Peasants on Plantations: Subaltern Strategies of Labor and Resistance in the Pisco Valley, Peru

Peasants on Plantations: Subaltern Strategies of Labor and Resistance in the Pisco Valley, Peru

by Vincent Peloso

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After the 1854 abolition of slavery in Peru, a new generation of plantation owners turned to a system of peasant tenantry to maintain cotton production through the use of cheap labor. In Peasants on Plantations Vincent C. Peloso analyzes the changing social and economic relationships governing the production of cotton in the Pisco Valley, a little-studied area of Peru’s south coast. Challenging widely held assumptions about the system of relations that tied peasants to the land, Peloso’s work examines the interdependence of the planters, managers, and peasants—and the various strategies used by peasants in their struggle to resist control by the owners.

Grounded in the theoretical perspectives of subaltern studies and drawing on an extremely complete archive of landed estates that includes detailed regular reports by plantation managers on all aspects of farming life, Peasants on Plantations reveals the intricate ways peasants, managers, and owners manipulated each other to benefit their own interests. As Peloso demonstrates, rather than a simple case of domination of the peasants by the owners, both parties realized that negotiation was the key to successful growth, often with the result that peasants cooperated with plantation growth strategies in order to participate in a market economy. Long-term contracts gave tenants and sharecroppers many opportunities to make farming choices, to assert claims on the land, compete among themselves, and participate in plantation expansion. At the same time, owners strove to keep the peasants in debt and well aware of who maintained ultimate control.

Peasants on Plantations offers a largely untold view of the monumental struggle between planters and peasants that was fundamental in shaping the agrarian history of Peru. It will interest those engaged in Latin American studies, anthropology, and peasant and agrarian studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822397472
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 03/03/1999
Series: Latin America otherwise
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
Lexile: 1430L (what's this?)
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Vincent C. Peloso is Associate Professor of History at Howard University.

Read an Excerpt

Peasants on Plantations

Subaltern Strategies of Labor and Resistance in the Pisco Valley, Peru

By Vincent C. Peloso

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9747-2


Planters, Managers, and Consent

[I]t's not the same as when the owner is present.

lament expressed by one of the Aspíllaga brothers, 1884

An obscure, unpretentious plantation in the Pisco valley became a setting in the middle of the nineteenth century for profound social change in Peru. A pioneering agrarian entrepreneur, Ramón Aspíllaga, purchased Hacienda San Francisco Solano de Palto, adding to his already extensive holdings in sugar on the north coast. His family's wealth and power grew steadily throughout the late nineteenth century. Later his sons would expand the Aspíllaga holdings in the region, acquiring a warehouse, offices, and a dock in the port town of Pisco. Aspíllaga aspired to the kind of high social standing that successful commercial agriculture might provide in nineteenth-century Peru. He worked the financial maze of the country with great skill, and eventually he rode cotton and sugar to virtually aristocratic social standing.

The family owed its power to the social acumen and political persistence of its leading figures. At the outset of his investment in cotton, Ramón Aspíllaga had taken a number of steps to increase his chances of success. He acquired choice, well-located properties, established an impeccable credit rating, obtained the cheapest available labor to work the fields, and carefully supervised operations. After he died his sons labored on in their father's footsteps. They expanded the fields in use, increasing the volume of production, and converted the profits from cotton and sugar exports into levels of power their father could only have looked upon with admiration.

Yet in one area the accomplishments of the Aspíllagas and other coastal planters fell short of their goals; despite their power and prestige, they failed to convince the cotton field hands that they were in control. The field hands too often seemed to pay lip service to the commands barked at them by plantation managers, offering excuses for not carrying out an assigned task. Almost from the first moment that free peasants entered the cotton plantations, they apparently intuited that their labor was in great demand and could command a high price. They also detected a breach between the wishes of the landowners and the efforts of plantation managers to carry those wishes out. In short, the cotton planters failed to fully extend their hegemonic position into the rural coastal valleys of the country. Many of the actions taken by the planters to do so had the opposite effect: undermining their authority. This chapter examines one aspect of a mystifying gap: the difference between the social and political display of power by the landowners and its dilution when it was applied to the plantations.

The case of Hacienda Palto illustrates the problem that bothered landowners. To some extent, the lack of conviction among the peasants was a by-product of owner neglect. Unlike their father, the Aspíllaga sons felt little emotional attachment to the Pisco valley or to Hacienda Palto. Indeed, Ramón Aspíllaga's nostalgic attraction to the valley translated poorly in business terms. He had provided an exemplary model for his sons by directly managing the first plantation he had bought, Hacienda Cayaltí in the north coast Lambayeque region. But the contrast between his attention to Cayaltí and his neglect of Hacienda Palto was unmistakable. Ramón barely set foot on the cotton plantation after he bought it. Instead, he sent his younger brother, Antonio, to manage the operation with the help of Ramón's sons, Ramón the younger and Ismael. After the father died, the brothers removed themselves even farther from the cotton plantation by leaving it in the hands of a succession of administrators. To the extent that they too hired managers, the following generations of Aspíllagas in turn adopted the practices of their forebears.

Hacienda Palto clearly was important in the scheme of things as viewed by the Aspíllagas. When they discussed their financial status and future plans, Ramón's sons spoke of Palto as an integral part of their assets. After their father died in 1875 the brothers inventoried their father's legacy. One of them remarked that he had left them with S/44,382 ("S/" represents the sol, the currency of Peru) in disposable capital, a result of the "foresight of our unforgettable father who rests in peace." But they could not rest on this windfall, for he also had burdened them with an enormous set of debts, albeit in the form of long-term loans. Thus to keep their obligations under control they would count heavily "on the contingency of the Palto harvest."

This theme, the expectation that returns from Hacienda Palto would contribute significantly to the family's wealth, suggests that the modest cotton plantation in the Pisco valley held strategic importance in their commercial plans. Perhaps hoping to gain greater control of the Pisco valley property, in the early twentieth century the brothers detached Hacienda Palto from their other business operations. They left oversight of the cotton fundo (plantation or hacienda) to Ismael, the youngest of the brothers. Yet Ismael had no more inclination to live on the plantation than did his older siblings, and like them he left Palto in the hands of an administrator. Although periodic visits in the twentieth century grew more fruitful for the gathering of information, later Aspíllaga generations continued to provide oversight from the family business offices far off in Lima.

This left the owners of Hacienda Palto with the difficult but extremely important task of hiring a trustworthy, skilled manager. As table 1.1 suggests, their early efforts failed; they found a succession of individuals who could not handle the job, and they quickly dismissed them. Juan Casanova, a man of uncertain origins, did not last a year. Reliance upon family members as managers, whatever the merits, also exposed potential hazards. How, after all, did one dismiss an incompetent cousin or an in-law without creating ill will in the family? After several years of poor guesswork and repeated failures, the As-pillagas began to rely for plantation managers on experienced, trustworthy former farmhands. Administrators thus came to be chosen from within the peasantry of the Pisco valley, a strategy that — while apparently successful — as we shall see also was fraught with hazards.

It was not unusual for a plantation owner to seek public office in late nineteenth-century Peru. Although there is no readily available count, the occupations of numerous public officeholders in the executive and legislative branches of national government were similar to those of Ramón Aspíllaga and his sons. Ownership and management of plantations was but one of their enterprises. Many of them were merchant-planters, and they spent a large amount of time in conversation with fellow merchants, buying, selling, and keeping track of their merchandise, the paperwork of commerce. Price fluctuations of sugar and cotton on world markets no doubt riveted their thoughts. This and other kinds of information vital to merchants could best be obtained by remaining in close touch with fellow merchants, lenders, lawyers, exporters, and others in Lima. But by leaving the plantation in the hands of a competent surrogate, the planter left a major source of livelihood at risk. Managers did not necessarily command the plantation with the same aura of authority as landowners.


For the first few years the Aspíllagas owned Hacienda Palto they devoted a great amount of time to its fields. In those early years they evidently felt they could trust no one to run the operation, and in any case they probably wanted to learn firsthand what the plantation was like — the character of its soil, the extent of the space it occupied, the irrigation network, and other potentially troublesome elements of the operation. For the first few years they owned Hacienda Palto, one of the brothers or their uncle Antonio remained in residence at the plantation. Thus they avoided the problem of delegating authority. Eventually, however, the moment came when someone aside from the brothers had to be entrusted with the cotton fundo. Ideally this person was a close family member, one who knew his employers well, their business methods, their style of communicating important informationand making decisions. Above all, he should know their inclinations regarding how the plantation should be managed to meet the owners' commercial objectives. The shrewd plantation owner sought out the administrator who could readily make his meaning clear to the plantation minions hired to oversee the activities of the labor force, especially of the indentured Asians, but with equal concern for the labor of a free peasantry. In effect, the hiring of an administrator tested the ability of a landowner to exercise authority through a second party.

Hiring an administrator proved to be far more difficult than the Aspíllagas had expected. The owners soon realized, as the quotation at the outset of this chapter reveals, that no stranger could be expected to view the plantation with quite the same intensity and care as the owners, but they used every means available to solve this problem. They surveyed family members and sought the counsel of friends in the Pisco valley, especially the local family accountant. At first they chose administrators from among men who were distantly related to the owners: cousins or cousins by marriage. But such choices proved to be a miscalculation. The owners concluded that distant family members, however well supported by appeals to kinship, did not approach the task with the rigor expected by the owners. And they often lacked the skills necessary to manage the delicate task of getting the best results from an often truculent labor force. The Aspíllagas quickly rid the cotton plantation of family appointees.

As table 1.1 shows, the longest-lasting plantation administrators at Hacienda Palto came from within the ranks of the tenants. Men who exhibited good farming skills and leadership among the peasants soon gained the attention of the owners. Such men also were prized for their long, trouble-free association with the plantation. They had rented land from the Aspíllagas for many years and on the whole had maintained good relations with the owners, paying their debts and demonstrating a high degree of loyalty to managers who preceded them. The planters chose these individuals for their productivity, reliability, and steadfastness. In the eyes of the owners, those qualities were as important as a knowledge of commercial farming, if not more so. In any case, the owners became convinced that men with experience farming the fields of Hacienda Palto would find it easy to command the labor of fellow peasants.

This thinking did not directly address the problem of a transfer of authority to the plantation administrator. There was no easy solution to this matter. Collaboration with the owners did not always endear a tenant to his neighbors. Cottonplanters in the Pisco valley varied widely in how they chose to govern the plantations. At Hacienda San Jacinto, for instance, owner Vicente del Solar presided over cotton farming himself and regularly attended the valley meetings, where many cotton plantations were represented by administrators.

But personal preference weighed far less in such decisions than did the need for oversight. When an owner could rely on the hired administrator, he or she felt greater freedom to attend to other business interests as well as to the political aspects of ownership. That freedom might be linked to the social rank of the administrator. In the early twentieth century, the owner of Hacienda Urrutia leased the property to Fermín Tangüs, a scientific cotton breeder, who resided on the estate and conducted his experiments there. When management or leasehold was not effective, planters found it necessary to visit the site often. They became irritated at having to concentrate attention on the farming side of their affairs and discreetly expressed dissatisfaction to the managers.

Great distances and lengthy travel times between city residences and plantations encouraged demonstrations of loyalty by the manager. There were several ways such attachment could be expressed. On the practical side, the owners' need to hear such sentiments voiced could be satisfied by frequent reports of a constantly growing rate of production and a trouble-free work regimen. But these were not possible in an imperfect world, and owners had to make do with other proofs. Chief among those was constancy. It was extremely important to the Aspíllagas that the manager of Palto send them highly detailed reports of his administrative activities on a weekly basis. They acknowledged such missives and further responded with answers to questions on a wide array of subjects along with instructions for executing other activities. In times of stress — disputes between manager and workers, between the plantation and government authorities, or between neighboring plantations — administrators found themselves dealing with matters that went far beyond questions of proper field cultivation. In these instances the social skills of former peasants, skills for which their upbringing presumably had prepared them, would be severely tested. Coursing through the exchanges between owners and managers in these moments was a question that lay at the heart of order and dominance by the landowners: Did the manager command the respect of his adversaries, be they the authorities, other managers, or the peasants who worked the land?

Distance undoubtedly exaggerated the views of owners toward conditions in the far-off plantation areas. Typical of their group, the Aspíllagas were bored by the slow pace of country life yet they were strongly attracted to its idyllic qualities. An "oasis," or a "garden," is how they liked to depict Hacienda Palto when the stress of life in Lima overwhelmed them. But they lived under no illusions about the business purpose of the enterprise.

Among the management activities the owners monitored to determine how well the manager represented their interests were the accounting of the harvest; accuracy in maintaining an operating budget; the safekeeping of tools and equipment; the proper care and upkeep of animals, fields, and irrigation facilities; and above all control of the labor force. That only nine managers oversaw Hacienda Palto on behalf of the Aspíllaga clan between 1875 and World War II attests to their ability to judge character. Nevertheless, the absent owners never fully trusted anyone with their source of livelihood.

The weekly correspondence between owners and managers mainly addressed questions of expenditure and labor, demanding careful explanations of requests for funds. Illustrating how attentive they were to the balance of cotton accounts and the realities of absenteeism, the owners admonished managers to stay focused on the task at hand. They complained bitterly when machinery broke down or when the manager reported that tools had worn out or disappeared. "Good management," they intoned at every opportunity, "consists of efficiency and high production."

Instructions to managers reveal that the landowners sought to make up for their absence by imposing assembly line discipline on the fieldwork of indentured Asians. Its application was left entirely to the administrator, who was given sweeping powers. He was to brook no nonsense, an admonition broadly defined. The men were fed poorly; and Palto was no different from Hacienda Cayaltí, where, Michael Gonzales reported, a similar niggardliness prevailed. Indeed, these examples and others suggest that many indentured Chinese workers in Peru fell ill from meager rations and overwork. Each man received one and one-half pounds of rice a day, apportioned carefully by the manager overseeing the distribution, and on weekends and holidays the ration included a bit of meat or meat broth. Feigning illness and not showing up for work meant deductions from the weekly wages. Whipping and mistreatment were absolutely prohibited, but again vague meanings gave the manager broad leeway: "only in grave cases, for disobedience, lack of respect, in case of flight or fights between them" could physical punishment be used, to be "not ... greater than six lashes upon the underwear." And then the ominous qualifier: "you will exhaust all measures of persuasion to make them understand [when] they have made a mistake."

Rather than inspire confidence in the owners and workers, managers predictably sank to the level of their task: they provoked and tolerated brutality against the Asians by plantation minions. Tensions between managers and indentured workers grew accordingly, with murderous results. When indenture ended, managers had to be more circumspect in dealing with former indentured Asian field hands as well as with peasants who came to the fields as day laborers. The peasants had limited obligations to the plantation. At that point conflict between management and labor took new forms.


Excerpted from Peasants on Plantations by Vincent C. Peloso. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents List of Maps, Tables, and Figures Preface Acknowledgments Introduction: Peasants, Plantations, and Resistance Chapter 1: Planters, Managers, and Consent Chapter 2: Indenture, Wages, and Dominance Chapter 3: Stagnation, Recovery, and Peasant Opportunities Chapter 4: Plantation Growth and Peasant Choices Chapter 5: Yanaconas, Mechanization, and Migrant Labor Chapter 6: Yanaconas, Migrants, and Political Consciousness Conclusion: Plantation Society and Peruvian Culture Notes Glossary Bibliography Index

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