The peoples of the Americas suffered immeasurably from the time Columbus accidentally came across them at the end of the 15th century. Of everything he and those that followed brought with them, beyond the iron-based weapons and armour that enabled conquer and the diseases that killed so many indigenous peoples, it was the horse and donkey that most transformed the continent and as a consequence, Europe itself. In a previous paper I talked of the revolutionising of transport and trade in the Andes an how this was the work of the mule bred from the two introduced animals. This ‘revolution’ took place across Latin America so that within a short space of time, it is if they had always been there. Their prevalence as a means of both personal and freight transport is well documented in the English traveller Thomas Gage’s Travels in the West Indies in 1637 when he criss-crossed Mexico where silver was mined and cochineal collected; Guatemala,  where  mules were bred; and Panama where mules were crucial in transport and trade between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. His own travel was  almost entirely by mule. As I shall show, mules were used by those involved in the silver business with little regard to their well-being, but a passage in Gage’s account on those used by Indigenous people gives a more familiar picture of the animal:-

“In the middle of the mountain the Indians of Zobaja met us with a mule for me and another for my carriage. Out of the narrow way the side of the mountain was steep and a fearful precipice, miles to the bottom and mostly bare of  trees and bushes, only one growing. My heart was beating fast and I wished to walk up on foot until I came to some broader passage, but the Indians perceiving my fear, told me there was no danger, alluring me to continue with the mule they had brought  and was sure and was used to the mountain. With their persuasions I got up but no sooner was I mounted when the Mule began to play her pranks and to kick and to leap out of the path, calling me down and her self, both rolling apace to the rocks and death had not a shrub saved me and a tree stopped the mules blind fury.”

But it is the business of the mining and transportation of precious metals and especially the silver that I want to focus on. The mines of Mexico were exploited by the Spanish invaders and Gage tells us of a Mint-House there “where money is coined daily”  and how the “silver is brought hither in wedges upon mules from the mines.” But I will focus specifically on that from the fabled silver mine of Potosí in modern day Bolivia which at that time was one part of the Viceroyality of Peru. It was this silver, a monopoly of the Spanish crown, that gave a kick start to European capitalism and also to the initial ‘globalisation’ of trade with India and East Asia. For the first time European traders had, in bulk, a commodity they could trade for textiles, spices and ceramics and the technologies they involved. To get some idea of its importance by 1572 Potosí was the Western world’s most populous city with 120,000 inhabitants, more than London, Paris or Madrid, built on the wealth of its silver mountain, the Cerro Rico and importing the new luxuries from Asia and from Europe itself.

Within a short space of time of the 16th century, the processing and logistics of getting the silver in marketable form from the mine 5000 metres above sea level across hugely difficult terrains to the Spanish port of Seville was in place. This was only possible by means of the using up and discarding of both men – both indigenous and slaves from Africa- and of mules. It would be invidious to ask how one could put human and mule suffering in the same sentence, invidious because cruelty is cruelty and what was common was that living beings were treated as functional and dispensable things. Both lived short and brutish lives. The Spanish invaders had, for a variety of reasons tempered their oppression of the Indigenous people in some respects. This was not so for the slaves. The Christian Thomas Gage  referring to them as ‘blackamoors’ was sometimes shocked. Describing a merchant assembling a train of fifty mules in Requa valley in Guatemala where a thousand had been bred, he writes:-

“He was so cruel to his Blackamoors that ids anything were untoward he would torment them almost to death among whom he was one slave called Macao for whom I have often interceded but to little purpose. He would often hang him up by the arms and whip him till the blood ran about his back and then his flesh being mangled and all in gore and blood he would pour boiling grease. He had marked him for his slave with burning irons upon his face, his hands his arm his back, his belly…”

In each stage of both production and the transporting of the silver the mule was indispensable. For two hundred years the route involved 4 stages. First the refined silver had to be taken down  from high-up Potosí to the Pacific coastal port of Arica in what is now northern Chile and which remains Landlocked Bolivia’s exit port. At first this section involved using llamas, the indigenous load-carrying animal habituated to high altitudes, but the greater weight mules were capable of carrying and their speed, meant that mules became the pack animals of choice. From Arica it went by boat to Callao the biggest port in modern day Peru in Lima province and from there to Panama City on the Pacific cost of Panama. The silver was then transported across the Isthmus using both slaves and mules to Portobello on the Atlantic coast. As I said before this silver massively expanded the money capital available to Europe, it tripled the amount of bullion in circulation in Europe by the end of the 17th century and 60% of that went through Portobello. Two routes across the  isthmus developed, one by track only and the other by boat and track both with stretches of difficult and dangerous road. At the section called Cuperilla the road was only 2-3 feet wide with a drop of 400-500 feet on either side. Over the centuries many men mostly slaves, and mules were killed here.

But before any of this took place the silver had to be mined and refined. Initially the refining process was that  which had been used by the Inca but with invader-levels of production it was becoming impossible due to a lack of fuel. Then a method using mercury was Invented by Bartolomé de Medina in Mexico, 1557 and introduced to Potosi in 1573. There was a source in Spain itself in Almadén from where it was taken by cart, and mule when speed was required, to the Port of Seville and shipped to Panama and thence to both Mexico and Potosi. This however all took time when ships from Spain were liable to pirate attack and only travelled in convoy once a year. The Spanish invaders then were lucky n getting access to mercury in quantity at Huancavelica in the modern Peru part of the viceroyality. where the mercury was extracted from cinnabar. The Spanish crown who controlled the silver production of Potosí seized possession of the mercury mine in 1563 and declared a royal monopoly on the substance. It then needed to be taken some 1500 kilometres over tough terrain that went from 3500 to 5000 metres above sea level, starting in a place in which the Inca had shown little interest and so had very poor or non-existent tracks. It was carried by llamas and mules in leather bags. There is no record of the mortality rate of either the mules or the Indigenous people who went with it, but we can assume its intensity was a factor in developing a new route from Huancavelica to the port of Chincha, a tenth of the distance, some  150 kilometres, again using  llamas and mules who were faster and stronger for its second stage from San Jeronimo. From there they went  by ship to Arica where the mule trains which brought the silver down from Potosi and could now take both the mercury and the large range of food and luxuries consumed there back up again.  At the same time mules were uses to transport coca leaves to the mine after the Spanish crown in the interests of intensity of labour overruled the Church who called it pagan. The greed of conquistador coca estates supplying Potisi was immense, a turnover of 1m pesos (the equivalent of  of 4550 kilos of gold) wheras only 400,000 were spent on food anbd clothes for miners.“Furthermore, as a result of the fact that coca fetched fully twice as high a price in Potosi as it did in Cuzco. It also became3 popular to engage in long-distance trading. Using llamas and mules, it was not unusual for dealers set out with 60,000 pounds of leaves in a single shipment. “ The profit on such a deal 34 kilos of gold, enough to retire on. This was the rationale of logistics and accountancy.

Accountancy because as I mentioned in a previous talk, despite the crucial importance of mules to the mercury-silver economy and to the Spanish crown in this area, mules were not bred there and had to be imported from Salta and Jaya in  the north of modern day Argentina. By 1770 despite the relative decline of the Potosi mine –I emphasise relative – but with the development of other Andean mines like Orouro, 40,000 mules a year were exported to Peru. And they did not come free; not only were the breeders to be paid- and they were very shrewd about shifts in the market- but also the muleteers bringing them high into the Andes. Despite the ups and downs of the silver trade  it is estimated that over 800,000 were exported northwards between 1778 and 1809.  What the  expense meant was that there was an incentive to lessen the mortality rate of mules involved in transport, though the nature of mercury itself is toxic,  when the mortality rate  remained so high because of the mule’s use in the process of grinding the silver ore.

Mules, interchangeable with slaves kidnapped from Africa operated the ore grinders by walking round and round in a circle to pull the crushers in a smaller circle on a raised platform. In Greece up into the 1950s mules did similar work to operate the stone wheels –litharia – that made a porridge of olives at olive oil presses as part of the process of making the oil but in this instance the work was seasonal and the olives not resistant. At Potosí the work was heavier and constant all year round. The mortality rate of slaves doing this work is notorious and, given the high level of importing, difficult to think it was any different for the mules. Even when some water mills were introduced, they co-existed with the slave/mule method. The non-stop nature of the work was like that of the Potosi-Arica run and though at first llamas took the load at the highest points, by very early in the 17th century mules did it all, both their speed and load-carrying capacity too significant for logistics and the accounts despite the costs of fresh imports.

The unity of slave and mule, and the constant need for the importing of both was even more prominent at the next dry land section of the business which took place on the isthmus of Panama. Despite the difficulty of the route it was, from the logistics point of view of the Spanish crown, a necessary first choice well  into the 18th century. I have described the dangers to slave and mule on one section of the journey at Cuperilla which could not be avoided by either the route entirely by land the Cruces trail which was 8 feet wide maximum and paved with stones, or the Camino Real which used both the Chagres river and land.  But as a whole it involved crossing swamps and jungle as well as mountains. Rainfall could be torrential. It was also, as Thomas Gage complained continually, very hot and humid, so that mule trains would travel mostly at night. Yellow fever, malaria and other tropical diseases were prevalent.

As in the Andes despite the importance of the mule to Panama’s economy dependent on its trade and transport role, mules had to be imported from San Miguel in El Salvador and Granada in Nicaragua. The trip to bring them might involve up to 2000 kilometres to which Gage again was a witness. The distance and the difficulties of those routes squeezed the profitability of the muleteers though they reached peak price in the late 16th century. Over time, the corn to feed the mules also became imported. This was because of the timing and irregularity and thus uncertainty in  how the trade worked. The peak working time was when the Portobello ‘fairs’ took place, that is when what was coming into Panama from Europe to be sold down the Pacific coast in the opposite direction, with the nouveaux riche of Potosi as prime consumers of luxury goods from all over the world, while the silver went to Spain. Because it was an era of pirates and in the case of England, state-sponsored pirates like Francis Drake, Spanish ships came in convoys once or possibly twice a year but sometimes not for two years. Panamanian corn growers could get have no sales for their crop if the convoys and fairs were delayed for a year and it became cheaper to import the corn to feed the mules from Cartagena, Colombia.

Francis Drake has special significance because his mule-train robbery of 1573, the foundation of his fortune, casts such a light on how the transport system worked, revealed an organised world of slaves who had freed and organised themselves, The Cimarrones described by a French Huguenots at the time as

“…the runaway negro slaves who steal and plunder everything they find on the road belonging to the Spaniards. These runaway negroes from bands for fear to be surprised by the Spaniards.” Drake and his gang ambushed a 190 mule treasure train in April 1573 with the direct assistance of the Cimarrones with whom he had temporarily allied, at a spot a little inland from Portobello, then named Nombre de Dios. It took place on land but just after one of the most difficult sections of the Camino Real described in a French description of the 16th century:-


“It is necessary that the traders coming from Panama to Nombre de Dios pass three fresh water rivers, the water covering half their bodies and they are in danger when the water is high. Men and mules carrying merchandise as well as gold and silver are usually submerged in the water.”


The indirect consequence              of the Drake ambush was an increase in the extreme rate of mule mortality. It prompted the continuous building of fortifications in which mules were heavily used, and as Christopher Ward in his history of the country says plainly, ‘died of exhaustion’ overloaded and in the heat of the day. Not that it prevented piracy as when the English Thomas Colby attacked mule trains over a hundred years later in 1708. Overloading was normal too in the transport business. A mule train of up to five hundred animals handled by specially trained slaves called escalavos arrieros, would be in constant use during the period of the fairs, making up to three crossings of the isthmus in five weeks.  The best estimate is that early in the 17th century while there were around only 30 mule-train owners in Panama, but  3700 slaves of whom a thousand were involved in working them. In a pirate-free period Gage describes seeing “Two hundred mules coming thither with wedges of silver laden with nothing else and which were unladen on the Publick Market Place where the heaps of silver wedges lay like heaps of stones in the street.”  Each mule officially could officially carry only 200 pounds as a check against smuggling but given the prevalence of the practice, there was, Ward says, little doubt that these limits were exceeded   and that this contributed to the very high rate of mule mortality, one which he also attributes to the climate which so vexed Thomas Gage. It meant that despite the cost and the distance imports involved, there was a need to almost completely replace mules every year.  That this could happen depended on the tight monopoly held by the country’s owner-arrieros. The rate per mile of the isthmus crossing was very expensive, three times that of the mercury run to Potosi. Peruvian merchants complained bitterly but to no effect as the local government was heavily involved with the arrieros and saw transport as the mainstay of the Panamanian economy and the Spanish crown did not exert pressure.

When economic historians talk of decline one is inclined to think, that’s it then but that’s not how it was. The Peruvian-Bolivian and Mexican mines had their ups and downs but silver was still the main export nearly 300 hundred years later in the first half of the 19th century. What was different, was that the Andean mines then exported mainly through the Chilean port of Valparaiso but, until the construction of railways, it didn’t change the essential role of the mule. Neither did the mule disappear from various economies of precious metals on the continent, transporting both the maize needed by the gold miners of Brazil and the gold they mined. Panama itself, always vulnerable to changes in trade and transport patterns did lose its importance in the 18th century. Although the Spanish crown’s own share of silver still crossed the Isthmus, the last Portobello fair and the convoy fleet that had supplied it was in 1740. Direct sailing to Peru, an option perhaps hastened by the exorbitant transport price across the Isthmus and the frequent flooded river delays, was one cause and smuggling by other routes another. But it was the slow collapse of the Spanish Hapsburg commercial order which turned into a relative backwater until another precious metals bonanza, the California Gold Rush of 1848-9.

At this time when thousands of folk living in the Eastern USA were excited by the prospects of gold on the west coast, there was no rail link across the continent. The choices were to make the trek across land with horses, wagons and mules; to take the long sea journey around the Horn; or to take a boat down to Portobello, cross the Isthmus to pick up a boat from Panama City up to San Francisco. All choices were fraught but many chose Panama, the route which had been chosen by the US Mail service for cross continental post a year earlier in 1847. This involved the journey up the Chagres river on canoes and then the unavoidable final stretch by mule. Many did from the diseases the climate produced – life insurance policies were voided for anyone who slept ashore and mules were overused again but his time without slaves working them. Quick fortunes were made by owners, knowing the scale of the demand. But the land section had changed little. The journalist Bayard Taylor described at the time how “It was distance, not a road; there was only a mule track, rather a  trough than track in most places, and mule staircases with occasional steps of at least four feet, and only wide enough for a single animal.” Of the same trail “Some places you would have to hold on to the mule’s neck to keep from going off behind and next it would be to brace back and keep from going over his head.” Up in California, mules were used again to transport gold to markets, bring food to miners and, as many miners complained were liable to be stolen by Indians on whose traditional hunting grounds the diggings were situated.

The mule, an expendable tool in the momentous trade centred on precious metals, was then made historically expendable by the building of railways. In Panama both the hazards of the Gold Rush prospectors and the US Postal service prompted the signing of contracts for a railway there.  Unknown numbers of  Chinese and Jamaican labourers died, and an equally unknown number of mules, building he line which was finished by 1855. If only a worker’s first name was known their bodies were pickled in a barrel and sold to medical schools. Finally came the Canal which had been first mooted in the 1530s. The first 19th century attempt by de Lesseps who had organized the digging if that at Suez ent bankrupt partly because he did not make proper use of the then existing railway and we can assume therefore an extensive use of the mule. Finally finished at the start of the 20 th century by a USA firm, the one memorial to the heroic role of the mule in Panama’s history is that the electric locomotives that run alongside ships in the canal, eight per ship, riding close to the edge and going up and down the slopes needed by the lock system, to keep them central in the canal  are called Mules.