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  • The Colonial Spanish-American City: Urban Life in the Age of Atlantic Capitalism
The Colonial Spanish-American City: Urban Life in the Age of Atlantic Capitalism. By Jay Kinsbrunner (Austin, University of Texas Press, 2005) 198 pp. $40.00 cloth $18.95 paper

The author states as his main theme that the Spanish colonial city "evolved during the age of Atlantic capitalism and was itself a circumstance of that capitalism" (xi). He advances well beyond this goal, however, offering a detailed class and caste analysis, overt and implicit comparisons with Western European cities, and various assertions about urban class structure. Included are repeated statements that what he terms a "lower-middle class" was common and often a large component of the urban population. The author, however, also falls short of some of these aims in important ways.

The book ranges widely, covering such topics as what constitutes a Spanish colonial city; the pre-Columbian city; the politics and institutions of urban government; the city architecture, layout, and space; the urban economy, with particular emphasis on petty trade and artisanal production; the official, as opposed to the actual, caste and class structure; the nuclear family and its alternatives; and the many forms of social [End Page 161] interaction. In general, the book is a condensed and useful synthesis of previous studies, plus suggestions of questions for future research.

Yet, the author's contention that the urban function "derived from the western European commercial enterprise of the early modern period" remains unproven (130). Specifically, nearly all his evidence comes from the period 1780 to 1825, when new technologies in mining, bureaucracy, urban management, and, above all, navigation had begun to transform Spanish-American structures. The Hapsburg society of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was much more local, isolated, and traditional. Kinsbrunner's identification of the trade and other exchanges found in many European cities long before the onset of capitalism as "capitalistic" strips the word of definable meaning. Moreover, since his analysis is predominantly local, primarily within the cities themselves, the importance of the great fleets and the silver cargoes, of smuggling, and of the "Columbian exchange"—surely the bearers of incipient capitalism—receive little attention.

Kinsbrunner is decidedly optimistic about these colonial cities. To him, they were places of opportunity, dialogue, and, to some extent, social mobility. Although he admits to their "downside"—destitution, filth, congestion, high crime, and the mistreatment of domestics, women, and children—on balance he nevertheless praises them. He barely mentions that murder, dearth, disease, and mortality were probably so much worse there than in the countryside that, were it not for in-migration, many of these colonial cities would eventually have declined, or even vanished, as happened in early modern Europe. Another unfortunate omission is the book's failure to incorporate the work on urban Guadalajara by Anderson and his school, and the lengthy debate over caste versus class that engaged such leading scholars as Chance, Taylor, McCaa, Schwartz, and Seed.1 Hence, although this book is a compact and useful synthesis of some of the leading studies of the Spanish colonial city, its main theses find only questionable support in the evidence and the analysis.

Murdo J. MacLeod
University of Florida


1. See Rodney Anderson, Guadalajara a la consumación de la Independencia: Estudio de su población según los padrones de 1821-1822 (Madrid, 1983); idem, "Race and Social Stratification: A Comparison of Working-Class Spaniards, Indians, and Castas in Guadalajara, Mexico on 1821," Hispanic American Historical Review, LXVIII (1988), 209-243; John K. Chance and William B. Taylor, "Estate and Class in a Colonial City: Oaxaca in 1792," Comparative Studies in Society and History, XIX (July 1977), 454-487; Robert McCaa, Stuart B. Schwartz, and Arturo Grubessich, "Race and Class in Colonial Latin America: A Critique," Comparative Studies in Society and History, XXI (1979), 421-433; Chance and Taylor, "Estate and Class: A Reply," ibid., 434-442; Patricia Seed, "The Social Dimensions of Race: Mexico City, 1753." Hispanic American Historical Review, LXII (1982), 569-606.

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