Mercury, Mining, and Empire

Nov 10, 2011

Detail of a silver refining mill in Potosi

The roots of today’s global economy can be traced all the way back to Peru in 1569. That’s when a new Spanish viceroy arrived in pursuit of silver that would be used to fund the empire of Spain. Spain’s riches would filter throughout China and Europe, eventually helping fund England’s industrial revolution. But that silver was not easy to get. A popular method of refining the precious metal relied on mercury – with toxic consequences. Host Frank Stasio talks about the history of silver mining with Nicholas Robins, a lecturer in the Department of History at North Carolina State University and author of the book “Mercury, Mining, and Empire: The Human and Ecological Cost of Colonial Silver Mining in the Andes" (Indiana University Press/2011).