Potosí, Charcas, New Spain
They call it Silver Mountain, but it has only brought misery to my people.
My head hurts. Kneeling, I plunge both arms into the pool of gray sludge, feeling for another lump of stone. My fingers close around a rock and I haul it out. A piece the size of an infant’s head. I know from overhearing the Spanish azoguero that after the bonding process with mercury, the silver in this rock is worth a small crate of porcelain. But I don’t know what porcelain is, except that it is some kind of platterware.
My head hurts. The sun burns. I place the rock in the cart behind me. I dip my arms into the pool again, and find nothing. I reach further, silvery sleeves coating copper skin. I find another rock. As big as a fist.
My head hurts. I wheeze. Still kneeling, I set my sweating forehead on the edge of the pool’s wooden containing wall. To my left, another laborer whispers at me to get up. To my right, I hear footsteps. One of the azoguero’s strongmen kicks me in the kidney, and I cry out, crumbling to the ground. Bile rises in my throat, and pain up my side. I vomit blood on the fist of silvery rock. I will urinate blood for a week. They know everyone’s kidneys hurt.
My name is Anta, and I will die at Silver Mountain for the sake of porcelain.
“What’s this?” Lucas asks as he crosses the Mateo’s desk with an ingot in his hand. The main room of the Potosí Mint is empty except for them.
Mateo does not look up from his ledger. “Silver.”
“No. This stripe in the bar. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mateo glances up, then leans in to peer at the silver ingot. A rust-colored stripe cuts through it. “A processing imperfection, most likely.”
“We can’t use this.” Lucas waves a hand to a stack of ingots across the room. The stack represents a cross-section of three days’ work. “We will have to check them all. Cut them open, look for imperfections, melt them down, and re-cast them.”
Mateo shrugs and goes back to his ledger. “Then do it.”
Lucas frowns. “It would be a waste of resources. The viceroy has set production quotas. Re-casting a whole section will put us weeks behind.”
Mateo shrugs again. “I am the records-keeper. You are the mint master. It is not my concern.”
“You could tell me which batch this is from.” Lucas flips the ingot over to point at a stamped number on the bottom.
Mateo shrugs again. Lucas scowls and tosses the ingot to Mateo’s desk, where it lands with a thud. Mateo’s ink bottle jumps and spills a black tide across the ledger.
Mateo scrambles to his feet, knocking over his chair. Dark splotches stain his trousers. “Pig!”
Filipe de Onis, dockmaster of Acapulco, taps his cane on a nailed crate. “Where is this one going?”
The half-Quechua caravaneer says, “Manila, sir.”
The half-Quechua nods to the African slave hauling the crate. The African sets it on the ground, and the caravaneer retrieves an iron rod from his mule-drawn cart to pry open the crate’s lid.
When he sees the ingots, Filipe knows he was correct to mistrust a half-Quechua. This is the first Quechua he has seen as a caravaneer. “This silver is low quality. Look at the colored imperfections. Useless in the Orient.” He waves towards the shore, beyond the warehouses, where the galleon San Agustin sways in the bay of Acapulco.
“I am sorry, dockmaster.”
“Where did you come from?”
“Potosí, by way of Hualpa.”
Filipe taps the crate with his cane again. “Tell me how the largest mint in God’s New Spain has produced such poor silver.”
The Quechua frowns. “I heard there was a problem with the refining process, and there was also a dispute between two overseers. One drunkenly killed the other over some slight or accident. The dispute would have greatly delayed the re-processing of so many tons of silver, so the governor decided to ship it as it is.”
“I will send a letter to Potosí’s governor. If you are lying, I will have you hanged.”
The Quechua smiles. “Then I am safe.”
Filipe decides he will not write the letter, but he does not like the Quechua’s smile. He will ensure the governor replaces him with a Spaniard, and will send this one to the mines to work alongside his people.
Joam slinks into the San Agustin’s cargo hold. He has no candle, and operates on touch alone, feeling along boxes, following the leather straps that fasten stacks together. The deck sways underneath him. Lumber planks creak as Pacific waves batter the San Agustin’s hull.
He finds the crate he is looking for by feeling for a misaligned cover, and pries it open with a spare rudder pin. The Red Shipment, he heard the captain call it. Cursed with blood, or impure bullion from pagan lands. Joam imagines few would miss it. He dips a hand into the box. His fingers touch cool, smooth metal.
A door creaks open, and there is light. Joam spins around. In a doorway to the lower decks, someone stands with a candle in a tin. “Who’s there?” Then, “Joam?”
Joam’s heart leaps into his throat. “Sebastian.” The light is too bright to see Sebastian’s face, but he recognizes his voice. The last person he wanted to run into. Sebastian is too upright, too fair.
“Joam, no. Not you. Why?”
Joam licks his lips. “One ingot, Sebastian. No one will care to tally it. Even if they do, it’s poor silver. Half value at best.”
“Replace the cover, Joam.”
“We each take one.” Joam steps closer, a hand raised to the light. “None need to know.”
“No. I won’t lose fingers over this.”
Joam lunges and pushes Sebastian to the wall, a palm over Sebastian’s mouth, a knife in his stomach. Sebastian’s eyes go wide. In that moment Joam knows he has made a poor decision. He will have to throw the knife and bloodied clothes overboard, without witnesses.
Then Joam feels the pistol barrel against his stomach. A crack, and a flash, and blooming pain.
Wu Yong picks at a slice of tuber with his eating sticks. It is a new variety that has become popular in recent years, brought over the sea from the far, far east. Starchy and quick to fry, it suits the merchants of Fujian well, who want quick meals and quicker transactions.
The tuber does not sit well in Yong’s stomach, nor does the day’s business.
Yong’s cousin, Jie, sits across from him and eats several slices at once. “This is your opportunity, Yong.”
Yong sets aside his sticks. “You have said as much many times today.”
“Let me help you. You failed the provincial examinations three times. Take it as a sign you aren’t meant for bureaucratic work. Nowadays, many scholars go into commerce if they can’t find government posts. There’s so much silver coming from the east, it’s easy to make a small fortune.”
Yong says, “You and I have read the classics, and memorized them for the exams. Please understand, I dedicated my education to words that have warned against the dangers of wealth for generations. It is hard to flip the wisdom of Master Kong upside-down in a single moment.”
Jie waves a hand in dismissal. “Wisdom changes. Haven’t you read The Ledger of Merit and Demerit? Trust me, in a hundred years its author will be as well-regarded as Master Kong. Spend your wealth on charity, and on your descendants’ education. In this way, wealth can be morally just.” Jie eats the last slice. “Come with me today, and I’ll show you how easy it is.”
Yong agrees, because the purpose of his visit to the city of Yuegang was to visit Jie, anyway. Yong’s father had pressured him into learning something from Jie as a fallback after Yong failed the exams again. It wasn’t as though Yong disliked Jie. Rather, he felt there were other options for scholars who did not win state posts. Yong could become a private tutor, or a commissioned essayist. Entering the merchant’s profession seemed crass.
Jie pays for their meal with a quarter-string of copper coins, and they leave the busy fry-house to walk down a crowded road. The waterfront is a roiling sea of heads and hair. They press pass Jie’s warehouse – alone far larger than Yong’s ancestral property – and come to a granite dock. A single rowboat is tied to an iron ring. On the swaying boat stands a brown-haired man, and behind him are two wooden crates.
A clerk working for Jie hands over a silkpaper tablet, which names the brown-haired man as Ai-ke-tuo. But when Ai-ke-tuo climbs to the dock and introduces himself, it sounds to Yong like “Hector.”
Jie bows an inch. “Are you sanctioned?”
Jie’s clerk translates this into Hector’s barbarian tongue. Hector retrieves a metal plaque from his jacket and answers through the translator, “I represent the ship San Agustin, commissioned by His Majesty, the King of Spain, Phillip II.”
Jie nods as he scans the tablet. “Excellent. You are on schedule. And those crates?”
Hector signals for two laborers to haul the wooden crates ashore and pry them open. Silver bars glitter in the sun. “A selection of a single bar from each crate in our shipment, per your instructions.”
Jie turns to Yong. “What do you think now? This is only a sample, one-tenth of what I’ll bring in today. Go ahead, take a look.”
Yong steps toward the crate and reaches a hand in, but hesitates. It seems wrong to even touch so much wealth when he knows famine has struck the Ming Empire’s far, dry northwest. But he picks up an ingot, then another, and another. Their uniform weight is satisfying to hold.
Then Yong sees something unusual in one of the ingots he has uncovered. A red stripe slices through the otherwise solid silver. He shows it to Jie. “Look at this.”
Jie frowns and takes the ingot to inspect. Then he shrugs. “A minor impurity. It won’t affect the value much.”
Yong’s brow furrows. “Are you sure? It seems wrong. You said my failure at the exams was a sign. Is this not an even clearer sign?”
Jie laughs. “A sign of what? Immorality in the eyes of the ancients? This silver pays for my children’s food. It pays for the bridges I had reconstructed in my hometown outside the city, after floods struck last year. The Ledger of Merit and Demerit says each rebuilt bridge counts for twenty notches of goodness. So you see? I have easily repaid for our late drinking last night, and even more.”
Yong says nothing, but as he looks at the red stripe in the silver, an uneasy feeling remains.
Jie turns to Hector again. “What goods do you want in exchange?”
Hector says, “Silks are in high demand. Perhaps those made in Hangzhou, if you have any.”
Jie shakes his head. “My suppliers are behind schedule thanks to unrest in the Zhe River Delta. I cannot do silks this month.” He gestures to his clerk. “Give him porcelain instead.”
Image: A silver bar with a denomination of 10 Lạng issued by the Royal Treasury. http://art-hanoi.com/collection/sycee/mm1.html [Sema (from Art-Hanoi.com)]