David Ringrose has written a significant study of transportation in Castile in the eighteenth century and related his findings to the stagnation of Spain in the first half of the nineteenth century. Several major points stand out: the role of Madrid as an almost parasitic consumer of goods and seldom as a producer; the highly organized ox carting system as it flourished and then foundered under governmental patronage; and the failure of Spain to develop an interior transportation network that could expand and, prior to the railway age, meet the needs of economic development. The author stresses the decline of the carters from the early 1790s as partially creating the prolonged torpor which the Spanish economy suffered until about 1850.
The research is impressive, though it is necessarily spotty because many records—particularly those of the provinces—are unusable. Great rebanee is placed on the monumental Catastro del Marqués de la Ensenada, a detailed economic survey of Castile in 1748-1752. Ringrose also has made extensive use of national and municipal archives, travel accounts, and the files of the Duke of Medinaceli. Excellent maps and tables abundantly support the conclusions, and the account is clear and well-written. Fortunately for the lazy or hurried reader, the principal points are cogently made in the Preface, Introduction, and closing pages of the final chapter.
Details presented in the intervening section make rewarding study. Efforts of the Spanish crown in the late eighteenth century to construct grandiose highways were less productive than they might have been, for the roads were huge and straight, disdaining geographical realities, and they were built too slowly. Plans for a magnificent system of canals to fink the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean and to connect Madrid with the south coast proved entirely unfeasible. Modest wagon roads and lesser canals, Ringrose believes, could have prevented the bottleneck in transportation that became severe by 1800. Information about the types of transportation needed and available, the role of the government as sponsor and then stifler of commerce, and the organization of the muleteers and oxcart transporters is solid and often interesting. So are the statistics concerning the animals, equipment, and the professional and part-time haulers.
Ringrose centers his attention on the ox carters, whose role had been growing since the Middle Ages and who won extensive concessions from the Crown in the way of assured pasturage along their hauls, winter quartering, exemption from military service and from many tolls, and even a form of rent control. Often they formed brotherhoods or guildike organizations. An elaborate bureaucracy protected them until the nineteenth century. Their privileges declined sharply after 1808 and were finally abolished by the liberals in 1836. For years prior to that, however, the carters had been crippled by the encroachment of fanners on their pastures and by the hostility of communities through which they passed. This book offers modest but convincing evidence that the ruin of the carting industry was a major factor in Spam’s long period of stagnation in the nineteenth century.