Quicksilver - or mercury - was of particular importance to the Rothschilds in the nineteenth century, yielding considerable profits for them and performing a vital role in the refining of gold and silver. There were only two places in Europe where quicksilver was produced - Idria in Austria and Almadén in Spain. The Rothschilds purchased the mines at Idria, close to Trieste, which had been discovered in the fifteenth century, from the Austrian government in the first half of the nineteenth century. Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) sought successfully to obtain the concession of the other rich source of quicksilver, the Almadén mines in the 1830s.
By holding the monopoly on quicksilver production in the 1830s and 1840s, the Rothschilds were in a commanding position to fix the price and ensure a key hold on the refining of precious metals worldwide. This situation continued throughout the century and into the next, ending in 1922 when the decision was made to terminate their quicksilver business in the face of stiff Italian competition.
The Almadén quicksilver mines in Spain were discovered by the Romans and were worked by subsequent invaders of southern Spain. From 1645 they were worked and owned by the Spanish government. However, by 1834, the Spanish government had decided to auction the right of working the Almaden mines in the hope that an injection of foreign capital would increase productivity. Nathan Rothschild was attracted by the prospect of obtaining the concession to the Almadén mines as this would guarantee him the monopoly on quicksilver production and give him the ability to control the price of the metal. He sent his son, Lionel (1808-1879), to Madrid to bid for the rights.
The Spanish government awarded the contract to the Rothschilds when they not only bid higher than anyone else, but also they offered to lend the Spanish government 15 million francs at a low rate of interest. Spain was in dire need of financial assistance owing to its civil war and maladministration. An agreement was signed on 21st February 1835 by Lionel de Rothschil;d (1808-1879) and the Spanish Finance Minister, Count Jose Maria Toreno. To mark the occasion, Lionel was made a member of the Order of Isabella the Catholic.
Quicksilver yielded a very considerable profit for the Rothschilds and was an important component in their business in the nineteenth century. In 1850, the contract was renewed. Quicksilver became of even greater significance to the Rothschilds after 1852 when they secured the lease on the Royal Mint Refinery. Quicksilver was at the time, essential to the refining process. However, new techniques in precious metal refining and the growth of competition from the Italian quicksilver mines led to a disinclination to continue their arrangement with the Spanish government after 1922.
For correspondence with Rothschild agents see records of the Correspondence Department.
Quicksilver Invoice Book, 1889
VII/57/1, 1 volume
A brief record of sales to A. S. Pickering, Geiselbrecht & Co., H. Rogers Sons & Co., and RMR among others.
Quicksilver Account No. 2 [& No. 3] Books, 1900-1922
VII/15a/0-2, 3 volumes
Three diverse volumes make up this series. Volume 0 contains the accounts required under the terms of the quicksilver contract with the Spanish Government: quicksilver sales, Spanish Government quicksilver sales, bottle account and an account with Bauer in Madrid. The Spanish Government account records the number of bottles received from Almadén and tallies the number sold, whereas the quicksilver sales account records the details of each transaction. Volume 2 is the account required by the contract that came into effect on 1 January 1912, and has the same information as volume 0. Volume 1 is the continuation of the quicksilver sales section of volume 0.
Quicksilver business, sundry papers, c.1836-1847
000/2016, 1 box
Sundry papers concerning quicksilver in Spain and the New World particularly Manila and Havana. Many of the papers are issued from the Ministerio de Hacienda, Madrid. There are also receipts for quicksilver from Seville where the Spanish government sent it's deliveries of quicksilver. [Note: these papers have been removed from other series within the Archive and their original provenance has been lost.]
Quicksilver business, Spanish Quicksilver contract, sundry papers, 1912-1921
000/474, 1 box
Spanish Quicksilver loan, sundry papers, 1912-1931: these papers include one of the many contracts drawn up between the Spanish General Director of Properties and Imports and the partners of NMR, by which NMR was contracted to take charge of the production of quicksilver at the Almadén mines. Related documents are to be found with this contract. [Note: these papers were originally held within a deed box labelled: 42, NMR & Sons Spanish Quicksilver contract 1 January 1912-31 December 1921 and documents relating thereto.]