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Mining history of the Atacama Region, Chile

The miners of Chañarcillo (Gilliss, 1851)

Mining at Atacama

W. Griem, 2006 - 2021

Text of Gilliss
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Minero en Atacama
Mina en Chañarcillo - La Descubridora

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Apires and barreteros in Chañarcillo. Original text by Gilliss (1851) - J.M. Gilliss, visited during the U. S. Naval "astronomical expedition" in 1851 the mines of Chañarcillo and describes how to extract silver.
Original text:

Apires and barreteros:

Barreteros y Apires (p. 258 and 259)   On an average, barreteros receive $25 and apires $12 per month (1), 20 ounces (570g) of fresh baked bread, 24 figs, 16 ounces (450g) of boiled beans, and 6 ounces (170g) of wheat, daily-an amount of food quite sufficient to maintain two men-their families being thus tacitly acknowledged. The wheat is either boiled with the beans, or is made into mote, by scalding in lye, to remove the husks.

They are generally strong, athletic men, with broader shoulders, deeper chests, and more muscular limbs than those engaged in agricultural life. Yet, while they all seem to enjoy the very best health, one is rarely known to live more than fifty years. There are instances of miners seventy years of age, but these are extremely rare.    Apires are young men whose powers are scarcely developed, their promotion to barreteros depending on the experience obtained and strength acquired by practice.

Some of them will bring on their shoulders, from depths of 120 yards (113m), hide sacks of ores or stone weighing from 250 to 375 pounds (68 Kg bis 170kg), and one has been known to bring no less than 425 pounds (193 kg) up the rugged shaft that distance. It is painful to witness one of these half-naked fellows issue from the mine under such a load. With features distorted, eyes starting, perspiration dripping from every tensely-strained muscle, as he comes staggering into the fresh air, a shrill, deep-drawn breath penetrates to your very marrow, and tells more forciby than all of the bodily exertion. But as you turn from the man to the treasures he throws down in the light of day, he will have dashed the trickling drops from his brow, drank copiously from a cask of water nearby, and you just catch a glimpse of his head as he descends for another load, very probably humming a stanza from some ribald song.  

Besides being short lived, it has also been remarked that they have fewer children than their countrymen engaged in other pursuits - a fact not traceable to infidelity or analogous causes, but more probably attributable to the influence of impure air on their systems and fatigue of the body when they come out from the mines at the expiration of their periods of labor (2).

When taken sick, the worthless or indifferent are discharged at once, the faithful laborer only being retained in wages, and food until able to resume work.   Physicians or surgeons there are none, and the only knowledge of the healing art is what the administradores may pick up by experience, and is possessed by the medicas who may be found about every inhabited place (3).

Should the vein they are working exhibit symptoms of failing, which their experience from boyhood soon enables them to perceive, many of them quit the mine at the end of their month for a more productive one, from which they may have opportunities to steal richer stones.  
These last are perquisites entering into their calculations to an almost incredible extent, since it is estimated that the amount of cangalla (stolen metal) is at least from three to four per cent. of all the ore broken out. Most of the cangalleros (buyers of stolen metal) reside at Juan Godoi and Huasco; and such has heretofore been the integrity observed by these two classes in their dealings with each other, as well as the pertinacious refusal of miners to take employment where they are submitted to such espionage as prevents pilfering, that it has been found indispensable to wink at both thieving and receiving.   The cangalleros, on several of whom it is easy to place one’s finger, gather wealth rapidly; the barretero or apire obtains only enough to drown his compunctions of conscience for an hour or two at most. Of course, none but the very richest stones of the vein are stolen. These the barretero breaks out, and the apire may afterwards stop and assort, before the administrador sees them. (4)


The original texts were digitized, converted to ASCII and edited by Dr. Wolfgang Griem. Sketches and drawings are digitally cleaned.


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● U. S Naval Astronomical Expedición
; The southern hemisfere , The Years 1849-50-51-52: Liut. J. M. Gilliss (p. 258-259)  Bibliografía (Collection W. Griem)

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Published (spanish): 22.9. 2014; Updated: 23.9.2017, 30.1.2021
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