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JEFFREY AUSTIN COLE, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The mita was a draft Indian labor system that Viceroy Francisco de Toledo developed in 1573 for the silver industry at Potos(')i (in colonial Upper Peru; current-day Bolivia). For a brief period the mita served, in combination with the introduction of amalgamation technology, stockpiles of previously unrefinable ore and a large capital investment by the mine and mill owners (azogueros) to cause a boom in production.^ By 1600, however, the stockpiles of ore had been exhausted and the boom had given way to decreasing levels of silver production at Potos(')i. The Indians who were serving in the mita (mitayos) had become more important to the industry, because they were now the principal means of obtaining ore, but their condition had deteriorated. As their own profits fell, the Indians began to flee from Potos(')i and from the provinces that were subject to the mita. Their migration, which was caused by tribute requirements and other labor obligations as well, disrupted the social, economic and political order that the Spanish were trying to impose upon the Indians. Their method of resisting the invaders was passive, but the Indians were neither conquered nor submissive victims of the mita.^ The group that was caught between the continuing demand for mitayos at Potos(')i and the decreasing number of Indians in the provinces was the caciques (Indian nobles). They were the key to the entire system, because they delivered the Indians to the mines and the mills. At first the caciques were able to meet their quotas by abridging the legal restrictions on the recruitment of the mitayos. But in the early seventeenth century they found themselves fined for the growing number of Indians that they were unable to deliver, and a new form of mita service was founded: service in silver, ostensibly to hire substitutes. By 1630, between one-third and one-half of the total delivery of mitayos to Potos(')i was made in money. The azogueros used some of the silver they received from the caciques for operating funds, rather than to hire laborers. The mita therefore became a capital subsidy as well as forced labor system.^ The Hapsburg government of colonial Peru opposed the new form of mita service because it was an unauthorized arrangement between the azogueros and the caciques to which it was not a party. The crown's ability to counter the de facto mita was restricted, however, by its isolation in Spain, by the time that was consumed by trans-Atlantic correspondence and by its own bureaucracy. The viceroys who were stationed in Lima were plagued by similar problems, and they depended upon the President of the Audiencia de Charcas and the Corregidor de Potos(')i to administer the mita on a daily basis. A constant interplay of personal and professional jealousies among these officials, the viceroy's reluctance to innovate and the contradictory orders that were issued from Lima and Madrid complicated the government's efforts to reform the mita to the point of near-total ineffectiveness.^ In 1670, the Viceroy Conde de Lemos determined that the system could not be purged of the azogueros' misuse of mita service in silver and the other abuses that stemmed from it, and he proposed that the system be abolished. The crown was reluctant to accept the loss of revenue that such an act would have entailed, and instead it ordered a total reformation of the mita. That program was executed during the 1680s, under the Viceroy Duque de la Palata. It too failed, because it was based on an untenable premise: that the Toledan mita could be re-established despite 110 years of economic, political and demographic change in Peru. ^

Subject Area

Latin American history

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