Rio Tinto History - Liebert Wolters

Liebert Wolters: the bachelor from Stockholm, 1724

by Chris Chaplow

..... continued from Francisco de Mendoza expedition from Madrid 1564

Liebert Wolters,a Swede from Stockholm,took part in the War of Spanish Succession as an ensign in the Dutch regiment. He watched repeated unsuccessful attempts by the combined British and Dutch force to salvage the Spanish and French treasure fleetthat they had sunk in Vigo harbour in 1701.  The wrecks lay on the seabed 60 feet down but, without diving equipment, divers were unable to stay down long enough. Wolters had an idea for a diving suit.

Wolters was discharged from the army in Spain in 1713 aged 48. He requested a salvage contract from the Spanish government. Independently, far away in Newton Abbott, Devon (UK), John Lethbridge invented the "first' underwater diving machine".  

Wolters was granted a five-year salvage contract in 1719,  and met with some success on account of the diving suit he had constructed for the purpose. The French government noticed and requested a report on the equipment. On renewal of the salvage contract in 1724 he also requested a mining concession for Rio Tinto, Guadalcanal, Cazalla, Aracena and Galaroza. Unusually, this was granted to a foreigner, and it was for a 30-year term, Wolters did promise the provision of a group of Swedish miners and two modern drainage pumps.

To raise capital for the mining venture, Walters published a lengthy prospectus.

"He described his mines as being as rich in gold and silver as any in Europe. The prospectus was optimistic to the point of being dishonest: it stated that the Guadalcanal mines had provided Fuggers,the famous German banking family, with fortunes; and that the Rio Tinto mines had formerly yielded 2,700 ducats of gold (worth €1,800) a day. In fact,when Fuggers held the lease on Guadalcanal from 1632-36 they wasted large sums of money in unsuccessfully trying to drain those mines, and Rio Tinto had certainly provided no gold since it had been mined by the Romans." (Avery page 33)

"La Compañia y Asiento de las Minas de Guadalcanal, Cazalla, Aracena, Galaroza and Rio Tinto", one of the first joint stock companies in Spain, was established in Madrid in September 1725. Walters   immediately became the target of several derisive pamphlets pouring ridicule on the company's promises of huge profits, and called him a liar, a swindler and a heretic on account of his Lutheran religion. This resulted in a slower than expected share take-up. At the first meeting the shareholders voted to replace Wolters with Marques de la Paz. At the second meeting a vote replaced the Marques with Conde de Cogorani. In the next five months, there were 28 acrimonious meetings. However, a positive report by Robert Shee on the company's prospects led to a rush to buy the remaining shares, and the vitriol against Wolters changed from accusing him of being a liar to jealousy at the number of shares he had been initially allocated.

By Royal Decree of July 1727, the company was dissolved and two new companies created. Wolters kept Rio Tinto and Aracena mines and the other shareholders were allocated the Guadalcanal and the rest of the mines forming the Compañia Española. News of this solution to the acrimony reached Wolters just before his death but not before he named his nephew, Samual Tiquet, who was one of the Swedish miners at Rio Tinto, his heir and successor to the contract.


Samual Tiquets' first major issue was prompted by the Mayor of Zalameas' insistence that he had authority over the mine, while Tiquets asserted that crown property, even if leased out, was exempt from local control. No one realisedit at the time, but this dispute would last 60 years. It stopped the work for four months, until a Royal Decree arrived from Escorial giving Tiquets the rights he sought.

Draining the mines was so slow that the plan to reopen old workings was shelved in favour of using the highly vitriolisedmine floodwater to produce copper from scrap iron. Iron, delivered from as far as northern Spain by mule, was placed in tanks of mine water. The blisters of copper that formed were chipped offand the iron and smelted in a furnace. The copper was taken by mule to Sevilla for sale to merchants.

The Swedish miners were gradually reduced in numbers by death or homesickness andtheir departure, and they were replaced by Spanish and other foreigners. Their number never increased past 16 and Tiquet was forced to sell parts of his shareholding to fund the operations.

In December 1727 the other company, Compañia Española, entered into a contract with Doña Maria Herbert de Powis to drain their mines at Guadalcanal.

Continued .......Lady Mary Herbert de Powis, 1740

Thanks to David Avery and RTZ for their 1974 book Not on Queen Victoria's Birthday, which is the definitive history of the Rio Tinto Mines. Thanks to William Giles Nash for his 1910 book The Rio Tinto Mine: Its History And Romance, from which much of this information was sourced. You can buy a second-hand copy of Avery's book, and a scanned on demand reprint of Nash's book, from Amazon. (Click on books in right hand margin of this page)