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Indians and the Political Economy of Colonial Central America, 1670-1810

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The history of relations between the Spanish and the Indians of colonial Central America, often oversimplified as a story of unending Spanish abuse, forms a complicated tapestry of economics and politics. Robert W. Patch's even-handed study of the repartimientode mercancías—the commercial dealings between regional magistrates and the people under their jurisdictionreveals the inner workings of colonialism in Central America.

Indians were at the heart of the colonial economy. They made up the majority of the population, produced most of the goods, and performed most of the labor. The bureaucrats who ruled over them were badly paid, and to increase their income, they carried out illegal business activities with the Indians and sometimes even non-Indians. This book analyzes these commercial exchanges in colonial Central America within the context of a colonial regime dependent for income on taxes paid by Indians.

Patch demonstrates that the magistrates frequently used repartimientos illegally to facilitate tax collection and then justified their actions by claiming that such commerce was necessary for the survival of colonialism. At the same time, the commerce contributed to the development of regional economies and the integration of the regions into the world economy. Patch’s case studies of highland Guatemala and Nicaragua reveal how the system worked at the regional and local levels. These studies manifest not only the profits to be made through repartimientos but also the problems faced by magistrates as they tried to be government officials and businessmen at the same time.

The Spanish government eventually imposed reforms to make the colonial bureaucracy more honest by eliminating the repartimiento system. The reforms, however, also resulted in economic decline and political disaffection among the Hispanic population. Patch’s book, therefore, covers a crucial phase in the history of Central America as the region moved from colonialism to independence.

ISBN-13: 9780806144009

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press

Publication Date: 10-28-2013

Pages: 296

Product Dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

Robert W. Patch is Professor of History at the University of California–Riverside and author of Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1648–1812 and Maya Revolt and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century.

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Indians and the Political Economy of Colonial Central America, 1670â"1810

By Robert W. Patch


Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5136-6



At the heart of the colonial economy and of the colonial system were the indigenous people, conquered by the Spanish and incorporated into the world economy through the mechanisms of colonialism. The demographic decline of the Indians had contributed to decreased production of Central America's exports in the sixteenth century, and demographic stagnation restrained all efforts to increase economic growth in the following century. It is to be expected, therefore, that the indigenous demographic expansion of the later colonial period—perhaps from the 1680s on—would contribute to economic growth in the eighteenth century, and this was indeed the case. The Indians made up the great majority of the population, and they were, first and foremost, the major producers of goods they and the entire colonial society consumed. They were also, of course, the major source of labor for enterprises run by the Hispanic elite and by an increasing number of other non-Indians in Central America. Almost all economic activity, therefore, depended in one way or another on the Indians.


Overall population statistics are scarce, of dubious quality, and contradictory (see appendices). The most important source is the count of tributaries, but the value of this source is diminished by the changing definition of tributary. Before 1756 all adult Indian males and females were counted as tributaries. After 1756 only Indian males were counted. Then, in 1788, mulattoes and free blacks were included in the count. The numbers of the latter two were quite small in the Central American highlands outside of the capital city of Santiago de Guatemala, and thus tributary counts for the highlands continued to be mostly the enumeration of Indians. In the lowlands, however, there were more blacks and mulattoes and thus their inclusion as tributaries greatly dilutes the proportion of Indians. Nevertheless, the overall trend is clear. The number of tributaries and the resulting estimated Indian population in what are now Guatemala, Chiapas, and El Salvador before 1756 are as follows:


After 1756, the figures are as follows:


Data analyzed by other scholars suggest that in 1750, what is now Guatemala, minus the capital city, had a total Indian population of 154,517 and a non-Indian population of 10,786 (that is, 6.5 percent of the total). The two groups together therefore numbered 165,303. The areas with the largest proportion of non-Indians were Chiquimula, Quezaltenango, and Chimaltenango, with the largest concentrations of non-Indians found in Chiquimula (with 39.7 percent of the non-Indians), Los Amatitanes (23.6 percent), and Quezaltenango (14.8 percent). The total population was officially 361,204 in 1778 and 365,178 in 1800.

The rest of the kingdom's population was also increasing. The four jurisdictions in what is now Nicaragua (Sutiaba, Matagalpa or Sébaco-Chontales, Realejo, and Nicaragua) and the two jurisdictions of Honduras (Tegucigalpa and Comayagua-Honduras) saw their tributary populations grow as follows:


In the case of Nicaragua, however, the sharp increase in numbers is due to the inclusion in the statistics of blacks and mulattoes, who made up a large part of the population. These people were also very significant in Honduras.

The work of other scholars sheds considerable light on the eighteenth-century population of Central America south of Guatemala. In San Salvador in 1798, Spaniards and other non-Indians numbered 69,836 (51.21 percent) and Indians 66,515 (48.78 percent). In 1807, the total of non-Indians was 94,103 (57 percent) and the Indians were 71,175 (43 percent). The Indian presence was inexorably diminishing in what is now El Salvador. In modern-day Nicaragua, the story was the same. By 1776, when the total population reached some 103,943, non-Indians outnumbered indigenous people in all provinces. The situation was even more marked in Honduras, where by 1777, mulattoes, blacks, mestizos, and Spaniards made up 80 percent of the population. Only nine years later, however, the statistics showed a total adult population of 65,008, with the Indian population 35.2 percent of the total. An 1804 report gave the total population as 127,620. Of these, 35,392 (28 percent) were Indians, almost half of whom lived not in villages but on Spanish haciendas or in mining camps. Village Indians had become a small minority.

Finally, Costa Rica stood out as the least Indian province in the kingdom. Population figures are almost nonexistent, because for most of the colonial period the indigenous population was exempt from tribute, and some of the estimates are difficult to believe, given what is known about the rest of the kingdom. More credible estimates suggest that in 1700 the Spanish and mestizo population numbered almost 3,000, and that there were only 2,252 Indians under Spanish control. In 1803 the total number of Indian tributaries was 328, which would have meant an indigenous population of about 1,500 people subject to the colonial regime.

An important factor having an impact on the population of the Kingdom of Guatemala was the great pandemic of smallpox that hit the North American British colonies in 1775 and soon spread to Central America. One scholar has declared this to have been "the major epidemic of the century" in the kingdom. In the 1780s, smallpox killed 10 percent of the population in Honduras, 9 percent of the Indian population of Nicaragua, and more than ten thousand Indians, about one-third of the population, of the highland Guatemalan province of Los Amatitanes-Sacatepéquez, in the Valley of Guatemala. These provinces seem to have lost the most people to the epidemic, but the scarcity of records means that other areas might have suffered just as much. Without smallpox, population counts everywhere would have been higher. Eventually, of course, ideas and science concerning disease also arrived in Central America and mitigated the demographic impact of epidemics. By the 1790s, knowledge of the smallpox vaccine was available, and the first inoculations began no later than 1795 on the orders of President Bernardo Troncoso. In 1803 the royal government printed and distributed throughout the kingdom a quantity of pamphlets informing the people about the invention of the smallpox vaccine.

Of course, there were local or regional variations in a process that was never the same everywhere. In what is now Chiapas, the highland alcaldía mayor, or high magistracy, of Chiapa witnessed significant growth, while the lowland province of Soconusco saw a population decline. There was also a significant decline in the two Pacific coastal provinces of San Antonio Suchitepéquez and Escuintla. This strongly suggests that the whole northwestern Pacific coast of the kingdom suffered from significant incidence of tropical disease, although the smallpox pandemic of the 1770s and 1780s may also have played a role. Demographic expansion was substantial in the four Guatemalan highland provinces of Quezaltenango, Huehuetenango, Atitlán, and Verapaz despite the impact of smallpox. The population ostensibly increased in the jurisdictions of San Salvador and Sonsonate (together forming modern-day El Salvador), even though both of those provinces were located to a great extent in a tropical or semitropical environment. Indeed, San Salvador, on paper at least, had the largest demographic expansion in the entire kingdom. However, this is to a certain extent an illusion, for much of the increase was undoubtedly not growth at all but just the result of counting the mulatto and black populations as tributaries when they had been excluded before. The indigenous population of El Salvador may actually have declined. The lack of good information leaves this issue unresolved.

In the highland Valley of Guatemala, the two provinces of Chimaltenango and Los Amatitanes experienced demographic growth during the first half of the eighteenth century. However, the greater population density of the area made the people more susceptible to epidemic disease, and this proved mortal in the second half of the century. The smallpox pandemic hit especially hard in Amatitanes.

On balance, nevertheless, the indigenous population as a whole was increasing in most parts of the kingdom. The general trend toward demographic expansion, interrupted by occasional epidemics, helped lay the basis for the increased production and availability of labor that made economic growth possible. As a result, Bourbon Central America—that is, the Kingdom of Guatemala in the eighteenth century—experienced significant economic expansion and capital accumulation. From the point of view of many people then and now, therefore, the Bourbon era was a time of prosperity.

It is important to note that while the indigenous population was increasing overall during the eighteenth century, the non-Indian population was increasing at an even more rapid rate, not just in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, but also in Guatemala. It was not the result of urbanization, for the total population of the capital city, Santiago, did not grow significantly during the first three quarters of the century, and neither did its non-Indian population. Growth therefore took place elsewhere, in rural areas and in the smaller urban centers such as Quezaltenango, which benefited from the influx of many weavers who fled the capital after the earthquake of 1773. The kingdom's non-Indian population had been growing for some time, but this surge was not officially recognized, as the law prohibited anyone but Indians from living in the villages. Nevertheless, despite the law, the non-Indian population living in the villages, especially in the important ones, was growing. It was also growing on landed estates. Eventually, many of these people wanted to establish legally recognized settlements. In the last third of the eighteenth century, the government began to legalize a number of towns—villas —for the non-Indians. Some of these had already been in existence and were simply recognized at this time, while others were new settlements altogether.

Increasingly, the people in these settlements were called ladinos. The word ladino had originally been used to refer to an Indian who could speak Spanish. Eventually the term was extended to non-Indian Spanish-speakers as well, although in the colonial period it never included the Spanish or creole (American-born Hispanic) population.


Although the growing population stimulated economic development because of greater demand for goods, internal factors were not alone in contributing to economic growth. External demand for the goods of Central America resulted in increased production for export. Silver continued to be exported from Tegucigalpa and Comayagua-Honduras, and production increased dramatically after 1724, when the government lowered taxes on production and on mercury (a chemical element that when mixed with silver ore resulted in increased output) and acted to provide more forced labor for the mines. Many indigenous communities in Honduras were forcibly relocated to the mining camps, and increased numbers of Indians from the corregimiento of Chiquimula de la Sierra, in northeastern Guatemala, were involuntarily recruited and sent to Honduras. The corregidor of Chiquimula de la Sierra accomplished this by paying the tribute debts of the Indians and then requiring them to pay off their debt to him by working in the silver mines of the neighboring province. The magistrate who was most successful in rounding up workers was rewarded by receiving first a rare reappointment to his position, and then a new appointment as governor of Nicaragua with promotion to the rank of colonel.

In other parts of Guatemala, criminals were sentenced to work in the mines along with the Indians at one-quarter the wages paid to the ostensibly free indigenous workers. Positive steps to attract workers were also taken, for the crown agreed to exempt Indian mine-workers from tribute. These steps produced quick results. Within twenty-five years the number of silver mines increased from one to seven, while two new gold deposits began to be worked. Registered silver output rose from 136,715 pesos in 1733 to 327,750 in 1739. Production thereafter declined significantly because frequent wars cut the industry off from the supply of mercury, and the labor supply continued to be insufficient. By the 1750s, average annual production had declined to 166,388 pesos. Thus, after an initial bonanza in the mid-eighteenth century, which certainly stimulated the region's economy, stagnation returned and remained characteristic of the silver economy throughout the rest of the colonial period.

Cacao had been the most important Central American export in the sixteenth century, but production had fallen off drastically by the end of that century. The most important producing areas were Sonsonate, Soconusco, and San Antonio Suchitepéquez, and secondarily parts of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The demand for cacao was greater than the supply, and in fact quantities were being imported into Central America from Guayaquil and Caracas in the seventeenth century. The city council of the capital fretted about these imports competing with Central American cacao in the important market of New Spain. In the eighteenth century there was a decrease in production in Suchitepéquez, in part because the Indians of the region were no longer required to pay their tribute in cacao. Meanwhile, production was increasing in Nicaragua, where haciendas rather than indigenous peasants accounted for the most output. The same was true in the cacao-producing region along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, which had witnessed significant growth in the late seventeenth century. But labor shortage in the latter region continued to plague the industry because of the small number of Indians who could be forced to work for the Spanish landowners. The cacao haciendas of Costa Rica therefore were dependent on imports of African slaves, but these were not sufficient in quantity to result in extensive growth of production. With all these obstacles, cacao therefore could not serve as the driving force behind commercial expansion and exports in the last century of colonial rule.

By far the most important export crop of the Kingdom of Guatemala in the eighteenth century was indigo. The dyestuff had a long history in Central America and had been exported to Europe since shortly after the Spanish invasion. But the labor shortage that afflicted all branches of the economy also had an impact on indigo production, which stagnated in the seventeenth century. Production apparently began to pick up in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, precisely when the population began to increase. Exports of indigo through Honduras and from the Guatemalan Caribbean coast continued to stagnate, according to government records, and during the first half of the eighteenth century, shipping into and out of those traditional areas sometimes ceased altogether. But this does not mean that the economy as a whole, or indigo production in particular, was stagnant, for a considerable quantity of smuggling not included in official statistics went on along the Honduran coast. Governors of Honduras and merchants from Guatemala shamelessly engaged and invested in smuggling. Just as importantly, however, exports overland to New Spain (Veracruz and Puebla) and by sea to Peru and Cuba expanded. Much of this was in the form of indigo, which was greatly in demand not only in Europe but also in the textile industries of Mexico and Peru. The exports also included Guatemalan textiles; Guatemalan merchants frequently entered into commercial deals with local magistrates to gain access to cotton cloth to sell in New Spain. Overall, then, the Central American economy was recovering from its seventeenth-century slump even before the indigo boom that was so notable after 1750.

The increase in indigo production took place mostly in the area around San Salvador, which became far and away the most important center for the industry for the remainder of the colonial period. By the middle of the eighteenth century, indigo was transforming the commercial export economy and making an important impact on the kingdom's internal commerce as well. The consulado (merchant guild) of Guatemala later estimated that in the late eighteenth century, the value of internal trade in indigo totaled four and a half million pesos, while exports were valued at three and a half million. Indigo production and trade had important social and economic effects throughout Central America.

One of the most important of those effects was the economic stimulation of other regions of the kingdom. As a direct result of the demands of the indigo industry, and indirectly, of the Honduran mining industry, more and more land and labor in the province of San Salvador were taken out of production of food, cotton, and cotton clothing and diverted to producing the dye. Similarly, in Honduras, entire villages of Indians were moved closer to the silver mines and ended up abandoning production of some subsistence goods. The concentration on indigo and silver was possible only because other sources of supply became available. The livestock economy of Nicaragua expanded to meet the growing demand for meat in San Salvador. The demand for cotton clothing was so great that production of cotton was stimulated in the Pacific coastal lowlands of Suchitepéquez and in Verapaz, located in the middle altitudes of northern Guatemala. Meanwhile, production of cotton textiles for San Salvador and Honduras was stimulated all over the highlands, and even resulted in the importation of cheap cloth all the way from China.


Excerpted from Indians and the Political Economy of Colonial Central America, 1670â"1810 by Robert W. Patch. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 3

1 People and Taxes in the Eighteenth Century 17

2 Government Officials and the Colonial State 42

3 Indians and the Colonial State: Indigenous Economies, Government Officials, and the Business of Government 79

4 The Business of Politics and the Politics of Business in the Highlands: The Repartimiento in Huehuetenango, 1765-1786, or, A Tale of Two Juans 116

5 Government and Business in the Lowlands: Nicaragua, 1730-1790 143

6 Imperial Reform and Political Conflict in the Eighteenth Century 174

Conclusion 211

Appendix A Tributaries and Indigenous Population, 1746 221

Appendix B Tributaries and Estimated Population, 1768 222

Appendix C Tributaries and Laboríos, c. 1773 223

Appendix D Tributaries and Estimated Population, 1797 224

Appendix E Tributaries and Estimated Population, 1803 225

Notes 227

Bibliography 261

Index 273