Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 156-158
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Indians, Merchants, and Markets:
A Reinterpretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian Economic Relations in Colonial Oaxaca, 1750-1821
Indians, Merchants, and Markets: A Reinterpretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian Economic Relations in Colonial Oaxaca, 1750-1821. By Jeremy Baskes (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2001) 306 pp. $60.00
Borrowing concepts and methods from modern economic thought, Baskes' monograph offers a persuasive revisionist interpretation of the internal logic and organization of a much-maligned Spanish colonial business practice, the repartimiento, Financed by enterprising merchants, royal district magistrates (alcaldes mayores) supplied goods or money on credit to Indians, who were then expected to pay back with cash crops [End Page 156] or other commodities. The alcades used the powers of their office to collect outstanding debts.
Commonly employed for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, repartimiento loans were legal only between 1751 and 1786. Historians have long argued that this was an oppressive "system of forced consumption and production" (62), designed to pull unwilling Indians into the Spanish market economy. To counter this well- entrenched view, Baskes draws on insights from the "New Institutional Economics" as he examines the case of Oaxaca's late colonial cochineal dye economy, much of which was financed through repartimientos. The region's Indians carefully grew cochineal on nourishing nopal cactus leaves; once fully grown, these insects were harvested, killed, and dried, leaving a seed-like body crushed to produce a crimson dye highly prized in Europe. By the mid-eighteenth century, New Spain's merchants exported several-hundred-thousand pounds of Oaxaca's cochineal per year, with an aggregate value second only to that of the colony's famed silver output. Not surprisingly, royal postings in cochineal-producing zones tended to be much in demand.
Using copious documents and data gathered in Mexican and Spanish archives, Baskes shows that these repartimientos (generally cash advances paid back in cochineal) did not, on the whole, involve coercing Indians into accepting loans, as historians have often assumed. Producers needed—or wanted—credit, and repartimientos were often the only source, because few merchants would risk lending money to poor farmers in remote areas without the mediation of district political officers, who had the legal means and the might to enforce these oral contracts. "The repartimiento," he argues, "was a quasi-institution designed to operate in a colonial environment in which market imperfections effectively excluded private creditors" (71). Indians may well have entered these agreements "out of economic necessity," but "not owing to political coercion" (87).
Baskes also draws upon the literature on informal credit markets within development economics to shed light on the peculiarities of this lending system—for example, why cochineal prices seldom varied despite market fluctuations, or how interest rates were set. "By reducing transaction costs, the costs of assessing creditworthiness and collecting the debts," he concludes, "the repartimiento made profitable (and less risky) the provision of credit" (92). Along the way, Baskes' study manages to provide the most detailed account yet of the economics of small-scale rural credit in late colonial Mexico, as well as a lucid quantitative reconstruction of the costs and complications of the commodity export business during that period.
Although it is not a foregone conclusion that all colonial repartimientos followed the pattern described by Baskes for cochineal, his compelling arguments certainly do away with the old certainties and invite further research on Indians and markets in colonial Latin America. [End Page 157] This book shows that painstaking micro-economic analysis can breathe new life into questions that historians have long regarded as essentially political, social, or cultural.
Emilio H. Kourí
University of Chicago