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  • Trading Roles: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Urban Economy in Colonial Potosí
  • Peter Bakewell
Trading Roles: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Urban Economy in Colonial Potosí. By Jane E. Mangan ( Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. xi plus 277 pp. $22.95 paper, $79.95 cloth).

It is hard to exaggerate Potosí: the source of half of Spanish American silver (and hence of a good deal of the world's new silver) between 1550 and 1650; a city of well over 100,000 by 1600; a place isolated, 4000 meters above sea level, in the Cordillera Real of the Andes, well east of the altiplano of what is now Bolivia; a market, despite its inaccessibility, that was the destination of goods from distant regions of South America, Europe, and east Asia; the source, because of the assumed maltreatment of native miners there, of deep criticism of Spain by its European rivals—but a source, also, of deep and lasting envy among those powers.

A good deal has been published about colonial Potosí in the past few decades, in the form of editions of chronicles and other early texts, closely-focussed monographs, and books and articles treating the city directly or giving it a central role in some broader mid-Andean topic. Readers of Dr. Mangan's book will find many of these works in her bibliography. Most of them have addressed the large and obvious questions, such as Indian labor in mining and refining, output of silver (and the determinants of production), technology, local and long-distance trade, sources and patterns of essential supplies, the social history of mine and refinery owners, and government.

Dr. Mangan has dug deeper into the lives of the great mass of Potosí's population than any of the city's previous students. She has found a route into commoners' existence in the operations of small-scale trade in the city, making use of the abundant documentation that survives on that trade. Potosí is notorious for being too high, dry, and cold for comfort; but a positive effect of its climate is that insects and mold are barely present there, so that sixteenth-century manuscripts often appear to be freshly written on new paper. The splendid notarial collection forming part of the great archive housed in the Casa de Moneda (the colonial mint building) has served Dr Mangan well, as have the volumes of city council minutes held by the Bolivian National Archive in Sucre. She also made good use of the Archive of the Indies in Seville. Indeed, the first impression that readers may take from this book is of the extreme thoroughness of its research. For every point she makes, the author seems to have a dozen examples.

In succeeding chapters the book sets the stage of urban trade after the discovery of Potosí's silver ores in 1545; addresses regulation of the city's commerce by local and more distant authorities; analyses the production and sale of two essential items of local diet—chicha (corn beer) and bread; shows the high importance of credit in the city's internal trade, and describes the sources of credit; demonstrates [End Page 776] the central role of women in urban commerce; and shows the contraction of that trading in response to the decline of silver production as the seventeenth century wore on.

In discussing these topics the book provides information, and suggests patterns, that will be useful to many historians of colonial Spanish towns. Some, indeed, of what is related here comes as much as confirmation as revelation: the entrepreneurship of Indian women, for instance, in local commerce has been noted before. But the scale of such enterprise in so large a market as Potosí, and the clarity and precision with which native women's business activities are described, make those entrepreneurial qualities doubly striking. Because it describes Potosí, the book may be generally said to provide many "super-examples" of this kind.

Potosí was, however, in some respects sui generis; hence what happened there may not exemplify what happened elsewhere in the Spanish colonies, or do so only partly. The fact, for instance, that for most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the city possessed...


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