Bolivia's Potosi mountain yielded more silver than any other mountain or region of the world. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this wealth flowed through Spain into Europe and played a major role in the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and trade with Asia. Yet the grueling work of extracting the silver was left to indigenous Andeans, who were enslaved by the Spanish and died by the millions on the mountain. This unknown tragedy remains one of the darkest secrets of the colonial era.
Today, Potosi maintains a unique culture based on its epic past. Approximately eighteen thousand Quechua miners still search for trace amounts of silver, tin, and zinc. Inside the mountain, miners worship the lord of the mineral realm, who is represented as a sexually potent devil with the face of a Spaniard; outside, miners' widows pick through discarded mine tailings for bits of metal.
On numerous trips to Bolivia, photographer Stephen Ferry ventured deep into the mountain and documented the life and culture of Potosi. His images show the work that still takes place in and around the mountain and the related traditions that have been developed and maintained since the time of the Spaniards; the major institutions of civic life; and the mountain's legacy of sickness, death, and sacrifice. A penetrating essay by eminent historian Eduardo Galeano describes both the immense riches of colonial Potosi and the equally monumental suffering of the indigenous population. Both historical record and passionate denunciation, Ferry's portrait illuminates the world of Potosi, which echoes back to the birth of modern Europe yet remains the poorest place in the Americas.