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Contested Ground: Comparative Frontiers on the Northern and Southern Edges of the Spanish Empire.

Contested Ground: Comparative Frontiers on the Northern and Southern Edges of the Spanish Empire. Edited by Donna J. Guy and Thomas E. Sheridan (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1998. 275pp. $24.95/paperback $50.00/cloth).

Over the past few years, the topic of Latin American frontier studies has again gained importance. This volume is a significant addition to this literature and promises to become one of the standard works on frontier studies. It includes essays from many of the most important scholars who have worked on Northern Mexico and the Southern Cone of South America. The essays were first presented at two workshops, held at the University of Arizona. Although only three essays are explicitly comparative, most of the other eight studies provide paradigms that are at least implicitly comparative. The co-editors, Donna Guy and Thomas Sheridan, in their introductory essay lay out many of the major issues. They set the groundwork by describing the similarities and differences in geography, ethnic groups, and state formation between the River Plate region and what they term the "Greater Southwest," which includes much of the U.S. Southwest and present-day northern Mexico, in other words the northern section of Mexico before 1848. The issues of power and violence are particularly important in the frontier setting, conceptual threads that unify the essays in the book. Although it appeared that there were many similarities between the two regions, as the book project progressed, many realized that the differences were more important than they had thought.

One of the great contributions of the book is a series of maps, showing the extent of the Creole and Indian presence during different periods in the regions under discussion. I found the map of the Southern Cone particularly striking, for it shows how limited Creole control was over vast extents of territory. The maps serve as an important corrective to those who tend to think of twentieth-century national boundaries as the units of analysis for the nineteenth century.

It is difficult to summarize all the diverse and rich contributions among the eleven chapters. As always, some contributions offer more than others do. Daniel Reff examines the Jesuit missions in both the northern and southern extents of the Spanish Empire. Arguing from a demographic perspective, he asserts that the missions were successful because of the deep demographic crisis the Indians suffered because of the Columbian Encounter, The Jesuits' success can be attributed to the fact that they took over the role of indigenous elites and were able to reconstitute communities. Susan Deeds continues the missions theme in her chapter. On the basis of her research on the missions of northern Mexico, she creates a typology of mission revolts among the Yaqui Indians. She posits that there was a difference between "first generation" revolts and later ones. The earlier revolts were tied to messianic movements and to the older men who had guided the Indian communities. Later revolts were linked more to a breaking of the "colonial pact," where the mission Indians rebelled against the greater exploitation by Spaniards and the fossilization of the Jesuit enterprise. Cynthia Radding takes the idea of the colonial pact farther, arguing that the late eighteenth-century mission land distribution programs, as a result of the Bourbon Reforms, broke the colonial pact in Sonora (northern Mexico). Susan Socolow's essay changes the subject to that of women. She shows that, based on the 1744 census of Buenos Aires Province, women were an important component of the frontier population. I suspect that, once we use similar information for other frontier regions, we will find similar patterns throughout South America.

One of the many virtues of this book is that it includes the North American frontier and thus provides a needed comparative perspective with Latin America. This is especially evident in the essays by Richard Slatta and Kristine Jones. Slatta is persuasive in showing that, after the sixteenth century, Spain adopted a defensive frontier policy with as little cost to the royal treasury as possible. We already know of the frontier missions, low-cost alternatives to high-maintenance forts. However, Slatta provides evidence that frontier garrisons in both north and south were ill-equipped units with corrupt officers, based on systematic cruelty toward soldiers and indigenous population alike. Jones, in turn, develops the concept of raiding economies, which existed in the northern as well as southern frontier ranges of the Spanish Empire. As the empire declined and independence brought about weak republican states, raiding (especially but not exclusively cattle) by indigenous peoples increased both north and south. Jones provides persuasive evidence to show that the resulting raiding economies were important economic stimuli to the frontier economies and brought about a certain level of development even beyond the frontier. She argues that frontier development occurred precisely because of (not in spite of) this raiding and that we must take into account these raiding economies if we want to understand the development of the state in both the Greater Southwest and the Southern Cone.

The following three essays, by Mary Karasch on the frontier region of Goias in Brazil, by Jerry Cooney on the yerba industry in Paraguay, and Thomas Hall on "world economy" aspects of the frontier geographically do not fit as well in the collection, though the contribution of the former two are based on detailed studies of primary sources. Karasch's essay is especially interesting, for she turns a number of stereotypes of the Latin American frontier on their heads. Goias's frontier fluctuated before and after the gold rush in the eighteenth century. Indeed, as the gold placers gave out, most of the Portuguese minority moved elsewhere, leaving a complex mosaic of ethnic groups on the frontier. This included not only Europeans and different Indian groups, but also a significant number of African descendants, as freedmen, as runaways in remote settlements, and as slaves. Each group--be it Indian or African or a mixture of ethnicities, resisted Portuguese domination in different ways. Moreover, as the gold rush faded and urban areas declined in the nineteenth century, violence increased. Karasch does a marvelous job in showing the reader a multiethnic frontier world in all its complexities. Jerry Cooney in turn analyzes the Paraguayan frontier and how the economy shifted from the exploitation of yerba mate, the Paraguayan tea in the colonial period, to cattle ranching. Thomas Hall proposes to use world economy theory to understand and compare the northern and southern frontier. He summarizes much of the information contained in the other essays without contributing much that is new (in fact, he uses no Spanish-language sources at all!). While a potentially interesting exercise, conceptually there is less here than should be the case. He also falls into the trap of examining only the pampas region on the Argentine frontier without looking at the effects on the other side of the Andes, in what later became Chile.

Lyman Johnson's essay is also comparative, though with the United States. Based a careful use of testaments and probate records, Johnson shows that wealth distribution in Buenos Aires Province in the first half of the nineteenth century was uniformly more equal than in the United States, including frontier regions such as Texas and Wisconsin. In turn, Daniel Nugent's piece on a small Chihuahua community shows how during the late nineteenth century the Mexican state under Porfirio Diaz turned these mestizos from defenders against Apache raiders into one more obstacle to progress and big business.

All in all, this is a rich collection of essays on the multifarious frontiers of North and South America. The authors are top-notch, they ask novel questions, and their conclusions always are stimulating. It is a collection well worth having, as it is the best book on frontiers currently in press.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Langer, Erick D.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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