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The Americas 60.4 (2004) 519-558

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Confronting a Mercantile Elite:

Bourbon Reformers and the Merchants of Lima, 1765-1796

Princeton, New Jersey

After Spain's defeat in the Seven Years' War (1757-1763), when the British had occupied Havana and Manila, a series of territorial, commercial, and tax reforms brought significant change to the viceroyalty of Peru. Their economic effects have been matters for debate ever since. Some historians have emphasized their positive effects. Following promulgation of the Reglamento de comercio libre of 1778, the volume and value of European manufactures exported to the Pacific coast of Spanish South America increased. Lima and its port city, Callao, remained important as commercial centers of Spanish South America.1 But others suggest that the viceregal capital—home to a powerful mercantile elite, the magnates of the consulado (merchant guild) of Lima—suffered a decline in its economic fortunes, as did the entire viceroyalty.2 Support for this point of view was widespread in late colonial Peru. In spite of the evidence for growth, a rising chorus of complaint bemoaned the increasing poverty of the viceroyalty in general and Lima in particular. How can we account for this discrepancy?

The answer is to be found in the structure of commercial reform in Peru. It is clear that the Bourbon reformers attempted to diminish the wealth and power of the limeño commercial elite—close-knit family networks constructed during the first half of the century3 —that had interposed itself [End Page 519] between the crown and its other colonial dependencies in Spanish South America. But the structure of the reforms intended to reach that goal is not readily apparent. References to the reforms that focused on the limeño merchants are scattered throughout the archives and secondary sources. Separately, they can seem to be ad hoc responses to aspects of reports like those submitted to the crown by Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, who returned to Spain in 1746 after eleven years in Peru, and by Manuel de Amat, who served as viceroy from 1761 to 1776.4 But taken together, the reformers' measures for enhancing crown control over the quasi-autonomous sub-metropolitan economy were remarkably coherent, suggesting the existence of a well-considered policy and a strategy for its implementation.

Some of the reform measures enacted by crown, viceroy, or visitador (an inspector sent to assess the viceroyalty's fiscal and economic performance) were applicable to Peru alone. Others, notably the Reglamento de comercio libre of 1778, were an integral part of what John Lynch has called "the new imperialism,"5 empire-wide reforms that affected Peru in ways different from their impact on other Spanish possessions in the New World.6 Three of the reforms—the creation of the viceroyalty of Río de la Plata, the imposition of the intendant system, and the reforms in the mining sector—have been the subjects of book-length studies focused on their impact on Peru.7 A study of Peru's maritime trade at the end of the colonial period provides a great deal of information about the viceroyalty's commercial economy,8 but refers only incidentally to the crown's effort to deprive the merchants of Lima of what had been a sub-metropolitan entrepôt trade—a "monopoly," as [End Page 520] it was called by the reformers. But according to limeños, that trade was the essential source of economic prosperity both for the city and the viceroyalty. Tampering with it, they protested, could bring nothing but disaster in its wake. The crown disagreed, insisting that Peru was a political and economic drain on the empire, thanks to the Lima merchants' dominance of trade throughout Spanish South America. That dominance was held partly responsible for the great Indian rebellion led by Túpac Amaru in the 1780s, which began as a protest against repartimientos, the system of forced sales to Indians by provincial governors who were supplied by Lima's merchants.9 The Lima "monopoly" was also held responsible...


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