Hydrargyrum, also known as mercury (Hg) or more colloquially as quicksilver, was in the 19th century the object of monopolistic desire by a large banking concern. In 1835 the Rothschilds acquired the rights from the Spanish monarchy to manage the production of quicksilver in the village of Almaden, located approximately halfway between Seville and Madrid.
The Rothschilds, being ever more interested in controlling their bullion trade, understood that the key to the control of the silver market lay in the disposition of quicksilver. The liquid metal was crucial in the extraction and refining of silver. Silver was purified by amalgamation with quicksilver. Control over the distribution and price of quicksilver in America would put the market in their pocket. They were monopolists- it’s what they do.
Quicksilver has been known for more than 2000 years. Since Roman times it has been known that everything but gold will float on a pool of quicksilver. Artisans in Idria, an important old-world reserve of cinnabar in what is now Slovenia, observed quicksilver in its native form in1497. Quicksilver was mined in earnest in Almaden, Spain, since perhaps the 4th century BC or earlier, according to Pliny.
Alternating conquests transferred control of Almaden from the Romans to the Visigoths to the Moors and to the crown of Spain, among others. Having been the seat of mercurial desire for two thousand years, the Almaden cinnabar mines have only recently shut down in the name of public health. Spain’s epic quest for silver and gold in the new world was made feasible through it’s own natural abundance of quicksilver.
Quicksilver was discovered in California in 1845. The New Almaden and subsequently the New Idria mines were quickly pressed into production. The smelting of cinnabar (HgS) into fluid quicksilver is simple in concept and relatively uncomplicated in practice. A stream of hot flue gases are played over a bed of crushed cinnabar. Oxidation of the sulfide to oxide and subsequent thermal decomposition produces mercury vapor which flows to a condenser surface (brick) where it is knocked down into the liquid state and collected. Simple technology to perform in undeveloped territory. Quicksilver was sold in 76 pound lots called a flask. This is thought by some to represent what a laborer (or slave) could reasonably carry.
Within a short time the Californian supply of quicksilver robbed the Rothschilds of their monopoly, resulting in strong price pressure on the European suppliers. For a few decades, the American quicksilver dominated the Pacific rim. Chinese demand for quicksilver or cinnabar for vermilion was strong. Silver mining in Mexico and the Andean districts to the south was dependent on quicksilver, most of which was controlled by Spain and later Mexico after its independence. Eventually, the Rothschilds regained control of the market, but at a time when cyanidation and chlorination were playing a larger role in gold extraction. The Rothschilds relenquished their hold on Almaden in 1921.
It is interesting to note that quicksilver, so crucial to the isolation and refinement of gold and silver, was discovered a few years before the discovery of placer gold at Sutters Mill. This happy circumstance surely facilitated the prompt extraction of wealth from the gold and silver mining districts that opened up in the west.