The Politics of River Trade accurately describes this well-researched, clearly written monograph focusing on commerce in Paraguay and the Argentine province of Corrientes from the beginning of the Bourbon Reforms through the end of the War of the Triple Alliance. Examining Paraguay within the larger regional context of the Upper Plata, Thomas Whigham argues that politics, not supply and demand, determined the development of commerce; and he suggests that the economic development of Paraguay occurred only at the end of the nineteenth century, when Paraguay was integrated into world trade through Buenos Aires. Two chapters relate regional politics to the growth of trade, followed by chapters on the major export commodities of the region: yerba mate, tobacco, cattle, and timber with finished wood products. Twenty-two tables and 6 maps provide data on production, prices, and exports for each commodity. The chapter on yerba mate was translated and published in Paraguay as La yerba mate del Paraguay (1780-1870), with 11 documents and a relevant bibliography.
This is an important book because the author approaches the topic in a unique manner and arrives at new conclusions. By focusing on the region of the Upper Río de la Plata rather than the nation-state, the author takes on a challenging research and methodological assignment. The outcome of the regional approach is convincing, even though the discussions of Brazil’s borderlands and Misiones are less satisfactory than those of Paraguay or Corrientes. Regional analysis allows the author to question autonomous development and dependency models. However, Whigham fails to distinguish clearly between autonomous development and dependency, or to see differences between economic growth and development. He concludes: “Real economic change only came at the end of the nineteenth century, when North Atlantic demand, accompanied by massive transfer of capital and technology, transformed regional trade, linking it still more directly to the Porteño market. …” (p. 202). Tables showing the growth of exports during the nineteenth century undermine this conclusion. The author challenges, but does not disprove, the autonomous developmental model, because he fails to examine Paraguay’s internal economy and society. Whigham’s conclusion is thus beyond the scope of his research and places him in the dependency school.
The author also argues but fails to prove that political instability rather than market forces determined the commercial disadvantage of the region. To test his thesis he needs to examine comparative internal, regional, national, and international politics to prove that Paraguay was. exceptional in the degree of influence that political instability exerted on commercial decision making. Because of the quality of research, the regional approach, and the challenging conclusion, however, The Politics of River Trade represents a significant historical contribution.