The repartimiento de mercancías is a controversial topic in Latin American historiography. Its negative characterization remains an article of faith among scholars who have based their conclusions on the ample archival documentation attesting to how overpriced and unwanted merchandise was unloaded on the indigenous peoples who were then forced into the market economy to pay off their debts or hounded into flight to escape debt peonage. In short, it was a brutally coercive institution by which colonial officials exploited the Indians by forcing them first to consume and then to work and produce to cover their debts.

But the truth was something else. In fact, the Indians willingly sought out the cash or wares advanced. Their decisions were entirely rational and voluntary. The repartimiento was an innovative mechanism that overcame the market limitations of a pre-Columbian indigenous economy and of a premodern Iberian...

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