The creation of the viceroyalty of Río de la Plata in 1776 opened an era of rapid economic expansion and social transformation on the southern rim of Spain’s colonial empire. These outcomes were most visible in Buenos Aires, where subsidies from the mining industry of Alto Perú and revenues drawn from taxes levied on Atlantic and riverine trade underwrote rapid population growth and vastly expanded commercial relations. The momentum accumulated in the late colonial era carried the city of Buenos Aires to an eventual regional hegemony based on previously underutilized grazing and agricultural resources. While regional specialists continue to interrogate the mature export economy with protean ingenuity, too little attention has been paid to the complex realities of the late colonial economy and to the important role played by Paraguay in sustaining broadly expanded and profitable regional and intercolonial trade.
This collection of essays by Jerry Cooney is, therefore, a welcome contribution. Although most of these essays have been published previously in some form, few are known outside a small circle of specialists. Cooney makes clear the creativity and energy with which merchants, artisans, and rural interests responded to market opportunities and bureaucratic initiatives in the late colonial period. He discusses tobacco, yerba, and the wood industry, but his most useful chapters explore social relations and business practice in the interrelated areas of shipbuilding, naval stores, and riverine commerce. The factory created to produce naval cables offers, I believe, a particularly useful case study for students of the late colonial economy.
This work is well grounded in archival materials, and its rich detail will reward patient readers. The book’s value, however, is compromised by Cooney’s apparent faith that the facts as he transmits them sufficiently explain this complex society. The state is shown to be a powerful actor in the Paraguayan economy, but there is little disciplined analysis of what this meant in developmental terms. For this reader, Cooney’s essays appear to suggest essential continuities between the economic policies of the late colonial state and those of the Francia regime. However, this important revisionist point, and other opportunities for connecting these case studies to ongoing debates, are left undeveloped. Nevertheless, Cooney’s thorough research and thoughtful discussion have produced a valuable resource for specialists.