This week, in my modern world history survey course, we discussed 16th-century empires in America and Asia. In the week’s second lesson, we focused on the role of silver—and especially silver production controlled by the Spanish empire—in early modern Asian history.
To bring clarity to the concept, I played about half of a 2014 BBC News short film about the miners who still work in the mountain at Potosí. Cerro Rico was the most important site of silver production in human history, as well as a crux of Spain’s imperial power:
This film is a good way to make a contemporary connection. And it’s a good way to humanize an abstraction. Viewers get to see and hear extensively from actual miners at Potosí. That means this film is also a good way to get students thinking about the ethics of historical narrative, including the “presentism” question.
For my purposes this week, it’s a good thing that this film—while acknowledging the mine’s early modern history—is mostly about Bolivian society and politics in the 21st century. I had already assembled plenty of ways to talk about the 16th and 17th century; I wanted to add a story about our own world. Then we talked. I trusted my students to be willing to think about the right and wrong ways to connect these stories.