The Pre-Columbian natives of Mexico were mining gold, silver and other minerals long before the Spanish arrived at the New World in 1492. It was not long after the Spanish arrived that they began enslaving the indigenous people of Hispaniola to mine precious metals for them. These Indios were forced into slave labor; having to use crude inefficient tools and making it extremely hard to quarry the metal ore. The mines were poorly ventilated, had unsafe long narrow shafts and deep tunnels that were subject to flooding, they had inferior wooden ladders and supports. Long grueling hours in the severely harsh environment, along with poor food, contributed to many of the deaths endured by the native people.
By 1510 the Dominican Catholic Missionaries petitioned the Spanish Crown to enact laws restricting the cruel forced labor. Through their efforts the Laws of Burgos of 1513 were enacted, restricting the use of Indian labor. The laws governed how much time the Indios could spend on certain classifications of work and requiring specific times to rest. Indian villages were required to have tribal members, over 15 years of age, to serve only one month of each year, but the labor was still extraordinarily difficult and was enough to kill or seriously injure the strongest of men. Women, who were pregnant, 16 weeks or more, were not required to work. The laborers were to be paid a wage that was thought “just”. However, the wages were so low that it barely kept the Indios from starvation. In addition, for their benefit, Indian villages were to be located in close proximity to the mines, a church and a hospital. They were to be given better food and clothing and woman were restricted from heavy work. The Indians were still slaves without being owned; in affect this law alleviated slave owners from being responsible for taking care of the workers under the guise of being free. To help the Indios, the missionaries supported the importing of African slaves to do the hardest work in the mines and fields. Ultimately, to accomplish their goal, they convinced the Crown that African chattel would create a new source of income while relieving the Amerindians of the hardest work.
The ultimate goal of the Spaniards was to seek out the mythical golden city of El Dorado. When Hernan Cortes arrived in Thenochtitlan in 1519 Moctezuma II gave him huge amounts of gold and silver; hoping the Conquistador and his men would go away satisfied, instead it only fueled their greed. There was so much silver shipped from the mines of the Americas to Spain, that it ruined the German silver trade and established silver coinage as the currency for buying and selling in Europe.
The common people of Spain never shared in the wealth of the elite. Spain did not use the wealth wisely, that they exploited from the New World but rather, squandered it on unnecessary wars and imported everything they needed from other European countries. Instead of investing in their own country by developing industry and farming, they imported grain, fabric, paper, books, building materials, jewelry, etc. Spain created an imbalance of trade by importing more than they exported plus their willingness to pay higher prices for the goods than other countries could not or would not pay, they caused inflation throughout Europe. The Spanish Crown was borrowing money on the expected shipments of silver, putting the country constantly into debt. When payments were late the interest rates rose substantially, driving the country’s debt still higher. Most of the borrowed money was put into military activities, fighting unsuccessful wars. In 1575, King Phillip went bankrupt and could not pay his troops who were occupying the Netherlands; they mutinied. At the end of the 16th Century, Cortes wrote: “Although our kingdom could be the richest in the world for the abundance of gold and silver that have come into it and continue to come in from the Indies, it ends up as the poorest because it serves as a bridge across which gold and silver pass to other kingdoms that are our enemies.”
Not to sound political, but the truth is, exploiting resources, accumulating excessive debt, the lack of creating home industry, importing more than exporting, fighting seemingly useless wars and outsourcing, can lead a country into bankruptcy. George Santayana, a 19th century Spanish philosopher, said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”