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Mexico's Merchant Elite, 1590-1660: Silver, State and Society.

The seventeenth century in Mexico, characterized forty years ago by Woodrow Borah as a century of depression, has, despite the work of such notable historians as Peter Bakewell, Jonathan Israel, Irving Leonard, and Thomas Calvo, among others, remained a sort of historiographical black hole in comparison to the periods preceding and following it. Louisa Hoberman's book on the merchant elite of the colony during the first two-thirds of the century comes at a particularly welcome time in the slowly developing study of the depressing century, since one of its many virtues is to synthesize and take stock of much of what scholars already know of the period. But the work also throws a strong light of it own on the economic and social history of the mid-colonial era, and is surely destined to become something of a landmark study of merchants and of the broader Atlantic and domestic economy within which they functioned.

Basing her interpretation on an intensive prosopographic study of about two hundred wholesale merchants of the viceregal capital during the period 1590-1660, the inner workings of their enterprises, and the rhythms of trade and investment. Hoberman in fact disputes the characterization of the period as one of economic depression. Instead she convincingly paints the era as one of continuing growth from the 1590s to the 1630s, contraction (hardly "depression" or "collapse") between the 1640s and the 1660s, and erratic recovery in the leading sectors of silver mining and commerce to the end of the century. These six or seven decades saw a shaking out of smaller merchants and an increased concentration in wealth and investment, but little fundamental alteration of the social patterns already well established at the beginning of the period and still recognizable in the eighteenth century. Among these were the diversification of elite family enterprise into the ownership of rural estates as well as urban property, a certain tendency toward endogamy in merchant marriages, strategies (not always successful, admittedly) for the preservation of merchant family wealth and status, a marked impulse to purchase or otherwise gain access to political office, and a drive to attain the uppermost rungs of the social ladder nonetheless blocked to all but a few merchants by the taint of trade.

Many of the relationships Hoberman deals with are not stunningly new, but it is extremely useful to have them placed in the context of the seventeenth century and their resilience and importance emphasized. In so doing, she fills out the genealogy of social phenomena we had thought particular to the later colonial period. This is the case, for example, with her analysis of the relationships of merchants to silver mining through direct investment, loans, and minting (Chapter 2), primarily because of the high capital and credit requirements of the oceanic trade. Then again, her account (Chapter 5) of the negotiations over a number of decades between Crown and merchant groups over mercantile and sales tax assessments illustrates nicely the apparently absolutist but actually rather porous institutional structure of the colonial regime so familiar to students of the Spanish empire up the Bourbon reforms of the late eighteenth century.

Gracefully written, for the most part, Hoberman's study is based on an archival scholarship both dense and deft. The numerous tables, with few exceptions, expand the text nicely without mystifying or obtruding themselves into the narrative. The book is furthermore notable for an unusually sensible authorial voice and balanced historiographical judgments. Indeed, Hoberman is particularly skillful at synthesizing, glossing, and criticizing sub-literatures - on the seventeenth-century depression, for example, or on merchants and landholding - and on pushing off from the existing historiography without letting it dominate her own discussion. If any methodological criticism of the work can be raised, it is perhaps that the author (not alone in this) is overly attached to some of her data, and consequently that empirical examples are a bit too lush at points. On the other hand, the ten capsule histories comprising the larger part of Chapter 6, for example, on patterns of inheritance and social mobility among merchant families, do not seem excessive at all, perhaps because of the way they are aggregated into distinct groups.

As with any work of such consistent reasonableness and interest, there are bound to be weak points. For one thing, out of keeping with the "newer" social history Hoberman cites as one of her lodestars in the opening pages of the book is the egregious absence of any but the most cursory discussion of gender issues, or of the style of merchant households and domestic life. Women appear as recipients of dowries, as marriage partners, and as religious, but more as objects than in their own right, and certainly not as actors in the processes of social mobility or the planning of elite family strategies. Similarly, longstanding debates about whether Mexico, and more broadly Latin America, have ever truly had a middle class, and if such a social sector began to develop in the colonial period, would have made an analysis of familistic ideology and the domestic sphere among the merchant elite interesting, particularly in comparison with the landed and robed elites of the colony, and small titled nobility, to whose ranks merchant princes often aspired but rarely gained access. On another front, Hoberman's introduction in the final pages of the book of Irving Leonard's venerable characterization of the Mexican Baroque, apparently as a sort of post hoc integrative device for the study as a whole, does not succeed very well. Thus holding up merchant life to the template of Baroque diversity and contradiction does little to relate amongst themselves the interesting aspects of the merchant group Hoberman has treated separately, and it is theoretically suspect if only because the ethos of a society must consist of more than the ethos of a single, even very important, sector within it. But in the end these blemishes prove rather small next to the thoroughness and judiciousness of Hoberman's ambitious and beautifully realized work.
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Author:Young, Eric Van
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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