In his study of the economic activities of the corregidor de indios, the administrator–judge of the Indian provinces in colonial Peru, Alfredo Moreno Cebrián has tackled one of the crucial problems of colonial economic history. Dr. Moreno notes at the outset that he is interested not in the corregidor as such, but in the role played by that official in the social and economic life of the viceroyalty, much of which consisted of activities that were formally illegal. For that task, he has a superlative body of documentation relating to the infamous reparto de mercancías, the forced sale of goods by the corregidor. While the reparto was as old as the office of corregidor, dating from the sixteenth century, the body of documentation on the activity dates from the short period during which the commercial activities of the corregidor were formally legalized, from 1751 to the abolition of the legalized reparto in 1781-1784 following the great rebellion of Túpac Amaru (1780-1783).
The author begins his study with an examination of the origin of the office and the role formally assigned the corregidor in the system of colonial administration. The corregidor was the supreme colonial authority in the provinces, responsible for the collection of tribute, the provision of the mita, and the execution of Spanish law and justice among the Indians. At the same time, the extensive authority of the corregidor put him in an ideal position to extend credit with minimal fear of default by a purchaser of goods, and the corregidores made of their office a keystone of the Spanish commercial system, establishing a monopoly over the distribution and sale of goods in their provinces.
Dr. Moreno amply proves his contention that a corregidor could not exist on his salary. Throughout the colonial period, reformers pointed out the contradiction between the concept of bureaucratic office and the inadequacy of the salary attached to the position, a fact that all but restricted the office to those willing to ignore the formal prohibitions against economic activity. The Spanish crown was aware that those who sought and held corregimientos did so for the purpose of engaging in the reparto, and it was also aware that the only effective means to stop the practice was to assign the corregidor a salary sufficient to permit him to fulfill the duties of his office and yet end his term with some economic gain. But given the penury of the crown, this constantly reiterated solution was never even attempted; save for minimal readjustments in specific cases, the salaries of the corregidores remained essentially unchanged throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and, legal or illegal, the reparto remained a part of colonial economic life.
As Dr. Moreno points out, there were good and bad corregidores, those who abused the reparto and others who provided a service to the colonial economy through the goods they made available to the members of Indian society. But the bulk of his study consists of an implacable accumulation of evidence on the massive amount of surplus extracted from the members of provincial Indian society through the forced sale of goods. A five-page, twenty-one point summary of conclusions sums up the major arguments of the book in a thorough indictment of a system in which all attempts at reform foundered upon the incapacity of the system to provide an adequate wage to those who served it, forcing the elaboration of a whole structure of extralegal activities to supplement the earnings of officials—in other words, forcing the growth and elaboration of corruption as part of the structure of the system itself. In that sense, the study is a major contribution to the body of work in institutional history.
But as Dr. Moreno states at the onset, he intended his book as a study of an economic and social system in operation. As a contribution to our understanding of the dynamics of the colonial economy, the volume is less successful, if only because the author faces a far greater problem. In any precapitalist economic system, a large part of the dynamism of the system comes from outside, in the form of coercive mechanisms, both legal and extralegal. The reparto de mercancías was clearly an essential part of the colonial Andean economy. It ensured the distribution of the products of the colonial economy—and a good part of the goods imported from Europe as well—to the provincial areas and undoubtedly contributed to the genesis and the maintenance of a limited but real market economy in colonial Peru. But an important question is whether the internal commerce of the colony rested to a large degree upon coercion and force rather than upon classical market incentives. Could the internal market of the viceroyalty, outside of major “growth poles” such as Potosí, function without such coercion? What happened to that internal market following the elimination of the corregidor and the commercial network of which he was the terminus after political independence? To attack these questions, we must go beyond case studies of single institutions, even of institutions as basic to the colonial system as the reparto de mercancías seems to have been, and undertake to reconstruct the relations of production and distribution in colonial society as a whole. In this task, we will all rely heavily upon the work of scholars like Dr. Moreno Cebrián.