- Indians and the Political Economy of Colonial Central America, 1670–1810 by Robert W. Patch
In his introduction, Robert Patch describes his book as one with “modest aspirations.” (p. 11). This is surprising, given that Patch’s work challenges arguments by authors such as Benedict Anderson and Immanuel Wallerstein, arguments that for many have become assumptions. Perhaps Patch means that as an exploration of colonial repartimiento in Central America and the bureaucratic corruption that made it function, the book sets itself clear limits. This is true, although Patch’s depth of perception and his persistent [End Page 157] reexamination of accepted certainties render it nuanced and penetrating rather than “modest.” However, it is certainly true, as the introduction states, that further work might build upon this initial study.
With research conducted primarily at the Archivo General de Indias (Seville), Patch demonstrates beyond doubt that the repartimiento in Central America was coercive. Indians engaged in it involuntarily and only because of economic pressures combined with the constant threat of sanctioned violence. Though few scholars would disagree with that conclusion, it is Patch’s means of reaching it that will illuminate and, in some cases, surprise. Proving the point rests on two related efforts: showing clearly how repartimiento worked, so that the mechanisms of coercion are undeniable; and delving into the peculiarities of governance, so that the coercive and exploitative practices of officials are shown to be systemic failings rather than personal ones.
Patch begins by arguing in a first chapter that “almost all economic activity … depended in one way or another on the Indians” (p. 17). Indians were drawn into economic activity by government officials, principally local magistrates (corregidores and alcaldes mayores), whose salaries were laughably insufficient. Indeed, officials often paid much more for their posts than they earned. A second chapter examines in detail the salary structure for provincial magistrates and the sale of office. It is here that Patch disagrees with Anderson, suggesting that high mobility among officials allowed them “to develop an empire-wide sense of loyalty and identity” (p. 71).
The sale of office, which Patch argues was a last but necessary resort to raise funds, ensured that officials would need to earn income in other ways. Here Patch introduces the various permutations of the repartimiento, demonstrating how it was inextricably from tribute payment. Magistrates would loan money to peasants so that they might make payments in cash and then demand repayment in goods, which would be sold at high prices. In many cases, the magistrate paid the tribute himself in cash, skipping the loan altogether. A third chapter considers how this debt system and other variants of the repartimiento worked within each region, depending on the local population and geography. The system was highly adaptable. And magistrates, as opposed to businessmen, were uniquely suited to take advantage of it because they could compel Indian participation through the power of their office. In other words, “the system worked not because of market forces but because of colonialism” (p. 217).
Two case studies, of Huehuetenango (chapter 4) and Nicaragua (chapter 5), demonstrate the adaptability of repartimiento and allow us to see officials as individuals rather than caricatures of exploitation. As Patch concludes, corruption was “guaranteed” in these circumstances, and the nature of Spanish governance was such that “its officials would act in virtually identical ways despite thousands of miles of distance between them” (p. 172). Reform, as chapter 6 considers, was slow and difficult. Repartimiento did finally end, and it resulted in more sluggish commercial activity, just as its proponents had predicted. Indians engaged in market activities voluntarily “when they perceived market conditions to be favorable to them” (p. 219). And so [End Page 158] only coercion and the threat of violence compelled their involvement in the world economy. Patch argues that this was not a system of “coerced cash-crop” production, as Wallerstein believed (p. 218). It was a system of coerced industrial production...