Labouring to Choose, Choosing to Labour: Coercion and Choice in the Potosi Mita


  • Matthew Smith



The Spanish colonial labour regime in Latin America was known as the mita, and provided the Indian workers needed for numerous Spanish enterprises. The best known of the mita institutions was the Potosi mita, which lasted from 1573 to 1825. It drafted male Indians from the Viceroyalty of Peru to work in the huge Spanish silver mines at Potosi. The mita placed a heavy burden on the backs of Indian peasants, and adversely affected village life, since many Indians migrated to escape the harsh conditions of the mines. Yet while the Indians suffered as a result of Spanish colonial oppression, it would be a mistake to see them simply as passive victims; in fact, they exercised personal agency in a number of significant ways. One of these hots was by choosing whether to go to the mines or to migrate. Another way was by deciding either to leave Potosi after serving their time of forced labour or to stay on as voluntary workers, which had considerable economic benefits; and indeed, many of them elected to stay. Ironically, in giving the Indians this latter choice, the coercion of the Potosi mita ended up creating the voluntary long-term labour force that the Spanish had hoped for from the start.

Author Biography

Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith completed on M. A. at the University of Alberta on the history of attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder and American psychiatry. He currently works as a career advisor at the Northern Institute of Technology, and plans to begin o Ph.D. program studying the history of psychiatry soon. His article is the result of taking a graduate student seminar on colonial Latin American history at the University of Alberta.