Most Latin Americanists agree that the establishment of cities was a crucial part of the Spanish conquest and settlement of the New World. As centers of Spanish government and Spanish culture, cities served as focal points for royal administration, ecclesiastical ceremonies, commercial transactions, and political activity. Despite agreement about the relative importance of cities in settlement history, only a handful of scholars are studying colonial Spanish American urban history. These scholars contributions are valuable, since they shed new light on the development of urban centers; however, there is still a need to study the evolution and growth of individual cities in Spanish America.1 One broad subject that invites analysis is urban land use and public policy, topics that receive a great deal of attention for twentieth-century Latin American cities, but that are neglected for the colonial period. This article will attempt partially to fill that void by analyzing the public land policy of the Caracas cabildo in the second half of the eighteenth century, using records of the city council, ecclesiastic censuses, and notarial records of solar (“lot”) and house transactions.2

Caracas, after two hundred years of settlement, was still relatively undeveloped by the middle of the eighteenth century. Although the largest city in what is today Venezuela, with a population of 20,000 in 1770, Caracas had none of the grandeur of the viceregal capitals, nor the wealth of mining towns and commercial centers scattered throughout the empire. Caracas, however, because of its slow growth and small size, still had access to land, a valuable resource for continued urban growth. Encircling the urban core of the city lay large tracts of land originally given to the city as an ejido by the Spanish Crown in a cédula of 1594.3 By definition, an ejido was an allotment of land given a city or town for the communal needs of the municipality. According to Spanish law and tradition, ejido land was inviolate; it could not be sold, donated, annexed, or usurped without special royal permission. Regulation and control of ejido land rested with the cabildo, which could allow town residents to use the land for dwellings, common pastures, or gardens, or as a source of timber and firewood. The cabildo also had the power to lease land for emergency agricultural purposes when the food supply of the city was deficient.4 Under the administration and jurisdiction of this institution, some sections of the Caracas ejido were rented to private citizens for agricultural purposes, but the major portion remained free of dwellings two centuries after the founding of Caracas, jealously guarded by both cabildo and citizens.

The public and private sectors acted as checks upon one another with respect to ejidos. When Caraqueños encroached upon ejido land through illegal extensions of their holdings, as happened in 1758 and 1768, the cabildo sent out eviction notices.5 The citizens, in turn, tried to limit the power of the cabildo by observing where and to whom allocations were made. For example, when the cabildo assigned some ejido land in the parish of Candelaria to five wealthy men from another part of the city, residents of Candelaria complained to the provincial governor that their right of free access had been violated. The protestors demanded restoration of the land to ejido status, and when the governor supported their claim, the cabildo reluctantly complied.6 In most cases, however, municipal authorities prevented occupation of uninhabited land by refusing to open up land for residential use. This policy was in effect throughout most of the colonial period because control of city ejidos was one of the major sources of power wielded by the cabildo, and that institution had no wish to release its hold over so valuable a resource. When, on occasion, the cabildo did decide to lease ejido land to raise money, objections often were based on the premise that the cabildo was serving special interest groups.

As a result, no appreciable change in the extension of the central city occurred despite a population increase from 6,000 to 20,000 between 1700 and 1770. Residential boundaries remained essentially stationary, with few new blocks or streets added; by 1770, the city contained only 115 blocks, and measured approximately 1.5 miles by 1 mile.7 The static nature of the city’s limits in the face of an expanding population meant that existing residential zones were forced to accommodate ever-growing numbers of inhabitants. To house these individuals, city residents resorted to several measures. The few remaining vacant lots were occupied; large solares, or plots, were subdivided into smaller units; and buildings were remodeled. The standard quarter-block solar, measuring seventy-five varas square (one vara equaled 33 inches), and dating back to the time of the first colonizers, gradually gave way to smaller plots of twelve by fifty varas. At the same time, some Caraqueños with large dwellings converted their houses into two residences by building a partition through the center of the house, splitting the main patio in half.8 These changes did not yield more room, but produced more living units, and provided for greater utilization of existing space. The success of these maneuvers was short-lived; vacant lots quickly disappeared, the supply of solares suitable for division soon gave out, and most buildings in Caracas were modest structures that could not undergo extensive remodeling. When old buildings could not be subdivided further, and unoccupied residential land no longer existed within the urban core, Caraqueños began to see the city’s ejido lands as the alternative to overcrowded living conditions.

The hope of converting public lands to private ones was understandable. One of the primary motives behind the establishment of ejidos was the expectation that these lands would be used for future urban growth. In his 1573 Ordenanzas de Población, Philip II explicitly stated that “the ejidos will be in such competent amounts that if the population increases, enough space [for expansion] will always remain.”9 In accordance with the terms of the Ordenanzas, the Caracas cabildo had allocated parcels of land since the foundation of the city, but no wide-scale partition of the ejido into solares had ever been necessary.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, however, the cabildo changed its policy and a remarkable distribution of land began. The new policy contrasted sharply with the previous stability of ejido land tenure and resulted from several processes. First, continued population growth made movement onto available ejido an obvious solution to overcrowding. Second, epidemics struck the city in the 1760s, causing Caraqueños to rethink the physical organization and sanitary conditions of their city. Between 1763 and 1770, Caracas experienced repeated outbreaks of measles, which caused many residents to abandon the city. Although only about 1,500 people actually died from the disease, the population declined from 23,000 immediately before the epidemic, to 12,500 in 1765, as many inhabitants fled the confines of the city, believing that urban conditions contributed to the sickness.10 At the end of the decade, when the epidemics abated and residents returned, a flood of petitions poured into the cabildo complaining about overcrowding and requesting immediate attention to the situation. Finally, the construction of two bridges, La Pastora and La Trinidad, over the Río Catuche gave easy access to land north of the central plaza. It was here that lands were first distributed.11

Beginning in 1770, and for about twenty-five years thereafter, the cabildo opened up the unpopulated ejido lands of Caracas. After decades of inactivity, the sudden burst of land grants was remarkable in its intensity. Between 1770 and 1790, more than 700 solares were allocated to individuals throughout the city, with peak years in 1770, 1781, and 1787. Between 1790 and 1809, an additional 200 solar grants were awarded by the Caracas cabildo.

Partitioning of land was recorded by the cabildo in its weekly minutes and in special volumes kept for noting solar donations.12 Fortunately, these accounts survive. From them it is possible to reconstruct the way in which ejido lands were converted to private plots, discover the motives behind the cabildo’s decision to allocate land, determine the social and economic origins of the petitioners, uncover the record-keeping problems faced by the city, and evaluate the long-range results of free distribution of ejido lands.

For the first major partition of land, the cabildo decided not to assign solares randomly from vacant ejido lands, but to settle one area at a time, creating specific barrios out of previously undeveloped lands. Divina Pastora, northwest of the central plaza, was the first section chosen for partitioning. This was followed by Carguata in 1780, La Trinidad in 1786, Los Teques in 1787, and Calvario in 1788. Sabana Grande and Sabana Anauco, both east of the Río Anauco, remained agricultural areas untd the last decade of the century when a bridge built over the river connected the two outlying regions to the center and permitted settlement. At the end of the colonial period, these two barrios marked the farthest extension of the city.13

In 1770, upon announcing its intentions to dispense land in Divina Pastora, the cabildo invited petitions from the residents of Caracas and promised to allocate vacant land as a means of relief for the poor. Since there would not be enough land for all seekers, the cabildo determined that preference would be given to those who lacked houses in which to shelter themselves and their families. Individuals who could not buy or rent property would receive free solares on which to construct their residences, and, after complying with some minimal building requirements, would become the legal owners of the plots, with full rights of ownership, transfer, and inheritance. A requirement that some construction take place within six months was the only other obligation.14 The city, then, would relinquish all legal claim to the land except for a yearly tax that was not to exceed 3 percent of the land value.

By making the land available in this manner, the cabildo hoped to alleviate unhealthy and overcrowded living conditions in the center of the city, provide shelter and a potential source of livelihood to individuals without other resources, and add to city revenues through new property taxes. Presumably, an added benefit would be the relocation of many poorer inhabitants to the outskirts of the city where their poverty would be less visible to those members of the elite clustered around the plaza mayor. Assignment of solares from vacant municipal lands, furthermore, would be relatively painless—no reallocation of resources or disruption of the economic preserve of the rich need take place. In fact, as an institution, the cabildo stood to gain from land distribution. By citing charitable motives for the donations, and by promising unbiased methods in the allocation process, the cabildo could claim to serve all the residents of Caracas and not just the interests of the rich (of which it was often accused).

Financial benefits for the municipal body were also envisioned. In strictly economic terms, the taxes to be collected on land grants would enlarge the city's coffers and give the cabildo more working capital for other projects. While the amount would not be great, it would be a steady source of income to a treasury chronically low on funds. With all these possible advantages to gain, the long-standing opposition of the cabildo to parting with city lands melted away.

Although the cabildo explicitly stated its intention to distribute solares to the city’s poor, its members did not intend to exclude themselves from that distribution. This becomes apparent when reviewing the list of land recipients. Although by no means constituting a majority of those obtaining city land, many prominent Caraqueños and most government officials at the provincial and local levels received solares from the cabildo. The names of Don José Fernando Espinosa, an audiencia lawyer; Don Domingo Fernández, a public notary; Don Antonio de León, the water commissioner; the Marqués de Torre, one of the richest men in the city; and cabildo members Don Diego Moreno y Piñango, Don Juan de Lecumberri, and Don Hilario Mora all appear on the list of solar recipients.5 Despite the fact that these men already owned property, they received grants from the cabildo, often as compensation for services rendered the city. There is little indication, however, that the officials obtained more than their due. Although land petitions exist in abundance, those claiming compensation for services rarely appear in the books of solares or in the cabildo minutes. When they do appear, the petitions provide little specific information on the justification for the grant. Whether officials legitimately earned their awards, therefore, cannot be determined, but surely the claim of service proved to be a convenient means by which the cabildo could allocate land to its members and those of similar socioeconomic standing while simultaneously providing assistance to the poor.

It follows from the above that distribution of ejido lands to regidores and other notables proceeded smoothly because the cabildo did respond to the demands of other inhabitants of the city. In the long run, many poor people believed their needs satisfied because the cabildo allocated over 90 percent of the awards to them. The overwhelming number of solar recipients were pardo jornaleros, widows, orphans, and old or incapacitated people who claimed poverty. The records show that little racial or sexual discrimination occurred. In Divina Pastora, where 208 grants were distributed, 150 went to non whites and 58 to whites. In the same group, 117 solares went to men and 91 to women. While whites received slightly larger and more valuable solares, the pardos also fared well. To judge from the records for 150 cases, it seems that grants to pardos averaged twelve by seventy-five varas and were assessed, on the average, at twenty-five pesos each. For an artisan or a laborer, a giant of land that size could be equivalent to three months’ salary, and it therefore represented a considerable donation. Considering the degree of discrimination against the castas in Caracas at this time, the impartiality of the cabildo in its grants of land is surprising.16

Officials and other prominent citizens rarely explained in detail why they deserved the land for which they were applying, but the poor usually did give specific reasons for their petitions. These petitions consequently reveal a great deal about that class of people so often missing from written records. Furthermore, the petitions reveal what constituted cases of hardship and poverty. In a request drawn up by Juana del Barrio, for example, the solicitor stated that she was a poor widow, burdened with children and grandchildren, and lacking a home of her own. Manuel de los Reyes, another petitioner, cited similar circumstances when he complained of being a destitute old man, in ill health, with a wife and six young children to support. The petition of Lorenzo Cardoso added yet another reason; besides his own family, Cardoso cared for two orphaned nieces. Juana Baptista Mesa y Molina cited another common reason for requesting land. A widow with three daughters approaching marriage age, she could not provide dowries without a gift from the cabildo.17

Impoverished individuals could often capitalize on the loss of earlier holdings to justify new grants. María Escovar used this tactic when she asked the cabildo for a new solar to replace the one she sold at the time of her father’s death. Then a minor, she had no choice but to liquidate her inheritance to support herself. Juan Cadena related a similar story. He had inherited half a city block from his father, but sold part of it to pay for his parent’s funeral. As his father’s title to the solar rested on an earlier cabildo grant, Cadena asked that the original size of the donation be restored to him through a new concession.18

While the cabildo did not supply all needy Caraqueños with parcels of land, it did grant a substantial number of plots to poor people, and it encouraged these individuals to hold onto their awards by limiting the yearly property tax, or pensión, to about 1 to 3 percent of the value of the solar. For a standard twelve-vara-wide plot in a new barrio valued at twenty-five or thirty pesos, the pensión totaled less than three reales per year (eight reales equaled one peso). Thus in the 1770 Divina Pastora partition, 173 plots of this size were distributed with a mean tax of 2.1 reales. This sum represented a nominal tax since it amounted to less than one average day’s wage of the peon working in Caracas.19

Although individuals often complained about pensiones, it was the city that experienced the most difficulty with property taxes. In collecting the fees, and in determining which solares were subject to tax, the city continually encountered problems. Official proclamations asking for the clarification of solar titles and requesting evaluations of taxes owed appear in the minutes of the cabildo with striking regularity. In 1758, the cabildo asked a regidor to make a census of all solares in Caracas in an attempt to clarify titles and taxes. Ten years later, a similar request appeared, with the result that all persons owning city-granted lands had to present their titles for confirmation. In 1772, Regidor Don Marcos de Rivas compiled a list of persons owing solar taxes and estimated that the total debt amounted to 15,681 pesos. He could not identify all the debtors, however, because of the deplorable state of the records and the confusion that had characterized past land granting procedures. Three years later, the cabildo again attempted to resolve the issue by decreeing that all urban land, except for the four blocks immediate to the central plaza, had once been city ejido and was, therefore, subject to tax. Despite this seemingly simple and straightforward solution, the city's troubles did not cease. In 1792 the cabildo once again tried to correct its records by taking an inventory of all grants of ejido awarded during the previous twenty years. This, too, proved impossible to carry out. Solar owners continued to avoid their obligations or complicated the situation by offering only partial payment.20

Problems with land granting procedures, rather than default on taxes, however, proved to be the major source of difficulty in trying to collect revenues. Because of inadequate record keeping, frequent loss of deeds, the reassigning of solares, and the lack of a clear-cut policy regarding allocation, disputes over ownership regularly appeared before the courts, making it practically impossible at times to determine the owner of a solar. Loss of deeds by property owners was a prime contributory factor to this dilemma. When a resident could not produce a title to his or her land during an ownership dispute, the cabildo intervened to resolve the argument. A search of the records would be conducted to locate a copy of the missing document and, if this failed to provide the necessary data, the cabildo judged the plea from verbal testimony of witnesses.21 Suits involving lost documents occurred often, showing not only the carelessness of the landowners but also that of the town council, which had ultimate responsibility for preserving an accurate account of all ejido land awards.

Illegal occupation of land, a familiar problem in Caracas today, further plagued city officials. For example, in 1780, when the city’s public works commission surveyed recently conceded solares in Carguata, it discovered that many individuals not only had usurped the areas adjacent to their solares, and moved onto the land, but refused to pay additional taxes. In this case, the cabildo acted quickly, ordering all residents to present their deeds and return all land not legally held by them.22 The takeover of land was not always checked so rapidly. The inability to control squatters, of course, meant that ownership disputes were an everpresent problem for city officials.

Reassigning solares to more than one person further confused an already complicated situation. The repossession of a solar grant by the cabildo and the reallocation of it to another person were permissible in certain circumstances. For example, the cabildo could repossess a piece of property when the recipient failed to pay his or her yearly tax or when the recipient reneged on the obligation to build a fence or house on the solar within a fixed time period. This happened frequently in newly settled areas of Caracas, though it appears that the lack of compliance with the construction mandate led to more repossessions than did default on taxes.

Nullification of a grant did not necessarily create a problem, but the failure to record the nullification often did. The cabildo acknowledged its own laxity by admitting that it often reclaimed solares without noting its action in the official records. A typical example of this occurred in Los Teques in 1784. The city donated a solar to Luis Cabrera, but later rescinded it when he failed to build on the land. The solar then passed to Fernando Ranjel and Francisco Solorzano, but at the same time, Cabrera rented it out to Don Ignacio Meneses, to whom he owed twentyseven pesos. This left three men claiming right to the land. Nine years later the case was still pending. One regidor summed up the entire problem when he reported to the cabildo that because of improper record keeping as many as ten or twenty different individuals could receive the same solar over several years. With such lax administration, it is not surprising that disputes concerning titles and taxes were constant.23

Identifying the source of the problem did not lead to its solution. The cabildo never managed to keep its records accurate despite numerous attempts to do so. Private citizens still lost their property deeds regardless of warnings to the contrary, and multiparty claims to single solares continued to appear. These aspects of land distribution were not confined to any one year, or to any one area of the city; all new sections opened for settlement experienced the same difficulties. Perhaps it was in the nature of land allocation in a rapidly expanding city that these patterns and problems should occur.

What overall effects did large-scale partitioning of solares have on the city during the second half of the eighteenth century? The first, and most obvious, effect was that large areas of hitherto undeveloped lands were taken over by private citizens for residential and agricultural purposes. This extended the limits of the city in all directions, added thirty new blocks, and resulted in the creation of new neighborhoods on the periphery. The Church responded to this growth by establishing two new parishes, Santa Rosalía toward the southeast in 1777, and Divina Pastora toward the north in 1811. The cabildo, in 1779, divided the city into eight barrios and appointed an alcalde de barrio to each one.24

Distribution of ejido lands did ease poor sanitary conditions and overcrowding. More spacious settlement and attention to a clean water supply undoubtedly improved health conditions throughout the city. More than 1,216 houses were built between 1759 and 1792, with the result that average household size dropped from 8.4 to 7.6 persons.25 After the epidemics of the 1760s and land distribution of the 1770s, Caracas was relatively free of major diseases for the remainder of the colonial period.

While easing overcrowded conditions and providing poor inhabitants with land, the partitioning created other problems that the city tried to control. The incorporation of undeveloped terrain led to demands for extending the water supply lines, lengthening and cobbling streets, and providing sanitation and security for the new barrios. Attempts to meet the need for increased municipal services had a significant impact on the financial well-being of city government. The added burden of paying for new services stretched the always besieged city budget to the breaking point. Monies received from the solar taxes fell far short of covering the cost of new services and the city chose not to ask the Crown, itself constantly in debt, for municipal assistance.26 New areas of the city, therefore, did not obtain services comparable to those enjoyed by more established sections of Caracas, nor could private attempts by the citizens of the areas compensate this lack of official support. In the peripheral zones, most inhabitants lived on the brink of poverty, often not finding enough money to buy food, let alone to support public works. In contrast to the central parish of Catedral, where wealthy residents often initiated and helped pay for services, Divina Pastora, La Trinidad, and other new barrios had to await municipal assistance for the completion of projects often begun by local residents, but left incomplete when funds ran out. This assistance was often delayed or simply never materialized.27

A third result of land partitioning was the alleviation of poverty. This was one of the originally stated aims of ejido distribution, though how far it was met is hard to judge. Without precise data from tax rolls, property assessments, or other systematic surveys of wealth, the degree to which individual recipients of city lands profited from their acquisitions cannot be determined. As a group, however, solar holders probably experienced an increase in their wealth. The simple act of receiving land from the city was a major addition to a person’s property and for many individuals it was probably their only real possession.

Solares distributed by the cabildo were, on the average, twelve by seventy-five varas in size and were worth about twenty-five pesos, a substantial amount of money given the wages of the time.28 In addition, solares could be used for a multitude of purposes, such as raising cash, as locales for dwellings (presumably the original intent of the cabildo), as collateral for borrowing money, as a source of income through leasing, as an investment, as a dowry, or as an inheritance for children and relatives. Caraqueños made use of their land for all these purposes.

Selling a solar was probably the quickest and easiest way to profit from a cabildo grant. Few grantees chose this recourse soon after receiving the land. Instead, many solar recipients sold part of their grant after several years of ownership. Their profits presumably were considerable, since property values in Caracas continued to rise throughout the eighteenth century. In a typical case, José Antonio Moreno, a pardo artisan, received 240 pesos for a solar originally valued at 100 pesos. In another case, Nicolas Tovar, a free Black, sold one-third of a solar for fifty-six pesos while retaining the remainder of the land for his own use. Martín Escovar earned fifteen pesos on his solar in two years; José Urbano, a pardo, earned forty-four pesos in five years; and Claudia Landaeta earned fifteen pesos in ten years. More spectacular were the profits achieved by José Cuello, a pardo, who received a solar in La Trinidad valued at fortyeight pesos and within the year sold it for eighty pesos.29

While selling solares proved profitable, most recipients of city ejido used their lands for residences. Since part of the contract with the cabildo called for some improvement on the solar within six months, it is not surprising that dwellings appeared rather quickly. But if the cabildo expected that solar recipients would settle on their land, build homes, and then live in those dwellings permanently, its expectations were not fully met. Most persons did build houses on their land, but they did not reside in them for more than a year or two. While a few families did indeed keep their grants and live in the same place for decades, appearing in the censuses year after year in the same locale, the majority of families in Caracas did not remain stationary.30 Tracing individuals or families by residential location over extended periods of time is all but impossible, especially in the newer barrios. The turnover rate of families on any given block is amazingly high: within a three-year period, for example, 80 to 90 percent of a city block’s population moved. Whether these people moved to other parts of the city or left Caracas entirely is not known, but fluctuating population figures for the city’s five parishes indicate a great deal of moving from parish to parish during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.31 This mobility also indicates a great deal of buying, selling, and leasing of property. The availability of so much new land and the constant rise in realty values prompted a period of speculation unparalleled in the city up to that time. This was, perhaps, the most significant result of ejido partitioning.

Reasons for the sale of urban property are as diverse as the number of sales in the city. The bills of sale found among the notary records often give detailed information about the reason for the sale, the precise location of the property, a history of ownership, and the value of real estate over time. From these documents it is possible to reconstruct the buying and selling patterns of Caraqueños and determine the extent of speculation in the city. Since the cabildo did distribute land to a number of poor people, it is not surprising that some of these people could not keep their solares when economic reversals occurred. With limited resources and low-paying jobs, many poor people could not endure sickness, outlast temporary unemployment, finance funerals, or support their families without going into debt. Selling a house or a solar often became the only means of meeting everyday expenses.32

Financial problems are not always mentioned as a motive for a sale, though they are the most frequent cause. Complications arising from estate settlements also prompted the sale of property in order to facilitate execution of wills. At times, the executors could not resolve the division of property except by converting it to currency, while at other times the inheritors could not use only a portion of a house or solar. In 1785, for example, the court decided that the executors of Doña Petrona Pacheco’s estate should sell a house and store of the deceased for “the commodious division” of the property among children from her first and second marriages. Not all cases, however, were resolved like this one. In numerous situations, people ended up inheriting one-sixth, one-fourth, or one-half of a house.33

The white, pardo, Indian, and Black landowners of Caracas were all caught up in a period of land speculation that promised considerable profits for those individuals able to take advantage of the market. Despite the availability of more land after ejido distribution, the population of the city continued to outdistance the supply of solares. Prices were thus forced up. Plots originally worth three or four pesos per vara reached eight or nine pesos in a few years. An eighteen by seventy-five vara plot, for example, bought in 1752 for 90 pesos sold for 144 pesos fifteen years later, and twenty-two years after that brought in 504 pesos. Another solar in La Trinidad originated as a cabildo grant in 1781; it then sold for 50 pesos in 1783, and for 100 pesos in 1790. In 1760 a city block could be purchased for 200 pesos, but by 1790 the asking price was 800 pesos.34

While solar values continued to rise, they could not compare to house values in Caracas. Dwellings, however mean, were at a premium, despite the addition of 1,216 new buildings between 1759 and 1792.35 The gap between the increased population and the number of new dwellings produced exceptionally high prices (see Table I). While prices varied depending upon the size and condition of the building, nearly all houses netted profits for their owners. Of the ninety houses sold between 1790 and 1792, nearly 80 percent brought a profit for their owners. Some prices climbed considerably between sales. When Doña Antonia Arguar purchased a house in San Pablo in 1792, for example, she paid 2,000 pesos for it; six years before, the house had cost 1,700 pesos, and in 1746 it had cost only 210 pesos. A similar increase on another house in the same parish is also recorded in notarial records. Pedro Bolívar built a house on a forty-peso solar owned by his father and then sold it for 180 pesos in 1757. Thirty-five years later, the same house sold for 600 pesos, a threefold increase. At the end of the century, one Caraqueño, in generalizing about the housing situation in the city, pointed out that “houses valued at 200 pesos twenty years ago are worth 1,000 pesos today.”36

Surprisingly little can be discovered about the way in which solar owners transformed their vacant lots into residential ones. Information on building contracts, labor costs, and financing procedures rarely appears in notarial records. Certainly there was a difference between the construction of the homes of the rich and the poor. For homes worth 1,000 to 3,000 pesos, inventories reveal the presence of professional carpenters and masons during the construction period.37 Composed of cement and stones, brick walls, framed doors and windows, and tiled roofs, these dwellings manifest the wealth and social position of their owners. They were also the only buildings more than one story high since the fear of earthquakes inhibited many Caraqueños from erecting multilevel dwellings. But most houses in Caracas at the end of the colonial period were, according to the French traveler François Depons, not made of brick, but of tapia (a mixture of river sand and lime molded between wooden planks into blocks used for construction). Roofs consisted of tile or straw, and often covered only one room given the mild climate of the region.38 Poorly constructed, often by the owners, and of flimsy material, these buildings did not stand up well under heavy use, constantly needed repair, and often collapsed within a few years. The cabildo blamed the poor construction of these smaller homes for contributing to the housing shortage in the city and estimated that houses of this type lasted only half as long as the professionally built dwellings.39

Since many Caraqueños could not afford their own houses, even with the aid of city-donated lands, renting a room or a house, or boarding, were necessary means of acquiring lodging. In 1759, 43 percent of all houses in the city were rented. The owners of these buildings represented a mixed group. At least half of the 1,114 landlords owned only one other building besides the one in which they lived. Other landlords owned numerous pieces of property throughout the city and derived considerable income as rentiers. For example, in 1792 Doña Bernarda Garay, widow of the merchant Don Felipe Llaguno, owned more than fifty houses and stores in the city, more than any other single individual. Priests, notaries, regidores, and many other members of the elite also earned income from urban property, as did some of the more successful pardo artisans and craftsmen. The Piñangos, a family of carpenters, and the Bejaranos, a family of small shopkeepers, were two examples of pardo landlords.40

Religious institutions, surprisingly, held title to relatively few properties in Caracas. The convents, monasteries, churches, and cofradías owned about fifty of the 3,971 buildings in the city in 1792. As the principal moneylenders of the community, however, religious organizations had partial claim to many homes since the buildings often served as collateral for church loans.41

Renting provided substantial income for owners. Most average-sized houses occupied by artisans or shopkeepers rented for five pesos a month, but in the central parish of Catedral, where wealthy families leased homes, rents could be twenty to thirty pesos a month.42 Houses, however, were difficult to find and always in short supply. Ignacio Ibarra testified to the problem in a petition he submitted to the cabildo to prevent eviction from the house he rented. As a master shoemaker, Ibarra earned a decent income and could afford the five pesos a month charged for his rented dwelling. But when the owner sold the house, Ibarra was asked to vacate the premises within a month. The shoemaker petitioned the city to prevent, or at least to forestall, the eviction, citing “the well-known scarcity of houses in the city, and the difficulty of locating another in such a short time.”43 Other cases demonstrate the rising rents. For example, José Guillén, a barber, resigned himself to a rent increase, but balked at the proposed amount, from five to twelve pesos a month. He complained to the cabildo and won a reduction of the amount.44 As these examples make clear, artisans and craftsmen, while guaranteed a better than subsistence living because of their skills, were hurt by the housing situation in Caracas. One can only imagine the living conditions of the unskilled and unemployed. The rising rents and the shortage of housing, clearly, affected most those who could least afford the increases.

Renting houses, like any other economic endeavor, was not without risks. Renters often abused the buildings, reneged on their obligations, failed to pay rent, and refused to move. Turning to the courts proved the only means of satisfaction for many landlords, and sometimes cases were tied up in litigation for years. Colonial records are filled with suits involving conflicts between landlords and renters. One of the major complaints against renters was that they mistreated the buildings they lived in, particularly the small houses, which were badly constructed. The abuse was a well-known practice, but even the cabildo could do little more than bemoan the fact that:

Those who occupy small buildings are those who make them useless through their bad treatment and lack of cleanliness; they regularly leave the houses locked up and not being content to walk off owing rent (recovery of which is quite troublesome and often judicial), they also take the keys as well. The poor construction combined with the filth causes a continual decomposition of the streets.45

At times, landlords refused to rent to someone who seemed likely to ruin their property. The overseer of the church of Catedral, for example, would not agree to rent a house to Don Domingo Zulueta, a merchant, because Zulueta’s business involved “mule traffic for transporting cartons and barrels and would cause enormous mistreatment of the building and destruction of the streets.”46

Failure to pay rent also aggravated landlords, who often never did recover their money. When Doña Juana de Acosta rented a house and store in the barrio of San Lázaro, she complained that “only miserable people rented it and because of their poverty rarely satisfied the pensión of twenty reales (two and a half pesos) a month.”47 Despite the accusation against poor people, the rich also overlooked their obligations. The regidor, Don Francisco Quintana, owed a poor parda six months’ rent on a building he used to store supplies. The parda had to appeal to the cabildo before Quintana finally paid her the amount owed.48

Evicting renters was a difficult task for landlords. Not only did lodgers often refuse to leave, but they turned to city officials for protection. Such a case occurred in 1796 when Doña Rosa Miranda tried to evict Juana Alas, a parda, from a house she had rented for more than eight years. Under the pretext of repairing the house, the landlady asked the tenant to leave, but Alas believed that someone was offering Miranda more money. Both women ended up before the audiencia where, after two years, the judges decided that Miranda could only evict Alas if she used the house for her personal residence.49 Even though an owner might have title to a house, as Miranda clearly did, he or she still had to defend the eviction before the authorities. Apparently, the audiencia, and at times the cabildo, believed it necessary to intervene to keep rents down and to prevent unjustified evictions.

Despite the drawbacks of delinquent renters, mistreated buildings, and complicated legal entanglements, Caraqueños continued to rent their houses and search out new lands and buildings to add to their holdings. While individuals with investment capital could more easily buy or build houses, many poor people, by dint of hard work, careful savings, and the acquisition of a land grant from the cabildo, managed to build houses for themselves and then acquired others. Once engaged in this type of enterprise, these industrious Caraqueños no longer fit into the general classification pobre, which so many of them first used to obtain their solares.

Accessibility to new lands proved to be of the utmost importance for the levelopment of Caracas. When demographic growth pressured existing space and when repeated epidemics threatened the health of the city’s inhabitants, the need to extend the city’s residential boundaries reached a point of crisis that the cabildo could no longer ignore. The decision to partition land, however, was a responsive, not an initiating act, on the part of the cabildo. Demand preceded distribution, forcing a reluctant cabildo interested in maintaining the status quo to take action. Only when health conditions deemed it necessary did the cabildo implement measures to relieve the situation. These moves led to various changes in all aspects of the life of the city and contributed greatly to its growth. Not only did the city’s physical structure undergo rapid alteration, its economic activity also grew as citizens put their land grants to a variety of uses. New streets and blocks appeared, and construction and economic activities increased. By-products of the land partition included a surge in the buying and selling of property, the beginnings of realty speculation, and a wider participation in the rental trade. All these added to the economic mobility of some members of society and to the complexity of the city’s economy.

The partition of land had political and social as well as economic implications. The cabildo acted as spokesman for the interests of the elite, but gave the illusion of representing all the city’s inhabitants. By donating land to poor people, the cabildo seemed to fulfil its responsibilities to the lower classes with consideration and fairness. Enough grants were given to this sector of society to appease the mass of poor. At the same time, no major shifts in the power or the prestige of either the cabildo or the elite occurred. For the mantuanos (the “creole elite”), the distribution of land caused no ill effects, and, in many cases, when members of this group received land, their condition actually improved. For the poor, however, the benefits of land acquisition from the cabildo could be considerable. The uses to which the solares were put extended beyond providing a shelter. Scattered throughout the city, but particularly noticeable in the peripheral areas, were numerous small-scale enterprises primarily concerned with the food supply of the city. These included raising vegetables and fruit, baking bread, making candy, and other manufacturing of edibles. The poor people monopolized these menial tasks, particularly the many women without resources who supported themselves by peddling their products in the streets or by selling them to the larger retailers in the city.

Difficult to assess are the long-range political consequences of the land partition. Distribution of ejido land gave many poor members of the society a valuable piece of property that they used to propel themselves into the mainstream of the economic life of the city. From part of a marginal group lacking vested interests in the society in which they lived, these people transformed themselves into small entrepreneurs. What effect this would have on the decision many of these people would make in just a short time regarding the Independence movement is open to debate. Would they prefer the stability of the Crown and a controlled economy to preserve their newly acquired possessions, or would they desire more benefits and gamble with the revolutionaries? Historians have tried to answer the same question as this article does for rural Venezuelans, but few have looked at some of the urban groups emerging as a force in Caracas at the end of the eighteenth century.


Richard B. Morse, The Urban Development of Latin America, 1750-1920 (Stanford, 1971); Jorge E. Hardoy, El modelo clásico de la ciudad colonial hispanoamericana (Buenos Aires, 1968); Peter Marzahl, Town in the Empire: Government, Politics, and Society in Seventeenth-Century Popayán (Austin, 1978); David Robinson, ed., Social Fabric and Spatial Structure in Colonial Latin America (Ann Arbor, 1979); Mario Góngora, Urban Social Stratification in Colonial Chile," HAHR, 55 (Aug. 1975), 421–448; and Eric Van Young, “Urban Market and Hinterland: Guadalajara and its Region in the Eighteenth Century,” HAHR, 59 (Nov. 1979), 593-635. For Venezuela, see John V. Lombardi, People and Places in Colonial Venezuela (Bloomington, 1976); Ermila Troconis de Veracoechea, Historia de El Tocuyo colonial: Período histórico, 1545–1810 (Caracas, 1977); David Robinson and M. M. Swann, “Geographical Interpretations of the Hispanic-American City: A Case Study of Caracas in the Late Eighteenth Century” in R. J. Tate, ed., Latin America: Search for Geographic Explanations (Chapel Hill, 1974); and Stephanie Blank, "Patrons, Clients and Kin in Seventeenth-Century Caracas: A Methodological Essay in Colonial Spanish American Social History,” HAHR, 54 (May 1974), 260–283.


An important exception to this is the work by María Dolores Morales, “Estructura urbana y distribución de la propiedad en la ciudad de México en 1813,” Historia Mexicana, 25 (Jan.-March, 1976), 363–402. The present study is based on material consulted in the following Caracas archives: Archivo del Concejo Municipal del Distrito Federal, Archivo de la Biblioteca Nacional, Archivo Arquidiocesano de Caracas, Archivo General de la Nación, and the Registro Principal del Distrito Federal (abbreviated hereinafter as ACM, ABN, AAC, AGN, and RP, respectively).


Auto del gobernador, June 22, 1594, ACM, Libro de Solares, 1734-1777.


Manuel Pinto, Los ejidos de Caracas (Caracas, 1968) and John P. Moore, The Cabildo in Peru under the Bourbons (Durham, 1966).


ACM, Actas de Cabildo, July 3, 1758, fol. 222, Nov. 21, 1768, fol. 103.


Pinto, Los ejidos, pp. 63-69.


Demographic information on the city of Caracas was obtained from house-to-house censuses, or matrículas, which were taken annually by the parish priests in the bishopric of Caracas between 1750 and 1795. The Archivo de la Biblioteca Nacional holds the 1759 matrículas of Caracas, while all other years are located in the Archivo Arquidiocesano de Caracas in the section Matrículas. These are cataloged by parish. The four parishes that made up Caracas were Catedral, Altagracia, Candelaria, and San Pablo. In 1777, a fifth parish, Santa Rosalía, was created.


Graziano Gasparini, La arquitectura colonial en Venezuela (Caracas, 1965), p. 117.


Recopilación de leyes de los reinos de las Indias (Madrid, 1841), vol. 2, lib. iv, ley xiii.


ACM, Actas de Cabildo, Feb. 10, 1766, fols. 112-113, Feb. 3, 1767, fol. 117, May 11, 1772, fols. 64-65; Matrículas de Catedral, Altagracia, Candelaria, and San Pablo, 1760s, AAC, Matrículas. See also Ricardo Archila, Historia de la medicina en Venezuela: Epoca colonial (Caracas, 1961), pp. 368-371.


ACM, Actas de Cabildo, Nov. 3, 1772, fol. 132, June 25, 1773, fols. 115-117, May 4, 1778, fol. 69, Sept. 18, 1778, fols. 147-148, July 7, 1782, fol. 137, Jan. 7, 1785, fol. 16. See also Eduardo Arcila Farías, Historia de la ingeniería en Venezuela, 2 vols (Caracas 1961), I, 78-79.


There are seven volumes of petitions in the Libros de Solares in the Archivo del Concejo Municipal del Distrito Federal. Four of these pertain to the colonial period. Throughout the Actas de Cabildo, in the same archive, appear grants of land. See especially the years 1770, 1780, and 1781.


ACM, Libro de Solares, 1734-1777, 1738-1775, and 1786-1797. Maps of Caracas are found in Irma Sola de Ricardo’s Contribución al estudio de los planos de Caracas, la cuidad y la provincia: 1567-1967 (Caracas, 1967).


ACM, Actas de Cabildo, June 11, 1770, fols. 36-52; Distribución de solares en Divina Pastora, 1770, RP, Casas y Solares, leg. 557.


ACM, Actas de Cabildo, Dec. 13, 1779, fol. 370, Oct. 9, 1780, fol 146 Dec 15, 1780, fol. 183.


ACM, Actas de Cabildo, June 11, 1770, fols. 38-52. Francisco Domínguez Compañy argues that cabildos did not discriminate by race because Spanish law prohibited it. See his article “Participación activa de los cabildos en los repartos de tierras y solares” in Memorial del Primero Congreso Venezolano de Historia, 2 vols. (Caracas, 1972), vol. 1. See also Richard Konetzke, ed., Colección de documentos para la historia de la formación social de Hispano América, 1493-1810, 2 vols. (Madrid, 1953-62); José Félix Blanco and Ramón Azupurúa, eds., Documentos para la historia de la vida pública del libertador de Colombia, Perú y Bolivia, 14 vols. (Caracas, 1857-77), I, 267-268; and Pedro Arcaya, El cabildo de Caracas (Caracas, 1968), p. 110.


Petición de solar de Juana del Barrio, Nov. 3, 1778, ACM, Libro de Propios, Ordenanzas y Alhóndigas, 1606-1802; Petición de solar de Manuel de los Reyes, ACM, Actas de Cabddo, June 5, 1779, fol. 201; Petición de solar de Lorenzo Cardoso, 1762, and Petición de solar de Juana Baptista Mesa y Molina, 1762, ACM, Libro de Solares, 1734-77.


Petición de solar de María Escovar, Nov. 19, 1798, ACM, Libro de Solares, 1798-1840; Petición de solar de Juan Cadena, ACM, Actas de Cabildo, May 7, 1780, fol. 113.


ACM, Actas de Cabildo, June 11, 1770, fols. 38–52. For information on peon wages, consult Representación del regidor diputado de obras públicas al ayuntamiento Aug 6 1804, ACM, Libro Diverso, 1779-1810.


ACM, Actas de Cabildo, March 12, 1753, fols. 223-227, July 3, 1758, fol. 222, Nov 21, 1768, fol. 103; Ramo de pensiones de tierras, 1772-77, ACM, Aetas de Cabildo, Dee. 5, 1781, fols. 187-191, July 30, 1792, fol. 137.


Petición de Rosalio Franquir, Nov. 22, 1784, Aug. 12, 1785, ACM, Libro de Propios, Ordenanzas y Alhóndigas, 1607-1802.


Representación de los diputados de obras públicas, June 12, 1780, ACM, Libro de Propios, Ordenanzas y Alhóndigas, 1607-1802.


ACM, Actas de Cabildo, Aug. 17, 1793, fols. 150-151, May 7, 1782, fols. 75-82.


Matrículas de Candelaria, Altagracia, San Pablo, and Santa Rosalía, 1792, AAC, Matrículas. Also consult Informe sobre la erección de Santa Rosalía, Aug. 6, 1777, ACC, Parroquias, Santa Rosalía, vol. 2; Informe sobre la erección de Divina Pastora, Nov. 29, 1811, AAC, Parroquias, Altagracia, vol. 2; ACM, Actas de Cabildo, Oct. 29, 1779, fols. 321-322.


Matrículas de Catedral, Altagracia, Candelaria, and San Pablo, 1759, ABN; Matrículas de Catedral, Altagracia, Candelaria, San Pablo, and Santa Rosalía, 1792, AAC, Matrículas. Evidence for less concentrated residences is found in the 1790s Matrículas; information on water supply and regulation is available in the Peticiones de Agua, ACM, Libros de Agua, 1775-95 and 1796-1810.


ACM, Acta: de Cabildo, July 3. 1783, fol. 75, and Jan. 1, 1792, fol. 16; Sobre composición de la bajada, AGN, Capitanía General, Diversos, vol. 61, fols. 320-372; Bando por las calles, AGN, Capitanía General, Diversos, vol. 65, fols. 371-379.


Informe sobre las calles, July 21, 1797, ACM, Libro Diverso, 1779-1810.


The average value of solares was determined by finding the mean value of all solares of similar size distributed by the cabildo. In the 1770 distribution, nearly three-fourths of the solares measured twenty by seventy-five varas and were assessed at twenty-five pesos. ACM, Actas de Cabildo, June 11, 1770, fols. 36-52.


Solar sales are recorded in the records of the escribanos located in the Registro Principal de Caracas. The volumes are arranged by year and name of the escribano. Most records of sales provide information about the origins of the solar, either as a direct grant from the cabildo or as a previous sale. In both cases, the earlier value of the solar is often given. See venta de solar de José Antonio Moreno, RP, Escribanías, 1780, Fernández, fols. 143-144, 148, 152-153; venta de solar de Nicolas Antonio Tovar, RP, Escribanías, 1791, Barcena, fol. 281; venta de solar de Martin Escovar, RP, Escribanías, 1791, Mota, fol. 214; venta de solar de José Urbano, RP, Escribanías, 1785, Armas, fols. 219–220; venta de solar de Claudia Landaeta, RP, Escribanías, 1791, Ponce, fol. 287; venta de solar de José Cuello and venta de solar de Don Pedro Martínez, RP, Escribanías, 1791, Mota, fols. 114 and 308-309.


By comparing successive years of matrículas, which indicate the precise geographic location of each household, residential turnover is evident. See Matrículas de Catedral, Altagracia, Candelaria, San Pablo, and Santa Rosalía, 1777–1792, AAC, Matrículas. For a similar analysis, see David J. Robinson, The Analysis of the Eighteenth-Century Spanish American City: Some Problems and Alternative Solutions (Syracuse, 1975).


This conclusion on migration is also reached by John V. Lombardi, especially for the city of San Carlos de Austria, in People and Places in Colonial Venezuela (Bloomington, 1976), pp. 89-108.


See for example the venta de solar de María Rengalado, RP, Escribanías, 1791, Mota, fol. 28; venta de solar de Lázaro Muñoz, RP, Escribanías, Tejera, 1790, fols. 62-68; Autos seguidos por la Señora María Regina Caraballo, Feb. 12, 1790, RP, Casas y Solares, leg. 574; Petición de Doña Victoria Días, 1757, RP, Casas y Solares, unmarked legajo; Petición de Don Sebastián Hidalgo, 1782, RP, Casas y Solares, unmarked legajo.


Autos sobre una casa de Doña Petrona Pacheco, 1785, RP, Casas y Solares, leg. 564; Petición de María de Ponte, 1750, RP, Casas y Solares, leg. 550; Petición de Juan Vicente de Silva, 1793, RP, Casas y Solares, leg. 570.


Ventas de solares, RP, Escribanías, 1752, Portillo, 1760, Cabrises, 1767, Therreos, 1783, Tejera, 1789, Armas, 1790, Tejera and Ponce.


Matrículas de Catedral, Altagracia, Candelaria, and San Pablo, 1759, ABN; Matrículas de Catedral, Altagracia, Candelaria, San Pablo, and Santa Rosalia, 1792, AAC, Matrículas.


Ventas de solares, RP, Escribanías, Tejera y Armas, 1792, fols. 360-363, Tejera, 1788, fol. 17, Reyna, 1746, fol. 79, Ponce, 1792, fols. 17-19, Cabrise, 1757, fol. 31; Auto de Joseph Román Blanco, 1764, RP, Casas y Solares, leg. 553.


Scattered inventories of houses are located in Escribanías, Casas y Solares, and Testamentarías in the Registro Principal de Caracas.


François Depons, Viaje a la parte oriental de Tierra Firme en la América Meridional, 2 vols. (Caracas, 1960), I, 212; ACM, Actas de Cabildo, Sept. 5, 1805, fols. 263-264.


ACM, Actas de Cabildo, Aug. 29, 1805, fol. 257.


Matrículas de Catedral, Altagracia, Candelaria, and San Pablo, 1759, ABN; Matrículas de Catedral, Altagracia, Candelaria, San Pablo, and Santa Rosalía, 1792, AAC, Matrículas. Urban property owners in Caracas were few. Out of a population of 30,000 in 1792, only 3.7 percent owned buildings in the city. For a comparable figure for Mexico City at about the same time, see Maria Dolores Morales, “Estructura urbana y distribución de la propiedad en la ciudad de Mexico en 1813,” Historia Mexicana, 25 (Jan.–Mar. 1976), 363-402.


Matrícula de Catedral, 1792, AAC, Matrículas.


Pleito de Doña Teresa Chávez, 1791, RP, Casas y Solares, leg. 568; Petición de Don Martín Jerez de Aristeguieta, 1784, AGN, Capitanía General, Diversos, vol. 68, fols. 342-376.


Petición de Ignacio Ibarra, June 10, 1807, ACM, Libro Diverso, 1779-1810.


Petición de José Guillén, Aug. 14, 1809, ACM, Libro Diverso, 1779–1810.


ACM, Actas de Cabildo, Aug. 29, 1805, fol. 257.


El mayordomo de fábrica de la iglesia de Catedral al gobernador, June 5, 1791, RP, Casas y Solares, leg. 568.


Venta de una casa de Doña Juana de Acosta, RP, Escribanías, 1791, Aramburu fol. 386.


Petición de Magdalena Marron, Oct. 23, 1800, ACM, Libro Diverso, 1779-1810.


Autos de Doña Rosa Miranda, AGN, Capitanía General, Diversos, vol. 70, fols. 13-64.

Author notes


The author is Assistant Professor of History at Bowdoin College. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Latin American Studies Association meeting in April 1979. The author would like to thank the Social Science Research Council for supporting the research and John Lombardi, Gerald Greenfield, and Michael Conniff for their comments.