Indians and the Political Economy of Colonial Central America, 1670–1810

Nov 9th, 2014 | By | Category: 26-2: Workforce Development, Media Reviews

University of Oklahoma Press (2013)
284 pages

Review by Justin R. Bucciferro

In this book, Robert W. Patch provides a detailed look into the administrative economic organization of the Kingdom of Guatemala over the course of the 18th century. At the time, this region encompassed modern Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, as well as adjacent Costa Rica and the Mexican state of Chiapas. It was inhabited by 400,000 to 500,000 Indigenous people whose production of silver, cacao, and indigo provided a substantial flow of tribute to the Spanish crown.

The book’s central topic is the repartimiento: the king’s representatives, known as alcaldías mayores, who required that Indians make tribute payments by providing raw materials— from which the representatives profited handsomely when they resold the goods at market prices. Albeit illegal, this practice was condoned, and the sale of these government positions helped finance foreign wars. The system was exploitative and without coercion it is unlikely that Natives would even have participated. But, Patch explains, it was nonetheless critical to the region’s economy, as it spurred other industries like food and textiles.

The book begins by describing the outgrowth of tribute from the encomienda system, those subject to tribute, and the possibility for relief. It then details the sale of government positions and the particularities of each province. At the core, case-studies of Huehuetenango (1765–1786) and Nicaragua (1730–1790) portray the tenure of one particular magistrate and, respectively, how the colonial administration adapted to local conditions. Finally, the work chronicles the reform and ultimate disintegration of the repartimiento system.

The early economic arrangements of Europeans and Indians are poorly understood, and Patch makes a valuable contribution in this regard. He gives due consideration to geography, prehistoric institutions, and Indigenous agency. The 18th century was peculiar by today’s standards, yet Patch’s interpretation is timeless: “Bureaucracy was not devoid of good intentions, but good intentions often lost out in the face of necessity or expedience, especially when resisted by vested interest.”

Justin R. Bucciferro, Ph.D., studies the economic geography of Latin America and is an assistant professor of economics at Eastern Washington University.

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