This account of the smelting of silver comes from an anonymous manuscript that may have been based on an eyewitness account by a 16th-century sailor traveling in the Caribbean with Sir Francis Drake. The book, which was published only recently, sets out brief descriptions and accompanying illustrations of objects, events and practices in the New World. Sometimes it was exotic plants and animals that caught the author's attention, other times local customs. And he seemed particularly interested in the riches of the New World-like the sources of silver, gold and gemstones-which would have been prize booty to privateers like Drake.
The smelting of silver speaks to the way Old World values remade the economies of the New World. Before the conquest, silver was used occasionally by pre-Hispanic peoples, usually for jewelry or ornaments, not as specie. Once the Spanish discovered huge silver lodes in Potosí and northern Mexico, they reshaped the colonial economy around mining so the New World could supply Spain with valuable coins. This account tells of smelting, a simple process of separating the silver from the ore by using heat. (Why the author includes a dead dog in the process is mysterious.) Because smelting required huge amounts of fuel, and wood was scarce around the mines, purifying silver by amalgamating it with mercury was the preferred technology after mid-century. See the illustration and text in the Vistas Gallery.