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Alexander von Humboldt and Mexico have been inextricably linked in the minds of scholars virtually since the publication of the former’s Essai politique sur la royaume de Nouvelle-Espagne (1811), if not before. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson met with Humboldt as President and was to comment to Humboldt that his work had succeeded “in making known to us one of the most singular and interesting countries on the globe, one almost locked up from the knowledge of man hitherto.” Humboldt was the source of much information to Jefferson and his cabinet about not only Mexico, but also Louisiana, Texas, and Latin America, where Humboldt had spent years in exploration and study. As Richard Weiner observes, Humboldt’s account of the wealth of Mexico was to prove hugely influential, for good or for ill. In the minds of some, it made the country an inevitable target of foreign intrigue and invasion. For others, Mexicans included, Humboldt had encouraged an incorrect understanding of wealth that emphasized resource endowments over productive labor and investment. There are, it would appear, as many versions of Humboldt as there have been admirers and critics of his work.
In its analysis of the Essai politique as an economic study, which this valuable book undertakes, it seems appropriate to focus on the utility of Humboldt to economic historians. In general, as Carlos Marichal emphasizes, Humboldt often got the details wrong but had a good enough grasp of the overall picture. This was particularly true of his fiscal analyses, where no one has seriously challenged Humboldt’s general assessment of the income of New Spain, or of the purposes to which it was put. There was also a sense in which Humboldt knew that an Empire that subsisted by transferring wealth from a subject indigenous population could not remain indefinitely stable, its complex financial maneuvering notwithstanding. Here, [End Page 166] Humboldt was, as much as anything, if not a revolutionary, a student of revolutionary times.
Humboldt’s analysis of Mexico’s trade and commerce, especially as it related to the transatlantic trade carried on through Veracruz, was perhaps better informed, although here he made some mistakes as well. Matilde Souto provides a quite thorough analysis of the sources made available to Humboldt by the consulado of Veracruz, whose records continue to provide historians with a firm basis for quantitative analysis. Souto also looks at the reception of the Essai politique in Great Britain and shrewdly guesses that the Edinburgh Review, where the reviews appeared, was effectively advising British merchants that the once-reserved markets of the Spanish Empire could now, under the pressure of war, revolution, and imperial bankruptcy, be wide open to British commerce, whatever the volume of British trade to the Empire had been before the Napoleonic Wars commercially emancipated them in the 1790s.
But Humboldt also made some rather more serious errors, understandable in their way, but misleading to modern historians nonetheless. For example, he had little sense of the importance of the trade of the outports and, especially, of Acapulco. As Guadalupe Pinzón Ríos shows, there was little in Acapulco to interest Humboldt. But recent studies (especially by Carmen Yuste) have given a distinctly greater weight to the profits of the Asian trade in the fortunes of important merchants such as Francisco de Yraeta. So, we have had correspondingly little sense of the role of this trade in capital formation in New Spain. Francisco Javier Cervantes Bello’s very interesting chapter on agriculture in Mexico shows how Humboldt’s natural reliance on certain regions, crops (wheat), and the tithe as a guide to agricultural production made sense in a physiocratic tradition but have produced wildly inaccurate production estimates in the hands of economic historians. Canonical texts can lead us astray, and an uninformed fascination with economic models, even elementary national income accounting, sows ignorance, not enlightenment.