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

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

by Louisa Schell Hoberman

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Combining social, political, and economic history, Louisa Schell Hoberman examines a neglected period in Mexico’s colonial past, providing the first book-length study of the period’s merchant elite and its impact on the evolution of Mexico.
Through extensive archival research, Hoberman brings to light new data that illuminate the formation, behavior, and power of the merchant class in New Spain. She documents sources and uses of merchant wealth, tracing the relative importance of mining, agriculture, trade, and public office. By delving into biographical information on prominent families, Hoberman also reveals much about the longevity of the first generation’s social and economic achievements.
The author’s broad analysis situates her study in the overall environment in which the merchants thrived. Among the topics discussed are the mining and operation of the mint, Mexico’s political position vis-a-vis Spain, and the question of an economic depression in the seventeenth century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822397304
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 369
File size: 6 MB

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Mexico's Merchant Elite, 1590-1660

Silver, State, and Society

By Louisa Schell Hoberman

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9730-4


Formation of the Merchant Elite: Commissions, Credit, and Dowries

The purpose of this chapter is to examine selected aspects of how the merchant built his career in trade, looking at certain business practices and at the family connections which provided capital, information, and, of course, companionship. Consider the picture of the typical Mexico City merchant, which we now have, based primarily on eighteenth-century sources. Born in Spain, he was trained in a merchant house there or in Mexico City, often by relatives. The firm was one of a clique which controlled the Indies trade, with capital provided by naturalized foreigners, native Spaniards, Northern Europeans, or Creoles. Once in Mexico City, the prospective wholesaler built up funds by saving part of his salary, by borrowing, by forming partnerships with local residents of various occupations, and sometimes by embezzling funds entrusted to him. He then began to trade on his own account, and by virtue of the high profits returned on international commerce, he was soon able to acquire the standing of independent trader. Marriage to an American-born woman, possibly a member of his employer's family, aided his ascent. While traditional accounts of the aspiring wholesaler emphasize his position as an employee of a peninsular house, recent studies stress the Mexican influences on his career. How accurate is this picture for the commercial elite of seventeenth-century New Spain?

The Structure of International Commerce

The formation of Mexico's merchant elite took place between two poles of social organization. On the one hand, international trade was always in the hands of a small number of individuals, especially in the Pacific. On the other hand, the actual persons involved changed as new traders entered and established traders—for a variety of reasons—left. Although many merchants stayed in business for several decades, certainly there were opportunities for newcomers.

Given the limitation of legal trade to three designated ports, the fixed fleets, and the concentration of wealth in general, the view that the Indies trade was monopolistic is plausible, but the most complete evidence on which any conclusions should be based has not yet been analyzed. For the Atlantic trade, this evidence is the libros de registro (ships' manifest) preserved in the casa de contratación section of the Archive of the Indies. A manifest was prepared for each of the nine to fourteen vessels legally participating in fleets returning from Veracruz in the years studied (this number does not include the few ships from Honduras and Campeche). Each manifest consists of hundreds of partidas (entries), each stating the name of the Mexican shipper, the item shipped (silver or merchandise of some type), the consignee in Spain, the relationship of the shipper to the consignee, the value of the shipment for payment of the convoy tax, and, in some instances, the Spanish agents for the consignee, the place of residence of the shipper and the consignee, and the title of the shipper. One individual shipper might have more than twenty separate entries in each manifest; another might have only one or two. The value of entries was usually taxed as being worth 500 to 3,300 pesos. There are no summary totals for each shipper; in order to analyze the manifests for the present purpose, it is necessary to calculate the total for each individual shipper by vessel and then by year. To measure trends over time, five years were selected for analysis, based on the completeness of the manifests and on as close to a five-year interval as possible. The period covered, 1614 to 1639, includes the height and decline of the trans-Atlantic convoys. (The years 1615 and 1640 did not meet the criterion of completeness.)

It has been assumed that the organization of the Atlantic trade was similar to the Pacific, but no study has been made of the comparable (although not equivalent) archival material for the Acapulco-Manila commerce, the records of the import tax charged on the Philippine trade at Acapulco and registered in Mexico City, found in contaduría (treasury accounts). The tax was classified as "almojarifazgo de Filipinas a razón de 10%" (import tax from the Philippines at 10%) through 1611; thereafter, it was included under the heading "islas de Filipinas" (Philippine Islands), which also included freight and convoy taxes. Each entry for the import tax contains the name of the New Spain resident who owned the imported merchandise, the encomendero who received the shipment for him or her in Acapulco, and the amount of tax paid. Sometimes the record also includes the person in Manila who sent the cargo and a second recipient in New Spain. Occasionally, official titles and places of residence are included. Like the libros de registro used for the Atlantic trade, the import receipts consist of many individual payments, which had to be totaled. Unlike the documentation for the Atlantic, however, annual totals of the taxes paid on the cargo are usually available for the Pacific. However, these are not broken down by individual payers, and sometimes they include extraneous items such as the sum received for the purchase of a ship. So it is again necessary to calculate the total for each individual shipper. Because of the characteristics of the Philippine records, it is possible to take more years over a longer period, from 1595 to 1658. However, less information about each individual shipper is provided than in the Atlantic records. Thus, each set of data has its strengths and weaknesses. The structure of the Philippine trade was rather different and conforms more closely to the view of the international networks as monopolistic. The methodology used to analyze the tax records is discussed in appendix A for the Atlantic and appendix B for the Philippines.

The manifests show that the Atlantic convoy commerce was most certainly a monopoly trade, but they also suggest that it was not as monolithic and restricted as it has often been depicted. Certainly, its participants were few compared to the vecino population the trade served. The last column in table 1 presents the number of participants or investors, which ranged from about 457 in 1614 to 138 in 1639. (Because not all the cargo manifests for each year are extant, the actual number of shippers was somewhat higher; see appendix A and table 1, note d.) Bearing in mind that the vecino population of Mexico City alone in 1630 was 15,000, the shippers constituted a distinct minority of colonial residents.

If the number of large investors is considered, the impression of monopoly is strengthened. Table 1 divides participants into large, medium, and small investors. A large investor laded more than 7,000 pesos' worth of registered cargo, a medium investor, 7,000 to 1,500 pesos' worth, and a small investor, fewer than 1,500 pesos. These categories are based on the scale of trade found in notarial, fiscal, and inventory records. In the late sixteenth century a box of silver usually contained about 200 marks, or 1,620 pesos. The number of large investors was quite few, ranging from sixty-nine to nineteen persons, usually comprising between only 12.9 percent to 15 percent of all the investors.

Table 2 offers another perspective on monopoly; it indicates that the large investors always shipped more than half the cargo, between 68.2 percent in 1630 and 52.6 percent in 1639, to take the two extremes represented. Finally, figure 1 presents a visual perspective on the concentration of investment. It compares the percentage of large shippers with the percentage of investment for which they accounted. In 1625, 14.5 percent of investors shipped 65.2 percent of cargo; in 1639, 13.8 percent of investors shipped 52.6 percent. The pattern of concentration is noteworthy.

However, the term monopoly must be accepted with reservations because of other conclusions suggested by the cargo manifests for the Atlantic trade and because of the more extreme concentration presented by the Pacific trade. First, the manifests also show that the medium and small shippers were numerous and contributed a significant part of the value of the cargo (tables 1 and 2). Although as individuals they did not have the influence of a large shipper, as a group, the medium and small investors (including merchants shipping small cargoes) combined did place a substantial proportion of silver and goods. Thus, persons of small and moderate means from many walks of life played an important role in the Atlantic trade.

A reader of the cargo manifests is struck by the human dimension of these superficially dry lists of boxes; the vitality and scope of the Atlantic trade stands out clearly. Chocolate, cloves, and purges were sent in small amounts for personal use, as were religious items such as rosaries, statues of Christ, and silver articles for worship. There were boxes, valued at 100 or 200 pesos, termed "gifts." Then there were the sums sent back for the support of minor children in Spain or for the endowment of those who had reached their majority. Donations to religious organizations were another type of shipment. In 1620, secretary Gaspar Álvarez, former constable of the Holy Office in Manila, forwarded 7,200 pesos to a religious congregation in his hometown of Torrijos, while in 1639, the Convent of San Francisco in Mexico City consigned 2,936 pesos via Seville for the Holy Places in Jerusalem.

We also have a notion of the diversity of the participants in the Atlantic convoy trade by looking at their occupations, titles, and places of residence. The majority simply termed themselves a vecino of Mexico City, without indicating whether or not they were merchants. In 1614, 1620, and 1639, however, 16 to 20 percent of shippers identified themselves by an occupation or title other than merchant. Persons with military titles, especially captain, and university degrees were the leading group, followed by public officials, the clergy, and, finally, ships' officers; pasajeros, residents of New Spain who often went to Seville to buy merchandise to sell upon their return, were another important group. Once in a while, shippers from the provinces or Caribbean called themselves mercader. The proportion of shippers not from Mexico City increased from 19 percent in 1614, to 20 percent in 1625, to 31 percent in 1639. The highest number were from Puebla, followed by Veracruz, Oaxaca, Merida, and Santiago de Guatemala. Residents of the mining towns apparently conducted their business through agents in the capital or in Veracruz. All of these cities were of commercial significance. Puebla, with New Spain's second-largest

merchant class, helped provision the ships and was a source of capital and a way station on one route to the port. Oaxaca was a transit point for cochineal, Merida and Santiago de Guatemala for indigo, and Veracruz was the official Atlantic port. These vecinos may have been agents of Mexico City merchants. Still, their participation shows these provincial centers had a direct connection to the port, and goods converged on the fleet from diverse points of the viceroyalty.

In the Pacific the concentration was more pronounced. Considerably fewer people were involved in the trade, and they were more likely to be professional merchants. In the 1590s and 1600s, registered investors numbered about 246 persons—also a small group compared to the overall vecino population (table 3). Subsequently, investors ranged from eighty-five to a scant eight persons in a given decade. The number of large investors was, therefore, extremely small, ranging from forty-three in the 1590s to three in the 1650s. Proportionately, they made up between 44.4 and 10.5 percent of total investors, depending on the decade. Not only did large investors always ship more than half the cargo; in two decades, including the 1630s when private shipments peaked, they accounted for more than 80 percent of it (table 4).

Comparing the Atlantic and Pacific trades to 1640 we can conclude that both were quite monopolistic and were dominated by Mexico City. In that context, however, the Atlantic was more broadly based. Even in the darker days of the convoys in the 1630s, they always had more participants, including more medium and small investors. The Philippine Hispanic community was small in number and not that diverse; it could not generate the varied relationships which Spain maintained with New Spain. The contrast is between a tie with an outpost and a tie with the mother country. Not surprisingly, the Manila trade was firmly under the thumb of the Mexico City merchants, who did not have to share their control with Spanish partners. Their agents in Acapulco strongly influenced the administration of customs there (see plate 2).

Usually, investment (silver plus merchandise) was higher in the Atlantic trade. Legally, five or more times as much private cargo was shipped in the Atlantic as in the Pacific. Unofficially, probably three or more times was sent to Spain between 1611 and 1629, and in the 1630s, more was actually sent to the Philippines. The latter estimates are based on a "fraud factor" which for the Philippine trade is calculated by comparing Tables 20 and 21 (pp. 218 and 219). Thus, fraud was two to four times the registered value from 1621 to 1630, and eleven times from 1631 to 1640. For the Atlantic, fraud rose greatly when the convoy tax was increased in the 1630s. Hamilton places contraband between 10 percent and 50 percent for the entire period from 1600 to 1650, while Kamen puts it as 100 percent above registered cargo from 1670 to 1700. Still, it was not as great as in the Manila trade.

Geographic and Social Origins

The history of the groups involved in the transoceanic trades shows that within the limit of a monopolistic structure, there was much fluidity. Most men at the commercial pinnacle of colonial Mexico were Spanish born, but they came of varied occupational background and regions and had differing relationships to the established peninsular houses. Naturally, Seville was the one province which sent the greatest number of future merchants to New Spain. Combined with the two other maritime Mediterranean provinces, Cádiz and Huelva, they accounted for 35 percent (36 of 103) of the Spanish traders studied.

While more came from these Spanish southern maritime provinces than from any others, however, the majority of wholesalers were born elsewhere, in cities, towns, and villages throughout the central and northern provinces. Moreover, Seville-born merchants might themselves be sons of recent migrants to the city, some from quite far away. Exemplifying the importance of Italians in the trade was the Federegui family. Both parents had been born in Florence and migrated to Seville; one son, Stefantoni (often called Santifederegui in documents), went on to Mexico City, where he became the most prominent dealer in cochineal of his epoch. His brothers remained in Seville; Luis served as alcalde mayor (district governor), while Gerónimo was the senior constable. Juan de Astudillo, elector of the Mexico City guild in the 1590s and 1600s, was the son of a Seville trading family that had recently come from Burgos. Juan's brother, Gaspar, regularly welcomed his provincial relatives to his house in Seville. The origins of the Seville consulado merchants who received military orders also show the importance of migration in the family's recent history. Of the guild members who received military orders between 1628 and 1700, almost all were born in Seville. Their fathers' birthplaces, however, were fairly evenly divided among Seville, the Basque region, and foreign countries, especially Florence, Corsica, and Flanders.

The merchant houses of the city were a constant in Seville's economic and social life. Along with landed aristocrats, many of whom also traded, enobled merchants controlled the municipal government, occupying the posts of ventiquatro (noble alderman) and jurado (commoner alderman). Dealing in maritime insurance, sales credits, imported merchandise, and Andalusian produce, their wide-ranging activities provided a model for their successors in the Indies.

The composition of this class shifted, however, most notably from one nationality to another. In the sixteenth century, native Spaniards, Italians, and Flemings were predominant. In the seventeenth century, Spanish firms continued to exist, but were much more dependent on foreigners, at first the Portuguese and the Dutch, the first "gens du Nord," then the French, and finally the English. Apart from nationality, Seville's merchants, like all international traders, experienced upward or downward social mobility. A desire for noble status led many to abandon trade for investments in urban or rural real estate, and merchant daughters for other brides. The more prominent Genoese married Spaniards. The French seem to have been more endogamous; in Cadiz some dynasties lasted for several generations. Sometimes royal confiscations of bullion, enemy attacks on shipping, gluts in the American market, and overextension of investments led to bankruptcies and loss of merchant status. In short, Seville was a dynamic community where fortunes were not secure, and where new groups entered and established houses left the commercial elite.


Excerpted from Mexico's Merchant Elite, 1590-1660 by Louisa Schell Hoberman. Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Tables,
List of Illustrations,
Chapter I Formation of the Merchant Elite: Commissions, Credit, and Dowries,
Chapter II The Mexican Economy and Merchant Capital: Mining and the Mint,
Chapter III The Mexican Economy and Merchant Capital: Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Urban Real Estate,
Chapter IV Public Office and Private Gain,
Chapter V The Merchantilist Mirage; Trade, Taxes, and Turmoil,
Chapter VI Progeny and Property,
A. Atlantic Trade,
B. Philippine Trade,
Illustration Credits,

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