most importantly, the potato, which provided critical new food sources. But while important, these were just some of the consequences of the “Columbian Exchange,” in which the European invasion of the Americas, and the development of world-wide trade and colonization following the “discovery” of the New World, led to the greatest intermingling of hitherto separately-evolved biological species that the world has ever seen. The European exploration and exploitation in the New World led to an explosion of “invasive species,” starting with devastating disease infestations that wiped out three-quarters of the native populations of the Americas—certainly one of the greatest disasters in human history.

As a result of this mass die-off, native peoples were mostly no longer around to perform their traditional slash and burn agricultural practices, which had been employed for centuries. This led to a widespread pattern of smoke-free reforestation in the Americas, which had a cooling effect on the planet—an episode of “climate change” in reverse. This produced the “Little Ice Age,” which proceeded from about 1550 to 1750. This had devastating effects in Europe, including phenomena such as late springs, excessively snowy winters and many years of lost crops. In China, the Little Ice Age ravaged crops with excessively heavy rains.

Most of these invironmental effects were not only unentintional, but completely misunderstood at the time. Soon, however, capitalist industrialization and land-clearing in the Americas would reverse this trend again, and send carbon dioxide levels and global warming back up. Yet just as capitalist exploitation of labor and distruction of nature is sending the planet over the cliff of catastrophic climate change today, so the roots of this disaster were being well laid in the 16th century.15

Primitive accumulation grows up

Today’s capitalist imperialism continues apace with the same kind of “primitive” capital accumulation from the formerly colonized world, only now without the adversaries of feudal monarchies seeking mercantile riches. These have been shunted aside in the16th Century struggles, and finally in the bourgeois revolution (1789-1848). The bankers who won the battle with the monarchs have now morphed into imperialist titans, and rule in their own right. But the U.S. and other imperial powers—now fully and openly controlled by finance-capital tops of the bourgeoisie—still rape the world through neo-liberal economic policies which derive directly from their 16th century forebears.

The appropriation by the Spanish colonialists of the native peoples’ labor through the “mita” duty of service was of a piece with the “enclosures,” which robbed the peasants of their commonly-held lands in England and other countries. Great fortunes continue to be made today, as full-blown capitalist imperialism secures the riches of former colonies around the world with the same vandalism—thinly-disguised now as “free trade”—as their mercantile imperialist forebears had done. “Neo-liberal” policies such as NAFTA have resulted in driving three-quarters of Mexican farmers off their land; and in the bull-market gobbling up of so-called “waste” land in Africa and elsewhere to grow bio-fuel crops.

And in the legal world of salvage law—which, like the rest of the legal realm, reflects the interests of the ruling class—the Spanish monarchy must still be upheld when it comes to those silver pesos buried in the ocean deep. Capitalist imperialists never forget their roots in the primitive accumulation of olde—a sunken man-o-war still “belongs to the flag” of capitalism.

Bolivian Workers Wage Revolutionary Struggles

In Bolivia today, the working class, led chiefly by the miners, has engaged in heroic class struggles against local oligarchies and imperialist incursions. Convulsive social conflict erupted into a war over the attempted water privatization in Cochabamba in 2000, in which the masses eventually emerged victorious.  This was followed by the “gas wars” of 2003 and 2005, which began as protests against contract give-aways which surrendered Bolivia’s gas wealth to international energy giants.  Huge protests peaking in 2005 were met with violent repression, which brought the country to the edge of civil war, and posed the question of workers revolution. This was something that was talked about in the streets, in the markets, on the radio and in the press: 

“In May and June 2005, massive protests and street fighting broke out, spearheaded, once again, by the miners.  Indigenous peasants, poor people from the cities and students grouped themselves around the miners, who used their dynamite to defend themselves against army sharpshooters and military police…. The country was once again on the edge of civil war, culminating in the demonstrators driving Congress out of the capital: the Bolivian parliament had to run away from La Paz! … I heard nightly discussions: is there going to be a military coup, is there going to be a civil war in the full sense, what are the conditions that could lead to a revolution, there is no revolutionary leadership at this point that could defeat the bourgeoisie and carry out a successful uprising, and so forth.”16

While their class-consciousness is high, Bolivian workers continue to be hampered by lack of true working class revolutionary leadership.  Populist Evo Morales stepped into the gap, by espousing “progressive” ideas, while promoting compromise with the bourgeois governments and parties.  Recognized as the first indigenous head of state in South America (though not in Latin America as a whole—that distinction goes to Benito Juarez, president of Mexico from 1858 to 1872), Morales has presided over fake nationalizations (which were little more than tax hikes), actually managed to make the land reform situation worse, and betrayed most of his electoral promises. He has not fundamentally altered the oppression and exploitation faced by the miners, or the indigenous population as a whole.

Imperialist debt grip = death grip

The descendants of the 16th Century miners in the Spanish Americas deserve justice, as do all the peoples of the former colonies of the mercantile empires, and of their modern financial-imperialist descendants.  For five centuries, these peoples have been oppressed, exploited and persecuted, sometimes to the point of extinction.  They have been driven off their farms and seen their lands torn up in increasingly brutal enclosures and resource extractions, under all stages of an ever-worsening imperialist expansion.  This is part of a world-wide phenomenon, as imperialism today consolidates its death grip on the world.  The big banks have a debt-grip on most of the world’s governments such as to make any 16th century Flemish banker proud. Much working-class anger has been aroused around the world, as seen from Cairo to Wisconsin.  But most of this anger has been diverted into reformist traps such as the Democratic Party in the U.S., or Islamic extremist illusions in the Middle East, and other dead ends.

In Latin America resistance has been fierce, and at times quite revolutionary in intent, but success has mostly been elusive.  The “Bolivarian” revolutions (after Simon Bolivar) that swept the continent in the early 19th century, sent the imperialists from the Iberian peninsula packing for the most part, and brought national independence to most of the countries.  (The new state of Bolivia was carved out of the old Viceroyalty of Peru in the course of these struggles.)  But the old overlords were replaced by local oligarchies, private property and capitalism reigned supreme, and the people were still exploited both by local oppressors and the new imperialist power to the north.  Only Cuba, following its 1959 revolution, was finally liberated from capitalism.

True justice for the oppressed masses of Latin America first of all requires the complete and total liberation from both U.S. imperialism, local exploitative regimes, and capitalism itself.  No national “liberation” is complete without this.  Yet no multi-class “national liberation” movement can accomplish these tasks.  The world’s producing class, the workers, by taking power in their own name, have the power to remake the world to serve the real needs of the masses.  This requires a revolutionary leadership to guide the workers to a revolutionary program, and combat the counter-revolutionary obstacles presented by petty-bourgeois nationalists, Stalinists and social-democrats of all stripes.  

Today the vast resources of the earth are monopolized by a handful of the very rich in New York, London and a few other places. But making workers revolution world-wide, including in the imperial centers, will provide the basis for erasing the scars of imperialist oppression and exploitation in the third world, and ending forever the system that still worships silver and gold, over the lives of so many.

1 Quoted in “Spain Gains Access To Trove of Shipwreck Coins,” New York Times, 21 February 2012.

2 Quoted in “Shipwrecked Silver Begins Voyage Back To Spain,” by Mitch Stacy, Associated Press, 24 February 2012

3 John Demos, “The High Place: Potosi,” in “Early Cities of the Americas,”

4 Eduardo Galeano, “Open Veins of Latin America,” 1997, p. 21. Note that the reference to “the Inca” refers to the god-king, in this case Huayna Capaj, who stood for and led the Inca people.

5 For information on silver production in the Americas during this period, see, in addition to the John Demos piece, “Silver In History,”; and Charles C Mann’s fascinating historical discourse in the volume, “1493, Uncovering the New World Columbus Created,” New York, 2011.

6 Charles C Mann, “1493,” page 142.

7 Silvia Federici, “Caliban and the Witch,” Autonomedia, Brooklyn NY, 2004, pages 110 and 230.

8 Mann, ibid, page 144.

9 Mann, ibid, page 304.

10“The Devil’s Miner,” Independent Lens,

11 Mann, “1493,” pages 154-55.

12 Mann, ibid, p. 28

13 Federici, “Caliban and the Witch,” p. 241

14 Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, here quoted in Galeano, “Open Veins of Latin America,” p. 65

15 Alfred W Crosby, in “Ecological Imperialism, The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900 - 1900,” 1986, pioneered modern thinking on the Columbian Exchange; and see Mann, “1493” for more on this, and pages. 29 - 34, for a discussion of the causes of the Little Ice Age.

16Abram Negrete, eyewitness account, recorded in “Bolivia: Evo Morales Against the Workers and Oppressed,” The Internationalist, September 2007,