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Tales of Old Potosi - Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela

1657 - The Twelve Apostles and Magdalene


I am rich Potosí,
Treasure of the world,
The king of all mountains,
And the envy of all kings.

Potosí is a mining town in the Bolivian Andes and has the distinction of being the highest (in elevation, that is) inhabited city in the world at almost 14,000 feet (4,090 meters) above sea level. Once a part of the great Inca empire, its people and it's mountain of silver also fell victim to the Spanish conquest.

Potosí embraced one of the largest and richest silver lodes ever found on earth.

All was hidden except for a massive outcropping of ore three hundred feet long and thirteen feet wide—50 per cent pure silver—that had been uncovered by centuries of erosion. It appears likely the Incas knew of it; they were efficient in maintaining precise knowledge and control of the gold, silver, lead, copper, tin and mercury deposits within their realms. Their silver mines of Ccolque Porco, about twenty miles from Potosí, but at a lower elevation, were well developed and very rich. Since their use of precious metals was essentially artistic and decorative, and gold and silver lacked the intrinsic value assigned to them by European cultures, the Incas were content to exploit the more accessible deposits for the limited quantities they
required. (1)

The lust for treasure that motivated the Spanish was sated when they first cut into the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) of Potosí in 1545. For over two hundred years, the mountain yielded more than half of the world's production of silver. This flow of wealth financed Spain's empire, influenced the course of European economic development and bolstered Europe's trade relations with China. During the colonial period, the Cerro Rico became world-famous, the subject of chronicles, poems, and paintings that celebrated its grandeur and generosity.

At the same time, the mining project in Potosí provoked one of the worst demographic disasters in history. In 1575, the viceroy of Peru, Francisco de Toledo, created the m'ita, a forced-labor system that remained in place for 250 years. Under the m'ita, some three million Quechua Indians were forced to work in the mines. Hundreds of thousands died there, of disease, from accidents, and at the brutal hand of their masters. Peasants fled as best they could, abandoning the land, but many were forced into reducciones, concentration areas where they could be counted and conscripted.

Although historians disagree over the size of the pre-conquest population, they concur that over the course of the m'ita (1572-1825), the native population of the Andes declined by 80 percent.

Inca DevilEven today the miners of Potosí "worship" a devil, a rapacious deity with the clothes of a miner and the beard of a Spaniard. Several times a year, they sacrifice llamas to this being, adorning the mouth of the mine with blood, so that he will not eat them. At carnival time, the miners dance out their history, dressed as Spanish lords, African slaves, and the devil.

There have been men, who having entered only out of curiosity to see that horrible labyrinth, have come out totally robbed of color, and (grinding tooth against tooth) have not been able to pronounce a word; they have not known even how to ponder it nor make reference to the terrors that are in there, because there are places where no matter how high you lift your head you cannot see the top, and looking below you cannot see the bottom; on one side you see a horror, on another a fright, and everything that you see in there is all confusion. —Bartolome Arzans de Orsua y Vela, History of the Imperial City of Potosí , 1703.

1657 - The Twelve Apostles and Magdalene

Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela was born in Potosí in 1676, his father having arrived from Spain in 1643. He had no formal education since opportunities for such were did not exist in the town, although it was once the largest city in New Spain. He married a woman considerably older than himself and lived a quite ordinary life. He lived his entire life in Potosí and died there in 1736 at the age of sixty. However, as a self-taught man, Arzáns kept a journal about the people and happenings in Potosí, and it is from this journal come the stories you will read over the next 2-3 issues of Pacaritambo.

conquistador It was during the administration of General Don Francisco Sarmiento that the evil-doing and rash actions of twelve men who blasphemously and sacrilegiously took the name of “the Twelve Apostles and Magdalene” were at their height. Their notoriety was great, not only in Potosi but in all the provinces round about. This band was composed of men of various nations and stole not only property but also honor, violating maidens and married women alike, as well as committing a thousand other acts of insolence. Following their example, many other thieves and idle and sinful folk, both in the city and in its vicinity, were responsible for public insults, robberies, and thefts, for evil-doing of this king is open to all, and such folk seize the opportunity and take advantage of the fact that the law is busy elsewhere and preoccupied with what is easiest to remedy.

Persons who saw these evil men and suffered from their depredations state that instead of being only twelve in number they were a gang of more than fifty, and that they were known to be persons from many nations who might well have called themselves nobles had they not clouded their honor with such evil. Potosi so greatly feared their depredations that all the householders stayed up at night, watching over their homes with weapons in hand; but despite such precautions these wicked men did great damage because they were so numerous. Those blasphemers who called themselves Apostles gave the name of Magdalene to one of their number; they dressed him in women’s clothing, and he would precede them into the houses, sometimes pretending to be a woman whose husband was trying to kill her. The householders would open the door to help her, and then the accomplices would enter and loot the house.

In the month of October, 1657, the following incident took place involving those evil men. There lived in the Plazuela de San Lorenzo one Dona Martina Diaz de Lucu, a noble and virtuous lady who at that time was a widow; she had two unmarried daughters, equally beautiful and virtuous. The special devotion of these maidens was for the blessed souls in purgatory, and they made offerings and did works of charity for their sakes. Owing to the servants’ carelessness one night the door of their house as left open; and when the Apostles chanced upon it they went in, entering the house to pillage it. When the girls heard the noise they came out, and the thieves immediately seized them and began to wrangle over who had the most right to them. Both girls, seeing themselves in such imminent danger, called out, “Souls in purgatory, help us!” As soon as they invoked them, the thieves seemed to see thousands of men and fled in such haste that they tripped over each other. The girls then locked the doors and found in the patio a pouch containing two thousand pesos that the thieves had stolen elsewhere and, in their fright and haste, they had left behind.

The affair became known on the following morning, and the neighbors said that they had seen innumerable men pursuing the thieves out of the house, wielding weapons and striking them as they fled. Dona Martina and her daughters were asked who they might be, and they replied that they had not seen any such men, but only the thieves fleeing. And so they realized that the blessed souls of purgatory, the objects of their devotion, had come to their aid. The good lady Dona Martina divided the money between her daughters and the blessed souls, ordering many masses to be said for them in gratitude.

In that same year there was another very amusing occurrence in connection with the so-called Twelve Apostles. In this imperial city there lived the bachelor Trotrolo, a clever priest of a very witty turn of mind, for there can be no wit where there is no intelligence; and he was lively and spirited as well. One night, since he customarily went to be very late, he was coming along the Calle de Copacabana when, emerging opposite the cemetery, he met them. That day he was wearing for the first time a new cloak of double taffeta and a cassock of rich cloth. When he saw that he was surrounded by the thieves he said to them very calmly, “Who are you?” The answered, “the Twelve Apostles.” Again he questioned, “And what do you want?” “That cassock,” they said, “your cloak, your hat, and the silver in your purse.” To this the priest replied with admirable coolheadedness, “And do you want nothing more?” They said that the did not. “Well, if you want nothing more,” replied the priest, “here is what you asked me for,” and he began to take off his garments. “I want to give them to your lordships folded and neat,” he said. Oh, how inspiring is necessity and how sharp is human sagacity when fate makes life, solace, or some other good dependent upon its exercise! The thieves waited very civilly, and after the good priest had made a bundle of his garments and fastened them with his sash, he said to them, “So your worships are the Twelve Apostles?” They answered, “We have already told you so.” The priest replied, “Then let the Twelve apostles follow Christ,” and so saying, he ran down the street with indescribable swiftness, keeping tight hold of the bundle containing his clothes; although they ran headlong after him, they could not catch him. And so he escaped.

The Tales of Potosí by Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela, translated by Frances M. López-Morillas, edited by R. C. Padden (out of print, but Amazon says they can get it or it is probably available at your library).