Institutions of Trade in the Iberian Atlantic World

AHA Session 61
Conference on Latin American History 14
Friday, January 3, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Jeremy A. Baskes, Ohio Wesleyan University
Carla Rahn Phillips, University of Minnesota Twin Cities

Session Abstract

The Spanish empire faced extraordinary challenges in the late eighteenth century. Demographic growth, Crown reforms, continuous warfare, and increasingly recalcitrant colonies contributed to instability, uncertainty, and change.  This session explores the economic and political effects of these late colonial challenges, especially on issues of trade and commerce. 

The three papers to be presented in this session engage both old and new topics, Jeremy Baskes's revisits the Spanish trade system and the effects of 1778 imperial "free trade;" Fabricio Prado's examines the  British foreign penetration in Rio de la Plata as well as the growing commercial networks between the US and the Rio de la Plata region; and Amilcar Challu's explores grain markets and hunger in 18th century Mexico.

In recent decades, historians' focus on the economic history of the Spanish empire has been minimal in comparison to its earlier vibrancy. Not only do these papers aim to to remind historians of the richness of economic history, but they illustrate new approaches and theoretical frameworks that have revitalized the field in the last decades, such as New Institutional Economics, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and relational databases. Each of these presentations is based on extensive research in previously unexamined but traditional archival materials, from merchant correspondence to insurance documentation to military records. Employing the new perspectives of Institutional Economics, using tools of GIS mapping technology, or the possibilities of cross-referencing data and analyzing social networks, these sources allow distinct and revisionist perspectives on Spanish American and Atlantic economic history.

Baskes argues that historians have long misunderstood the Spanish flota system, explaining it instead as an institutional adaptation to the chronic risk and uncertainty of transatlantic trade. Prado shows the emergence of semi-legal trade networks between the US and Rio de la Plata, challenging previous historiography that emphasizes the supremacy of British trade in the years in which Spain's grip over its empire began to slip irretrievably. Challu argues that integrated long distance grain markets, the existence of which were previously unrecognized by Mexican historians, were disrupted by Bourbon agriculture policies, exacerbating inequality and contributing to growing hunger on the eve of the Hidalgo Revolution.

These papers have implications well beyond the specific topics and regions, and should appeal to a wide audience of colonial Latin Americanists, early modern and Atlantic historians, as well as to economic historians. Adding to the panel's appeal will be the masterful commentary of Carla Rahn Phillips.

See more of: AHA Sessions