- Workshop of Revolution: Plebeian Buenos Aires and the Atlantic World, 1776–1810 by Lyman L. Johnson
Lyman L. Johnson’s latest monograph, Workshop of Revolution, culminates more than twenty years of research on the economic and social history of Buenos Aires during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, years that include Argentina’s independence movement and correspond to its late colonial and early national periods. The book is about plebeian Buenos Aires: the urban world created and inhabited by artisans such as the silversmiths and shoemakers that are Workshop of Revolution’s principal case studies. Given the chronological focus of the book, the relationship between the plebe and independence from Spain is also necessarily a central component.
Workshop of Revolution’s narrative has three main storylines: the effects of slavery on the economy and society of Buenos Aires, the attempts by artisans to implement a guild system, and the role of a largely plebeian militia within the independence movement.
In an example of how our understanding of Argentine history and culture no longer excludes African slaves and the contributions of Afro-Argentines, Workshop of Revolution details the extent to which slaves were a significant component of the economic and social fabric of Buenos Aires. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, increasing urban populations and connections with the Atlantic economy transformed the slave trade in Buenos Aires from what had been primarily an entry point for the interior of the continent into a burgeoning urban slave market. At the same time, the expanding number of slaves who worked as artisans destabilized both the labor market and popular understandings of race and ethnicity.
Johnson expertly uses the story of the failed attempts to create [End Page 228] guilds of silversmiths and shoemakers in order to highlight both this growing instability and the strong role that government officials played in the working lives of plebeian porteños, or inhabitants of Buenos Aires. Attempts by Spanish immigrants to re-create idealized institutions brought from the metropole—Johnson’s felicitous “remembered scripts” (p. 85)—ran up against the realities of colonial Buenos Aires, a city where Spaniards joined immigrants from elsewhere in Europe whom porteños dubbed “foreign,” mestizos of ambiguously mixed race, and Africans both slave and free. The absence of either the institutionalized control of a guild or a shared artisanal identity created, according to Johnson, a space at once unstable and ripe for entrepreneurial ambition. The story also reveals the heavy presence of the provincial audiencia, royal officials like the alcalde and the viceroy, and communication with the distant crown in Spain.
The inability of artisans to join together in guild membership reflected the instability of the plebeian world, itself changed by an influx of Spanish, foreign, and enslaved artisans as well as the arrival of cheap goods from elsewhere in the Atlantic world, most notably the inexpensive British shoes that threatened the livelihood of porteño shoemakers. Workshop of Revolution convincingly links this economic and social destabilization of plebeian society to the formation of popular militias in response to the British invasions of the Río de la Plata in 1806 and 1807. Membership in militias grew in no small part because they provided both higher wages than were available in the labor market and greater opportunities for honor and corporate identity. The immediate effect, according to Johnson, was a militarized, restive, and entitled plebe that shaped the politics surrounding Argentina’s independence movement and the first years of nationhood.
Although Johnson describes the “French Conspiracy” of 1795 as the “explanatory fulcrum” (p. ix) around which Workshop of Revolution pivots, this description applies to the book more than the historical narrative. As chapter 5 details, in 1795 the alcalde de primer voto led an investigation into suspected plans for a revolt that purportedly included both a slave rebellion and revolutionary actions by primarily foreign-born artisans and shopkeepers. What little the alcalde found pointed toward connections to French immigrants and foreign ideas of...