By the middle of the eighteenth century large merchant houses of Mexico City owned and operated by almaceneros controlled the colony’s external trade (still functioning through the two hundred-year-old fleet and fair system) and the internal production and distribution of raw materials and manufactured goods. Most essential to the colonial economy and its metropole, they also were the main financial sources for silver mining, purchasing silver bars and ingots, supplying credit and/or merchandise, and sometimes investing directly. If the Bourbon regime were to strip the colonial economy of the autonomy tolerated in the seventeenth century and expand it so as to increase state revenues, the influence of almaceneros aggregated in their consulado had to be curbed, Pérez Herrero believes, since that corporate body represented “una de las barreras más serias para los cambios que querían imponerse en la Nueva España” (p. 24). Plata y libranzas traces how almaceneros managed to retain their strategic high ground by skillful adaptation of old financial instruments such as commercial bills or libranzas of many forms. Pace Madrid’s package of Bourbon “reforms,” the almaceneros remained the dominant group in Mexico’s colonial economy.

Here is the kernel of Pérez Herrero’s well-researched, tightly organized, and smoothly written monograph. It was preceded by his dissertation on Bourbon policy in the metropole, which led him to measure its colonial impact. To do so he has mined primary and secondary materials, profiting from his opportunity to prepare a guide to the consulado papers of Mexico City’s Archivo General and from an edition of the Guía de negociantes by the secretary of Veracruz’s consulado, José María Quirós. The research is impressive as is the synthesis of the Spanish transatlantic trade system from the mid-sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and of the evolution of commercial bills—among them letras de cambio, préstamos a la gruesa ventura, and libranzas. In a chapter on the origin and manipulation of untaxed bar and ingot silver (platas en pasta sin quintar) he offers a lucid analysis of networks linking mineowners, local merchants (aviadores), and Mexico City’s bancos de plata. Mineowners bore the risks, while merchants “en la esfera de la circulación” often garnered unusually high earnings. Moreover, almaceneros financing local colonial government officials—corregidores and alcaldes mayores—also supplied raw materials, domestic manufactures, and imports to mineowners and their workers whose operations they financed. Effectively, Mexico City’s merchant establishment sat astride a vertically integrated system whose end product, minted or unminted silver, taxed or untaxed, that establishment ultimately received. Until 1778 their silver found its way to the metropole through exchanges at the Jalapa fairs whence it flowed through Veracruz to Lower Andalucía’s ports, or to Europe via smuggling channels in the Caribbean.

With this perspective Pérez Herrero analyzes the direction and impact of Madrid’s modifications in its colonial system after about 1750, the focus of the latter half of his study. If we accept his hypothesis about the large percentage of unminted silver ultimately moving into the hands of Mexico City’s commercial elite, it was logical that Madrid legislate to halve the monopoly price of mercury, reduce mining taxation, create a mining tribunal, soak up black-market silver, and increase silver production overall. The success of Madrid’s policies was apparent in the disappearance of the last of the silver banks, the falling percentage of black-market silver, and the movement of almaceneros into widespread mine investment; it was also evident in the remarkable growth of colonial government revenue and an equally remarkable volume of silver transfers on government and private accounts, causing a perennial shortage of the monetary stock and, in effect, decapitalizing the colonial economy. Whether effective alternative use for this capital existed is another matter. Pushing almaceneros into mining on an unprecedented scale was another factor, comercio libre, which Pérez Herrero believes broke their control over external trade. To reassert that control and minimize the effects of monetary shortages, almaceneros expanded their practice of accepting private deposits, borrowed heavily from well-capitalized religious corporations, and encouraged credit management via varieties of commercial paper, libranzas.

Pérez Herrero has written a carefully articulated thesis illustrated with much relevant detail. A model monograph, it raises of course many questions, not the least of which concerns the degree of antagonism between Madrid’s policies and Mexico City’s commercial establishment. Gálvez handled that interest group tenderly: New Spain was not fully incorporated into comercio libre until after his death, and its merchants supplied loans and gifts to the Spanish metropole and members of the royal family in the 1780s and later. Nor do we know beyond reasonable doubt how much of New Spain’s Asian and European imports were lost to Mexico City’s merchants after 1789. These matters aside, Plata y libranzas has placed the Mexico City merchant community dominated by Spanish immigrants at the center of New Spain’s economy and politics in the critical closing decades of the colonial era.