A historical even we did not know about has recently been uploaded to the English-language Wikipedia.  It’s all about the War between the Vicuñas and the Basques for the control of Potosí, in modern-day Bolivia, between 1622 and 1625.  So what happened?  Well, we’re not going to go too far into it ourselves, as we’re attaching some great reading to this article, but we did not to perhaps provide a bit of context to explain why this area was so important in the 17th century.

Potosí is in southern Bolivia at an elevation of 4,067 m or 13,343 ft, and is one of the three highest cities in the world.  It owes its existence to the extraordinary silver deposits inside the mountain that gave the town its name.  Thanks to them, Potosí became one of the great wealth producers of the Spanish Empire for almost two centuries, until the mines ran out.  In 1650, this city was the largest in the Americas, and one of the largest in the world, with 160,000 residents (more than London or Paris).  And, that city and that wealth were under the control of the Basques, to the point that:

El trabajo organizado, constante y tenaz de los vascos y su consecuente poderío económico, despierta la envidia en otros grupos étnicos españoles y en los hijos de españoles nacidos en América (criollos), que bajo el liderazgo de Alonso de Ibáñez (1.617) se rebelan contra el orden establecido, provocando la guerra entre vicuñas (criollos) y vascongados.

The organized, constant, and tenacious labor of the Basques and their consequent economic power awoke jealousy among other Spanish ethnic groups and in the children of the Spaniards born in the Americas (creoles), who, under the leadership of Alonso de Ibáñez, rebelled in 1617 against the established order, triggering a war between the vicuñas (creoles) and the Basques.  (Bolivia en la red. Departamento de Potosí)

So, the Spaniards and their creole children rebelled agains tthe control the Basques had of the city’s mines and institutions.  They had achieved this control thanks to their ability to set up the mines, to organize as “the Basque nation” (the first Guild of Aranzazu in all the Americas was in Potosí), and their skilled use of the rights afforded them by their status as hidalgos.  This all meant that in a time when there was no equality (even for the conquistadors themselves), the Basques were able to rise to a very favorable position, despite their small numbers among the colonial population as a whole.

This all means, therefore, that we’re not talking about “good guys” and “bad guys”, but rather the fact the leaders of one group of colonists, the Vicuñas, who were the largest group, did not accept that the very small Basque community had managed to amass almost complete control of the mines and public offices in the town.  It wasn’t a struggle between owners and workers, but rather groups of power who wanted control of the means of production and the positions of power in the city government.  Perhaps the most important matter here is to understand the differences in attitude and ability at the time that allowed the Basque community to achieve this highly influential position.

The Basques did not “conquer” the mines: they created the business that exploited them and made the profitable, for themselves and for the Crown, for whom having the guarantee of continuous extraction and transformation of the wealth that came out of Potosí Mountain was fundamental in their plans to expand and dominate Europe.  The Basques shone as businessmen and traders in the New World colonies.

And we do mean between Spaniards and Basques, because among the latter were also Basques from north of the Pyrenees (it is well known that many Northern Basques crossed the mountains and passed themselves off as Southerners in order to be able to emigrate to South America).  The confrontation lasted for three years, and the final result was that the Basques maintained their position, and the leaders of the vicuñas became outlaws.

Two interesting factoids:

First there was the fact that on the Basque side, alongside the “members of the Basque nation” (people from Biscay, Alava, Gipuzkoa, Navarre, and the mountains) were the Catalans.  And secondly, we can see how, in the middle of the war, one of the Vicuña leaders, Juan Fernández de Tovar, decided to take the vows.  It seems his sudden conversion had a lot to do with a 20,000 peso debt (quite a fortune) that he couldn’t pay.  Perhaps seeing that he couldn’t get quick access to the wealth of the Basques, which would have freed him of his debt, made him see the light, and he joined the Franciscan order.

Representación del Cerro del Potosi
Depiction of the Cerro del Potosí

As we said, this is the first time we’ve found information about this historical event, but it wasn’t hard to find more resources that cover it, which we’re going to include in this entry should anyone’s interest have been piqued (like ours was).

We hope you enjoy learning about this quite curious event.

Note: in the blog, we do have an entry about a novel by José María Esparza which is about this war.

Wikipedia  – 28/8/2011 – Encyclopedia (English-language edition)

Basque-Vicuña war

The Basque-Vicuña war (Spanish: Guerra de Vicuñas y Vascongados) was an armed conflict in Alto Peru, present-day Bolivia, that lasted between June 1622 and March 1625, fought between Basques and “Vicuñas” (an informal term for non-Basque Spaniards, a name obtained through the habit of wearing hats made of vicuña skins).Competition over the control of the silver mines in Potosí, Lípez and Chichas surged in the early 17th century, pitting Basques and Vicuñas against each other.[2] The Vicuñas had initially employed legal and political measures attempting to block the Basque attempts to monopolize control over the Cabildo (municipal government) of Potosí and the silver mining sector. However, these efforts did not yield results. Violent incidents began in 1615, and escalated in 1622 following the assassination of a Basque of a street in Potosí.

(Follow) (Automatic translation)

Google Books

Potosi: The Silver City That Changed the World

Written by Kris Lane


Google Books

El espíritu emprendedor de los vascos

Written by Alfonso Otazu,José Ramón Díaz de Durana



Revista de Estudios Americanos. – 2002

La “nación vascongada” y sus luchas en el Potosí del siglo XVII.

Written by Jurgi Kintana Goiriena




Last Updated on Jul 9, 2020 by About Basque Country

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