In this admirably conceived study, James Boyajian examines the activities of the great Portuguese financiers who advanced funds to the Spanish crown during the waning years of Habsburg hegemony in Europe. Between 1626 and 1650, eighteen family networks made available to the crown at least 65 million ducats by signing asientos, annual loan and foreign payment contracts. As the author makes clear, it was largely thanks to this infusion of capital that Spain was able to prolong its role as the central player on the European stage.

Though primarily a financial history, the study provides data on the asiento families, their sources of wealth, and their social aspirations. Most of the financiers discussed were New Christians. A sizable share of the author’s research has been condensed into eighteen genealogical tables (pp. 183-204) that extend from the early sixteenth to the early eighteenth century. In these tables Boyajian notes the commercial centers in which family members were to be found. Through these tables and the text itself the reader gains a rare perspective on the worldwide commercial networks established by New Christian merchant families after 1580.

Much of the family wealth encumbered in crown contracts derived from private trade in the Far East, the Atlantic slave trade, and, especially, the sugar plantations of colonial Brazil. When the Dutch intruded on these commercial ventures, Portuguese merchants saw asientos as attractive investments. After the bankruptcy of 1627, Portuguese capital flowed into Spain, filling the void left by Genoese financiers. In exchange for extending their capital, the Portuguese obtained religious and commercial concessions. Wealth accumulated in the slave and sugar trades thus found its way onto the receptive ledgers of the Spanish Habsburgs. It might even be argued that well before João IV of Portugal described Brazil as his “milch-cow,” the colony, through the fortunes of Portuguese asentistas, served a similar function for the Spanish crown.

During their two decades as principal financiers for the Spanish crown, the Portuguese made a number of contributions to the development of the world economy. Most important, they established an Atlantic payments system for handling exchanges between southern and northern Europe, thereby replacing the overland system controlled by bankers in northern Italy. Following yet another Habsburg bankruptcy (1647), control of the payments system developed by the Portuguese was assumed by the financial community in Amsterdam.

James Boyajian has written an important book. It offers much insight into the intricacies of domestic and international finance in seventeenth-century Europe and the vital but little-known role played by Portuguese bankers. Nonetheless, one wants to know more about the great asiento families. A more precise portrait of group origins, sources of wealth, and so forth, might have been accomplished in a chapter devoted to prosopographical analysis. It should be understood, however, that such remarks come from a reviewer whose appetite has been whetted by a first-rate piece of scholarship.