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February 23, 2016

Tidbits from History – In the Silver mines

Silver—that critical commodity of the Spanish world came from mines throughout Mexico.

Silver provided the wealth in the 1750s           I hadn’t planned it as research, but after a memorable visit to Zacatecas with its magnificent churches and deep silver mines, I couldn’t help imagine what it must have been like for those who worked there.

The native people worked in the mines every year as part of their ‘mita’ or payment to the Spanish government.  San Miguel de Allende, with its narrow cobble stone roads, sat astride the route from the mines to Mexico City. While I was there, it brought to mind the experiences of my evil villain Garza. I had included a description of his work in the mines in my first book. After this experience is it any wonder Garza turned against the Spanish and offered to sell guns to the British?

Garza has just been captured by Spanish soldiers with his father for working as highwaymen and stealing from the coaches on the roads around Monterrey. Garza, still a young boy of 15, is sent to the mines for punishment.

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende

“The memories of the next months blurred in his mind. A wagon ride with other prisoners, the filthy cells at the mine, the rattle of chains as the soldiers locked them to the walls at night, the fear when the mine guards came at dawn to force them at gunpoint down into the mine. He could still feel the cold air blowing up from the depths as they stumbled down the ladders into the dark. At the bottom, the guards placed a leather strap across his forehead, stretched it behind him and loaded the bag on his back with the rocks that would become silver far above them in the light of day.

“That first climb had been pain beyond bearing. The thick rounded rungs of the wooden ladder, wet from the constant drip of water in the dark shaft, slipped under his hands. His leather boots slithered off the rungs, banging his shins and slamming the load of rock against his back. He felt his head jerked backward, almost breaking his neck. The arches of his feet, unaccustomed to the pressure, ached as he stepped up from rung to rung. Each step became agony. He tried to slide his feet so the balls of his feet took the weight, but several times his booted foot slipped off the rungs, leaving him dangling and scrambling for purchase. His hands and arms quivered as he grasped the slick wood and struggled to pull the heavy load from one rung to the next.

Mixed races

Natives paid their mita

“He had not been able to turn his head but he knew not to slip. The shaft extended deep into the earth and he had heard—since he could not see—one of the natives lose his grip and fall from the ladder. His screams, and the sound of flesh splitting and bones breaking had echoed in the stygian darkness growing fainter as the body bounced from level to level, the rocks of his load rattling down with him.

“He had halted in fright, his hands frozen to the rungs. One of the guards had to climb down the ladder to beat him with a rawhide strap to keep him moving in the long line of carriers, to prevent him from impeding the progress of those behind him. The blows had fallen on his head and chest and arms as he cringed to avoid the leather strap. His only protection came from the heavy load on his back. He had cried in pain, but he had moved because he had to, because there was no place to go but up.

“On that first load, when he reached the top, his neck burned like red hot rods had been driven into his flesh. His forehead throbbed from the strap. The arches of his feet ached, shooting agonizing pain up into his legs and back from the pressure of the rungs. He knew he could not make the trip again. Death was preferable to going down again. The guards knew better.

Obverse of the Carlos III coin

Spanish silver coin

“The misery of those first few weeks still made him sick at his stomach. He learned to hate and he learned to fear. He had tried to escape, running when they reached the surface, before they could secure the chains around his ankles. The horsemen had run him down with ease and fifty lashes had left his back a bleeding mass. That had not earned him a reprieve from the ladders. The friction of the load had kept the wounds open and bloody for weeks. He swore revenge but he learned to keep it bottled deep inside.”

And that is the benefit of research.

About Caroline Castillo Crimm
Retired Professor Emeritus from Sam Houston State University, interested in writing novels and speaking about topics such as the history of Latin American. Would like to share the AMAZING world of the 18th century in Northern New Spain, that's Spanish Texas and Mexico!
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