A notable hiatus in Spanish historiography—the absence of any detailed study of the economic conditions which encompassed the great political crises of the early nineteenth century—is partly filled by this book. Concentrating on the commercial fortunes of Cádiz between 1796 and 1824, it demonstrates the impact of international war as a depressant to imperial commerce, as a catalyst for colonial independence, and as an impulse to political change in Spain.
In the second (and documentarily substantive) half of the book, the author deploys a mass of quantitative material to portray the cumulative blows inflicted by war, political mismanagement and colonial revolt and to evoke the responses which they engendered.
Unfortunately, that description of the coyuntura never satisfactorily coheres with the preceding outline of estructuras (a lengthy examination of the physical, demographic and economic setting of Cádiz’s transatlantic commerce) because it fails to relate the elements of decay to the process of decline. It is difficult, in García-Baquero’s account, not to see the war as some kind of perverse historical deus ex machina. The listing of weaknesses in the Spanish economy is too schematic to define their relationship to the colonial trade, to foreign influence, to mercantile practice or to the entry into war. While much emphasis is placed on the Cádiz merchants as agents of economic backwardness, the mercantile community is not subjected to close scrutiny either as a group or as individuals. Avoiding any close inspection of their trading ventures, investments, marriage and career patterns, García-Baquero’s condemnation of the merchants as unenterprising, aristocratic imitators lacks authority, and neglects the possibility of a more dynamic relationship (suggested by the potential activities of the Cádiz Consulado, especially in its function as a lender to government) between Crown and mercantile oligarchy.
The superficial treatment of internal factors influencing the colonial trade of Cádiz is compounded by an almost total neglect of the external pressures which exacerbated its vulnerability before 1796. In discussing the colonial economy, the author confines himself to a single source: Humboldt’s Ensayo Político. And though that perspicacious observer commented extensively on the balance of Spain’s transoceanic trade and on the inroads forged by foreign contraband, García-Baquero does not consider the strength of these pressures or their implications for American development and gaditano prosperity. Proliferating complaints about contraband suggest that the establishment of regularly-frequented illicit trade routes was diminishing the role of Cádiz throughout the comercio libre period. Some reflection on these perceptible pre-war shifts in trade routes would have shown the gradual erosion of Cádiz’s prosperity and Spain’s colonial trade before their destruction by war, thus illuminating the movement into war and the genesis of American independence.
The book is recommended as a portrayal of the economic ramifications of Imperial breakdown in Spain, but it is less useful as an analysis of the complex roots of that crisis.