In the years after 1780, the prices of livestock; of meat sold in towns, of maize, pulque, sugar, and tobacco; and of land for sale and rent all rose in New Spain. Conversely, the price of goods imported from Europe fell. Since the wages of the laboring classes did not rise, the real income of that section of the population which entered the labor market fell. And, with regard to a wide range of commodities, the purchasing power of silver coin fell. Much of the economic growth of this period, expressed in fiscal receipts, trade figures, and mintage of specie may have been illusory, the result of inflation rather than of “real” increase in activity or value. It is the aim of Arij Ouweneel and Catrien C. J. H. Bijleveld (hereafter cited as O-B) to ascertain the causes of inflation after 1780; to question the value of church tithes as an index of agricultural production; to deny the possibility of using maize price series as an index of inflation; and to subject a variegated set of statistical series to computerized correlation in order to demonstrate the incidence of hardship among the Mexican masses. Their intentions are ambitious and will undoubtedly provoke much discussion. The purpose of the comments which follow is not to challenge their under lying vision of Bourbon Mexico, but simply to examine the strength of their arguments and to query the reliability of some of their statistics.

O-B are at their most original in providing a century-long list of the number of tributaries in selected districts in central Mexico. This shows that the number of registered individuals rose from 187,547 in 1770 to a maximum of 340,113 in 1798, an increase of 81 percent in 28 years. Obviously, the superior level of official competence, so apparent after the Gálvez visitation, may well have affected the rate of registration. That the total did not change in the years 1786-89, at a time when the country was racked by harvest failure, indicates the dimension of what O-B call “the bureaucratic component.” Nevertheless, these figures certainly point to considerable demographic pressure on agricultural resources at the close of the eighteenth century.1 Whether this pressure affected the level of prices for maize and other foodstuffs is less clear, because the corn market was situated in the towns, and prices thus expressed the balance between urban demand and hacienda supply. Did the great estates of central Mexico lack the means to increase production? Or was it the case that, with smallholders shifting toward subsistence farming, the haciendas could force up prices?

O-B are at their most controversial in describing New Spain as a country divided into four, quite discrete, regional economies, their commercial relations compared to a “trans-Saharan caravan system.” There were significant differences between the long-settled zones of Mesoamerica and the frontier regions beyond the river Lerma. But there was considerable overlap between Michoacán, the Bajío, and Jalisco, and all of this area dispatched goods northward. Domestic textiles, livestock, tobacco, and sugar all transcended any narrow regional demand. Sheep were driven from Coahuila for slaughter in Mexico City and cotton cloth from Puebla was sold in Saltillo, indicating the extent of interregional exchange. The freight industry in New Spain, which used thousands of mules carrying goods across the country, was a significant (though little-studied branch) of the economy. None of which is to deny that corn markets were highly localized. In effect, it cost one real a day for a mule to carry a fanega of maize twelve miles. Only in years of mediocre or poor harvests could hacendados afford to dispatch their mule teams to supply markets that lay more than a week’s journey away. In 1826, it was estimated that it cost two and a half reales to transport a fanega of maize from León to Guanajuato, at a time when prices in León ranged between eight and twelve reales a fanega.2 With a simple pair of compasses, a historical geographer can draw a series of concentric circles around each urban market and thus determine at what price of maize the markets’ supply zones expanded, contracted, and overlapped. Where O-B score is in their insistence that it is almost impossible to frame a single graph of maize prices for all of New Spain, and that to invoke a single price series as an index of general inflation is a delusory enterprise.

There can be little doubt that O-B are right to argue that much of the increase in church tithes recorded after 1780 derived from the rise in prices of maize and other foodstuffs. But without any measure of inflation, there can be no estimation of the relation between an expansion in production and the level of prices. In this context, it should be noted that the tithe tables for 1770-90, compiled by Eusebio Ventura Beleña in 1792 and printed by Enrique Florescano, fail to distinguish between gross and net returns, and often incorporate monies held in deposit in the tithe account and carried over across the years. Whereas Beleña’s tables record the tithes of the archdiocese of Mexico at an annual average of 645,812 pesos for the years 1780-84, in fact receipts only averaged 437,637 pesos, supplemented by 36,955 pesos of payments outstanding from previous years. The remainder consisted of existencias, which, during the 1780s, ranged from 121,000 to 267,000 pesos.3

There is one great exception to O-B’s strictures concerning the historical utility of church tithes in Mexico. In the diocese of Michoacán, for more than a hundred years, the parochial clergy were commissioned by the jueces hacedores in Valladolid to collect the tithe in kind and to sell the produce they collected, operations for which they had to submit detailed accounts. From these parochial accounts we can obtain accurate information about both the volume of production and the level of prices. If these data are correlated with parochial registers of baptisms and burials, they can then serve as a seismograph of both the long-term cycles of internal colonization and the hectic moments of subsistence crises. Their value is illustrated in the following table.

Population pressure would not have caused prices to rise, so O-B argue, had it not been accompanied by the process of protoindustrialization and an increase in the circulating stock of money. The problem here is to know what activities are subsumed under this heading. The textile industry had been established in New Spain during the sixteenth century and had experienced decisive shifts in its organization of production well before the onslaught of inflation. In the first half of the eighteenth century Querétaro replaced Puebla as the main center for the manufacture of woolens, forcing the southern city to concentrate on fine cottons. This change in location was in part prompted by the shift in sheep farming from the central valleys to the northern frontier, lands once used for rough pasture and now planted for pulque production. After 1783, however, the textile industry in New Spain had to confront a massive influx of European cloth which flooded the market and caused prices to tumble. Thereafter, the industry struggled to maintain its level of output.4

Leaving aside the brief flourish of the sugar industry in the years after the revolution in Saint-Domingue, the only significant industries which grew in volume and value of production were the “manufacture” of cigars and cigarettes, and the refining and coining of silver. At its height, the royal tobacco monopoly employed over 17,000 persons, concentrated large numbers of workers in urban “factories” and, in 1801, disbursed wages amounting to 789,000 pesos. The degree to which the often exiguous earnings of its workers, many of them women, exerted an inflationary pressure is by no means clear. By contrast, the silver-mining industry employed a highly paid work force; it required a great range of supplies; and its production could always augment the existing stock of coin. Moreover, whereas agricultural products and trade goods varied in price, so that all calculations about volume based on fiscal receipts levied on value are by their very nature suspect, by contrast both the silver tithe and the mint records offer reliable guides to the curve of production. Nor did shifts in the purchasing power of silver coin alter the fact that to produce more silver it was necessary to use more men, mules, and supplies. In any case, the purchasing value of silver, if measured by the price of European imports, rose in the years after 1783.

At first glance, the real problem to be solved for Bourbon Mexico seems not to be whether it suffered from a relatively modest bout of inflation, but how it escaped from a drastic collapse in the value of its currency. For silver production, measured by coinage at the mint, leapt upwards from an annual average of 11.5 million pesos in 1765-69 to an average 18 million in 1775-79, an increase of 56 percent. Is it any surprise that the prices of livestock, especially of mules, were the first sector of the economy to register the impact of this inflationary pressure? What saved the situation in the short term was the crown’s ability to drain off excess coin by taxation, monopoly profits, and war loans. The gross receipts from the tobacco monopoly rose from 3.1 million in 1774 to 6.3 million in 1782. Alcabala, pulque, and the silver tithe all followed suit. In addition, the colonial authorities borrowed up to 18 million pesos, most of it secured on the tobacco monopoly and the confiscated Jesuit estates. Thereafter, the effects of the 1778 Comercio libre decree were to elicit a massive increase in European imports which effectively absorbed the surplus silver that remained. Indeed, some merchants protested that the country had been drained of its circulating stock of coin. The difficulties surrounding any accurate assessment of the commercial exchange are not limited to attempts to estimate contraband values, since official registers offer wildly different figures. For the years 1788-93, the customs officers at the Spanish end assessed exports to Veracruz at an annual average of 6.2 million pesos, whereas their counterparts in Veracruz valued imports coming in from Spain at an average of 12.1 million pesos. Goods doubled in value on crossing the Atlantic. By the 1790s, when New Spain produced about 22 to 24 million pesos a year, some 10 to 12 million pesos went to cover its import bill from Europe, leaving another 10 to 12 million pesos which was dispatched on the king’s account and used to fund the royal naval squadron stationed at Havana, to subsidize colonial administration across the Caribbean, and to pay for the tobacco which the crown imported from Cuba to Spain.5 Had the colonial authorities not shipped this fiscal surplus abroad, Mexico would have been obliged to double its imports from Europe or else cut its silver production by half: the alternative would have been a collapse in the internal value of silver.

Readers should be warned that there is considerable disagreement among historians about the interpretation of fiscal data, especially for the years after 1790. Whereas John J. TePaske and Herbert S. Klein trace a curve of soaring tax receipts and loans which reached 56 million pesos a year by 1804, Ouweneel and Bijleveld extract from the central treasury summaries printed by TePaske statistical series of the alcabala, tribute, and pulque duties, all of which registered a decline during the 1790s.6 What is the source of this divergence, and how can their statistics be reconciled with those I present in Table II? It should be observed that, if TePaske and Klein depict New Spain as suffering from a deflationary hemorrhage of specie, O-B explain the decline in tax receipts as the result of an inflationary spiral which reduced the capacity of the masses to purchase pulque or pay tribute. It is certainly the case that the crown’s decision to raise duties on pulque led to a steady fall in receipts, the result either of avoidance of payment or of impoverishment. What is not clear is why gross revenue from the tobacco monopoly rose from an average 6.2 million in 1780–84 to 9.1 million in 1805–1809. For although the crown raised the price of cigars and cigarettes, popular demand continued unabated and the physical volume of production increased.7 But how are we to explain the decline in tribute payments and alcabala recorded in the annual summaries of the central treasury? If the number of tributaries was on the increase, how could tributes decline? If trade with Europe had expanded, why should the alcabala have fallen? After all, in 1793 the customs house in Mexico City attributed 56 percent of its revenue to duties levied on overseas goods, and only 17 percent, some 99,045 pesos, to duties collected on local foodstuffs and products, known collectively as viento.8

To answer these questions and resolve the debate, it is necessary to insist that the annual summaries of the central treasury, the caja matriz of Mexico City, are historical elephant traps, apt to entangle all but the most wary. Elsewhere, I have already demonstrated that these summaries included both annual tax receipts and large entries of crown debts and deposits which were carried over from year to year. If we subtract these latter items, then the 56-million-peso total for 1804 can be reduced to about 20 million.9 But the difficulties of these summaries cannot be resolved by mere subtraction. For in the 1790s, the entries for tobacco, alcabala, and tributes are well below the known receipts of these branches of revenue. Apparently, the establishment of a treasury in the capital of each intendency in 1786 diverted the payment of these taxes away from the capital. It is not at all clear what proportion of each tax was paid into the caja matriz and for what reason. At the same time, considerable funds from other treasuries were deposited in the central treasury and then transferred to the Veracruz treasury awaiting dispatch to Spain or Havana. It is both the enigmatic composition of the caja matriz’s summaries and the system of transfer entries that prevent any simple calculation of overall revenue by adding together the receipts of all treasuries. If Klein estimated crown revenues at 48 million pesos during the 1790s, it was because he counted the same entries of silver three times, first in the mining treasuries, then at the Mexican central treasury, and finally in Veracruz.10

Are we, therefore, to despair of ever ascertaining the precise limits of fiscal receipts in New Spain at the close of the eighteenth century? What was the basis for Alexander von Humboldt’s remarkably confident foray into this seemingly treacherous terrain? The answer is simple. Historians have been looking at the wrong sort of documents. The treasury accounts certainly provide useful data about silver production and offer a rough indication of the revenue yields of particular regions. But to obtain precise, detailed information about the principal branches of revenue, apart from the silver tithe, it is necessary to consult the accounts of each dirección general. Not all branches of revenue possessed their own treasury in Mexico City, as was the case of the monopolies in tobacco, mercury, and gunpowder, the lottery, the customs house, and the mint; but each branch, including tributes, had to submit annual statements of receipts. Such information, however, did not go to the central treasury. It was the task of the Tribunal de Cuentas, the court of audit, and not of the caja matriz, to frame a statement of the annual revenue and expenditure of New Spain. There is nothing new or obscure about these documents: printed versions can be seen in the Historia general de real hacienda, compiled in 1791 by Fabián de Fonseca and Carlos de Urrutia, and in Humboldt’s own Geographical and Political Tables. Manuscript specimens can be found in the Archivo General de Indias and no doubt also exist in the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico.11 In effect, a patient, critical exegesis of fiscal records, all readily available in the main archives, will yield a wealth of material which can be used to interpret and measure the ebbs and flows of economic activity and of bureaucratic competence. But computerized correlation, no matter how canonical, is no substitute for the hard work of the historian’s art, the critical analysis of sources.


An informed contemporary observer, using tribute materials available in 1807, estimated the rate of annual increase at 1.82 percent: Fernando Navarro y Noriega, Memoria sobre la población del reino de Nueva España (Mexico City, 1943), 60.


See D. A. Brading, Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico, 1763-1810 (Cambridge, 1971), 16; also Archivo Histórico Municipal de León, leg. 1826 (4)-11.


Compare Enrique Florescano, Origen y desarrollo de los problemas agrarios de México, 1500-1821 (Mexico City, 1976), 69 with Fabián de Fonseca and Carlos de Urrutia, Historia general de real hacienda, 6 vols. (Mexico City, 1845-53), III 260-263.


See Richard J. Salvucci, Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico, 1539-1840 (Princeton, 1987), 150-167.


For the war debt, see Viceroy Gálvez to Gálvez, June 22, 1784, Archivo General de Indias (hereafter AGI), México 1411. Some 11,293,068 pesos was charged on the tobacco monopoly, 2,690,676 on temporalidades, and only 4,288,177 pesos on Real Hacienda. Note also Mayorga to Gálvez, February 24, 1783 (AGI, México 1403), where it is affirmed that between August 13, 1779 and Feb. 22, 1783 some 47,738,607 pesos were dispatched from Veracruz, of which 24,321,301 went as situados to Havana and the Caribbean islands. For the discrepancies between Veracruz and the Peninsula for 1788–93, see John Fisher, Commercial Relations between Spain and Spanish America in the Era of Free Trade, 1778–96 (Liverpool, 1985), 54; Biblioteca Nacional (Mexico City), mss. 1396; and Revillagigedo to Gardoqui, Apr. 30, 1793, AGI, México 1554.


John J. TePaske and Herbert S. Klein, “The Seventeenth–Century Crisis in New Spain: Myth or Reality,” Past and Present, 90 (Feb. 1981), 116–135; TePaske and José and Mari Luz Hernández Palomo, La real hacienda de Nueva España: La real caja de México (1576–1816) (Mexico City, 1976), passim.


For the tobacco monopoly, see Susan Deans–Smith, “The Money Plant: The Royal Tobacco Monopoly of New Spain, 1763–1821,” in The Economies of Mexico and Peru during the Late Colonial Period, Nils Jacobsen and Hans–Jürgen Puhle, eds. (Berlin, 1986), 361–387.


See AGI, México 2086. The total collection at 6-percent duty was 584,598 pesos, a sum which differs greatly from the 1,371,333 recorded by the caja matriz under the entry of alcabala for 1793.


See Brading, “Facts and Figments in Bourbon Mexico,” Bulletin of Latin American Research, 4:1 (1985), 61-64.


Klein, “La economía de la Nueva España, 1680-1809: Un análisis a partir de las cajas reales,” Historia Mexicana, 34:4 (Apr.-June 1985), 561-609.


Fonseca and Urrutia, Historia general, I, xxxviii; Humboldt’s tables have been printed several times: see Florescano and Isabel Gil, Descripciones económicas generales de Nueva España, 1784-1817 (Mexico City, 1973), 207-214; also Iturrigarav to Madrid, Aug. 27, 1803 (AGI, México 1617), where the statement for 1799 was enclosed.