Postcard from 1611

Potosi, a onetime boomtown

Photo of Potosí, Bolivia from Wikipedia.

While reading 1493 the other night, I came across the best description of a city I’ve seen in years.

The [population] grew to 160,000 by 1611. Potosí was as big as London or Amsterdam. It was the highest, richest city in the world.

Lawless, louche, and luxurious, Potosí set the template for countless boomtowns afterward. Courtesans in Chinese silk walked on Persian carpets in rooms sprinkled with scented water. Miners gave fortunes to beggars and spent fortunes on swords and clothes and elaborate celebrations. In a market-stall bidding war, two men drove the price for a single fish to five thousand silver pesos, many years’ income for most Europeans … ‘I am rich Potosí,’ crowed the city coat of arms, ‘the treasure of the world, the king of the mountains, the envy of kings.’ ” (1493, Ch. 4)


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