The aim of the author is to outline the evolution of agrarian society in the central coastland of Peru, comprising seven valleys from Huaura in the North to Ica in the South, from pre-Inca times through the early seventeenth century. Even within this limited territorial space, Robert Keith declares himself to be interested in how “local patterns of change . . . varied from valley to valley” rather than in discerning the general socioeconomic trend.
Based mainly on the estimates of Noble David Cook, the author emphasizes the drastic drop of Indian population after conquest. Coupled with the increasing Spanish urban food demand, he finds this Indian demographic decline to have caused the transition from the encomienda-type of indirect economic exploitation to Spanish-directed agriculture. He underscores the lack of institutional connection between encomienda and hacienda while admitting the “extremely important role” of individual encomenderos in shaping the hacienda system (cf. his criticism of Lockhart in HAHR (August 1971). When describing the evolution of Spanish land tenure, Keith opts for 50 fanegadas (359 acres) as the border line between chacras and haciendas but, at times, he uses the two concepts as synonymous. He claims to discern two basically different patterns. Where agricultural productivity was high, small-scale, more intensively cultivated units of production (chacras) continued to prevail. His prime example is the wine-growing area of the Ica Valley. Where productivity was low, depressed prices and labor shortage, instead, caused the ruin of chacra agriculture. For partly non-economic reasons, members of the elite would replace them with huge, low-productive haciendas. Although seemingly aware of the heterogeneity of coastal agrarian structure, Keith finds the first pattern to be typical of the southern valleys of his region, the latter of the northern valleys. However, the documentation at his disposal concerning the different local levels of profitability seems to be fragmentary and weak. Furthermore, if one takes a closer look at the 1790 (sic) estimate which he presents in support of his thesis (p. 104), the per capita income of the three northernmost provinces of the Peruvian coast at that time turns out to be higher than that of the five southernmost provinces.
Keith’s book constitutes interesting reading. It is often thought-provoking and contributes valuable data for the central coast. The concluding generalizations go far beyond the framework of the book. More research is needed to uncover the agrarian evolution of the Peruvian coastland during early colonial times. Two important contributions have already been presented (although Keith was apparently unable to use them); the Ph.D. dissertation of his American colleague Keith Davies on “The Rural Domain of the City of Arequipa, 1540-1665” (The University of Connecticut, 1974) and the monograph of Manuel Burga, “De la encomienda a la hacienda capitalista. El Valle de Jequetepeque del siglo XVI al XX” (IEP, Lima, 1976). They help to complement the picture highlighting, even more, the great variety of the rural society. In Arequipa, wine growing was not enough to preserve the chacra structure in the way it did in the Ica Valley, as described by Keith. A new group of large landholders (merchants and Jesuits) emerged around 1600. In the Jequetepeque Valley, in the North, meanwhile, haciendas passed from the hands of laymen to those of other religions, mainly Augustinians. Here, besides stock-raising, the main product was rice.