Gonzalo Ortiz and Enrique Ayala, coordinators of these two volumes, set out to provide a fresh understanding of Ecuador’s history from 1830 to 1895. They selected thirteen essays by sixteen Ecuadorian authors and added many lengthy sidebars by others. The work is a clear success. These two books mark an important step forward for Ecuadorian historiography.
The range of topics is broad, from socioeconomic conditions and national politics in volume 7 to more focused essays in volume 8 on the church, Indian society, literature, architecture, art, intellectual history, and urban daily life. The text is enriched with photographs, copies of pen-and-ink drawings, tables, graphs, and color plates of paintings. The notes and bibliography provide an excellent guide to further readings.
Among the best contributions are three socioeconomic regional studies covering the central and northern sierra, the southern sierra, and the coast. These essays correctly emphasize Ecuador’s profound regionalism and the weakness of national institutions. Each region had a separate elite; even the military was not a centralized national institution. Regional variations in systems of trade and production are also ably detailed as the authors explore a wide range of new topics and establish important patterns not previously recognized. For example, Ives St. Geours’s essay on the central and northern sierra shows that during the early 1800s army recruitments, earthquakes, erupting volcanos, and smallpox and measles led to a sharp decline in urban population. The region did not recover until midcentury.
The sections on sierra Indian life are very good, especially Gerardo Fuentealba’s. With the gradual creation of a national highway system, more commercial opportunities began to appear in the sierra, and wealthy landowners responded by seizing Indian land, reducing the natives to forced labor on the expanding haciendas. Meanwhile, the ideology of liberal progress, slowly taking hold over the course of the century, called for freeing the Indians of all special burdens and integrating them into national life. In time this brought the end of tribute and tithe taxes, but it also meant that Indians, now full citizens, had to pay sales taxes, could be drafted into the army, and could still be pressed into road gangs. The Indians launched repeated revolts in the second half of the nineteenth century, but the results were everywhere the same: defeat. The essay on urban society by Ximena Sosa and Cecilia Durán is also especially valuable, alive with the sound and feel of daily life.
In the sections on national politics Gabriel García Moreno receives much attention. Several essayists show how he turned to the church, the one strong national institution, as a base for his drive for central government power. The contradictions of García Moreno’s efforts are evident: actively supporting the church but cruelly repressing independent local clergy; writing laws to extend literacy but smashing the opposition press; calling for a nation of God but torturing and murdering those who challenged him. García Moreno at once encouraged and thwarted modernization.
This series is particularly vexed by redundancy, and volume 7 includes a largely unnecessary chapter on the international context. But aside from these and a few other minor problems—there is no index; not all of the authors make adequate use of key works in English—students and scholars of Ecuadorian history should highly prize these most valuable new texts.