There are two general interpretations of main currents in Spain and the Spanish empire of the eighteenth century. The “Spanish” school sees the rise of a spirit of reform before 1759, its implementation under Charles III, followed by reaction, drift, and collapse accelerated by the events in Spain after 1800. The “American” school accepts the spirit of reform and some implementation, with a healthy scepticism about the results; moreover, it questions the direction or intent of change by raising the question, reform for whom? More than half a century ago the American school’s position was stated by Priestley in a sympathetic biography of Gálvez and his time, apropos of change in Mexico: “There was simply an enforcement of more rigid adherence to the paramount interest of the mother country in the production and wealth of New Spain.” Brian Hamnett’s Politics and Trade in Southern Mexico is a fresh contribution to the American school of interpretation.

Hamnett’s brief, information-packed study is distinguished by monographic scope as well as the breadth of manuscript materials consulted. In a key area of Mexico, Oaxaca, he examines both the economy and the politics of change at the end of the colony to trace at the grass-roots level the intent and effect of Spanish-imposed change, and to furnish a firm basis for locating protagonists and antagonists of change. At this point the pioneer nature of the study is evident, for Hamnett has gone beyond legislation and intent to pinpoint conflicting interest-groups both criollo and peninsular, the changing role of the old commercial center at Mexico City and the new one at Veracruz, as well as the build-up of pressure in the colony on the eve of Spain’s collapse in 1808—all reflections of the structure and function of production of an export crop, the cochineal dye. In conception, utilization of manuscript sources, attention to interest groups and economic structures of which they were a part and which in turn they manipulated, Hamnett’s study indicates the utility of the monograph.

Emphasis is first upon the development of the cochineal export economy: the cultivation of the crop by Indian communities, the use of chinch funds by Mexico City merchants in supplying commerical agents in Oaxaca, the interdependence of merchants and local bureaucrats (alcaldes mayores, corregidores) in manipulating the cochineal economy for earnings and salaries. Hamnett analyzes the merchants’ and bureaucrats’ principal instrument of coercion in forcing Indian producers from subsistence to export agriculture, the repartimiento. Repartimiento—forced advance of cash, tools, and oxen at artificially high prices to Indian producers of cochineal—coerced Indians into production of cochineal and to a less extent of raw cotton and cotton cloth. Change in the form of Gálvez’s intendancies was designed to strip local officials of their excessive share of cochineal earnings by putting them on a salary, to increase the government’s tax revenues, and to open access to the production, export and gains of cochineal to many Spanish entrepreneurs by eliminating the instrument of Mexico City merchants’ monopoly of supply and purchase, the repartimiento.

It is instructive to recall that Gálvez’s project for intendancies, initiated in 1768, was not formally instituted until 1786 and then immediately attacked and subverted. Under pressure from merchants and bureaucrats, Mexico’s Junta Superior de Hacienda (1794) recommended the return to repartimiento and in Oaxaca local administrators in fact did so: although the Nueva Ordenanza de Intendentes (1803) re-affirmed abolition of repartimiento, within four months the Ordenanza too was rescinded. Attitudes toward the repartimiento remained equivocal, indicating “a clear failure to back up the reform strongly enough with the full force of the Royal Authority.”

Hamnett’s thesis, developed in chapters 5 and 6, is that changes in Oaxaca economic structure leading to the weakening of Mexico City merchants’ hegemony were the product of the intendancy system, the extension of comercio libre to Mexico (1789) and the creation of new consulados, notably that of Veracruz. By 1798 Veracruz merchants were the main suppliers of credit to Oaxaca producers; in the sense that the Gálvez system was applied to introduce “more enterprising and efficient merchants . . . in the profitable cochineal trade,” it therefore achieved success. Hamnett does not indicate the position of Veracruz merchants on the key issue of repartimiento; on the other hand, whatever the differences between the merchants of Mexico City and Veracruz over control of the Oaxaca economy, enforcement of the Consolidación (1804-1808) by Viceroy Iturrigaray united both groups in a common front to depose him in 1808; by siphoning off ecclesiastical funds to Spain, the Consolidación affected the merchants of Mexico City and Veracruz as well as the criollo landed interests of Oaxaca. Both merchant communities advocated Iturrigaray’s deposition because they “believed that the ending of Spanish Metropolitan rule in Mexico was about to take place;” in Oaxaca the merchant community hoped thereby “to reverse the consequences of the establishment of the Intendancy in 1786.” In October, 1810, repartimiento was reaffirmed, suspended during the insurgents’ occupation of Oaxaca, and re-instituted in 1814; at independence it disappeared. Hamnett sees in the combination of intendancies, comercio libre and new consulados a further development, the formation of “Mexican Creole Liberalism,” the growth of regionalism, and consequently “the weakening of Mexico City’s traditional dominant role.”

Hamnett’s presentation is regrettably flawed by many infelicitous phrases which editorial care might have removed and, more seriously, by a repeated tendency to present viewpoints of eighteenth-century observers without his own critical evaluation and analysis. More often than not the contradictions implicit in by no means impartial testimony are simply left unresolved.

A number of questions emerge from Hamnett’s short yet ambitious study. They concern the motivations, goals, and impact of the colonial strategies of “Spanish enlightened despotism.” At the core of Hamnett’s study is the Spanish government’s effort to tamper with a major mechanism of the colonial economy, repartimiento. The multiple objectives of the strategies—to increase the flow of revenue to the Spanish state, to incorporate Indian producers via market inducements, to offer more Spaniards greater access to economic opportunity in the colonies—were contradictory, which may explain Hamnett’s reluctance to offer a new synthesis at this point. Although this study does not resolve the contradictions, his data and that of other researchers will be invaluable in achieving a more accurate and more balanced synthesis of the Spanish empire at the end of the eighteenth century.