14 October 2010
Mining the collections
We’re so used to seeing bad news on TV or in the papers that it was a real delight to watch the Chilean miners emerging slowly but safely into the arms of their families and loved ones (though I do wonder if the miner who asked both his wife and mistress to meet him might have been better off staying down there). I’m not sure that I would have wanted such a media frenzy to welcome me up but everyone seemed to cope with it pretty well, and these days the notion of privacy doesn’t carry much weight. And who can deny such a national, if not global cause for celebration, particularly after the impact of the February earthquake on the country. I also enjoyed the newspapers vying for punning headlines (my favourite has to be ‘The Freed Hot Chile Fellas,’ which is probably the only time you will ever get me quoting from The Sun).
Mining of course has a very long history in Latin America – just consider all the Inca and Aztec gold. And, as usual, I can’t help but relate events to our collections. When we were researching for our recent exhibition on Spanish American Independence, we came across images of mines in many of the travellers accounts, particularly of the silver mine in Potosí (in present day Bolivia but then in the Viceroyalty of Peru) and also in Mexico. Mining was a very lucrative enterprise for the Spanish Crown in its American colonies, but many of the mines were destroyed or abandoned in the period after the wars of independence. The new republics then revived the industry by attracting foreign investment, expertise and technology. As early as the 1820s, British entrepreneurs were starting to invest capital in the modernisation of Spanish American mines, sending machinery and specialised workforces. Copper, one of the main natural resources of Chile, was a very profitable metal at that time. Aware of the financial opportunities on offer, many British miners started to emigrate to the country and Chile now has the largest population of British descent in Latin America.
But mining continues to be a dangerous business - read Ariel Dorfman on the subject of mining in Chile in The Guardian