This site maintained by: Aomar Boum. Site last updated in August 2001.  
Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society


  VOLUME 8 (2001)

Indians, Merchants, and Markets: a Reinterpretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian Economic Relations in Colonial Oaxaca, 1750-1821. By Jeremy Baskes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press (2000), 306 pp.


Reviewed by Jeffrey H. Cohen, Department of Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University


Jeremy Baskes’s Indians, Merchants, and Markets is an excellent addition to the history of colonial Mexico. His discussion of the colonial economy, Indian-Spanish relations and the role structure and meaning of the repartimiento should be welcomed by historians and anthropologists alike.

Baskes uses the production, trade and export of cochineal (a red dye made from the dried body of the beetle Dactylopius coccus, that grow on nopal cactus) as a lens through which to question long held assumptions about colonial Mexico’s economy, the place of natives in that economy, and the role of the repartimiento. For the author, the colonial economy is not an isolated system built upon the needs and desires of colonial rulers, rather, it is part of a broad global trade network that brought cochineal dye (called grana) from native communities throughout rural Oaxaca, Mexico to buyers throughout Europe. The native Oaxacan becomes an active agent (albeit an active agent working under serious constraints) who uses the household production of cochineal in concert with farming to make a better living. In this economy the repartimiento becomes more than a coercive force, it is in fact an important source for credit among peasant and Indian households and communities struggling to survive.

Baskes begins the book by posing a series of ideas concerning the repartimiento. He asks that the reader reject the traditional approach to the repartimiento that characterizes it as a system through which labor was forcible drawn from communities to provide tribute for the Spanish ruling class. The point is not that there were no abuses of the system, or that it lacked a coercive side, rather, Baskes effectively shows that Indians throughout rural Oaxaca sought repartimiento relationships as a way to gain credit (the only avenue to credit available) that could then be invested in crops, cochineal or goods. In fact, he points out that Indians often sought repartimiento relationships voluntarily as a way to gain goods and income. Thus, the relationships that existed between alcaldes and Indians, did not necessarily "drive" those natives into the economy, rather the relationships created a social contract between the two groups that typically left the Indian producer with a small profit. For example, producers of cochineal who entered repartimiento relationships with alcaldes (themselves often natives), typically had some of the dye left after their contracts were settled that they could then sell for additional income, or perhaps invest in the purchase of animals or the maintenance of the household. Baskes does not deny that there was coercion, and alcaldes coveted their positions and the incomes those positions generated. In fact, Baskes points out that there was often fierce competition for positions among the upper class. Nevertheless, he effectively shows how local producers also benefited from the relationships.

The benefits of these relationships extended beyond the economic as the repartimiento help stabilize prices through long term contracts and afforded a way for two very different populations (Spanish and native) to effectively communicate cross-culturally. Thus, what might seem to be price-fixing from one perspective, also served to ease negotiations between populations that were effectively alien to each other. Native producers were interested most in gaining a "just price" that is a price that covered production expenses, a concept very different than one based on the value of time and more importantly profit. For the Alcaldes, who were installed under the pretext that they would protect the Crown’s interests, cochineal was a good investment, and one that would cover the short fall in Spain’s rather meager compensation. Nevertheless, dealing in cochineal was not without risks. In fact, the last chapters of the book focus on the market for cochineal, its shifts and swings, the risks that faced exporters and the role the dye played in broader market systems.

Baskes’s work is all the more satisfying given contemporary trends in Oaxaca’s economy. Anyone who is familiar with the state and its many crafts and traditional arts will recognize local models of contemporary production in this discussion of cochineal. Contemporary artisans often organize production around putting-out systems where patrons supply materials and designs in exchange for finished goods that are sold on international markets (Cook and Binford 1990; Littlefield 1978). Like their ancestor, today’s craftsmen and women are often at the mercy of the price a patron will pay. Like their ancestors, they turn to these patrons for loans and credit. And as with their ancestors, what can be a coercive system is also an avenue for household maintenance and sometimes profit (for example, see my discussion of contemporary weaving in Santa Ana del Valle, in Cohen 1999:48-52). Last, but certainly not least, cochineal is making something of a comeback and is now an integral part of the textile making traditions and marketing rhetoric practiced in many communities. Typically households have a nopal patch where they cultivate the cochineal beetle. When visitors arrive, they demonstrate how to get the rich red/purple dye from the dried crushed body of the insect. The dye becomes part of the pitch and authenticity of the wares that are for sale. The structure of this production, based as it is in household gardens and that can be tended in conjunction with farming, wage labor and so forth has changed very little from the model presented by Baskes (pp. 18-19).

Some readers might ask why anyone should focus on something as mundane as cochineal in a place so removed from the centers of power as Oaxaca. In fact, these are two of the best reasons to pick up this book. The discussion of local economies and global trade, of native producers and their relationships to colonial rulers and of the repartimiento’s role in production, trade and social organization of rural Oaxaca during the later colonial period should remind readers of the framework developed by Eric Wolf Europe and the People Without History (1982) and Sidney Mintz’s in Sweetness and Power (1985). Both authors ask that we break down categorical constructions like modern and traditional and explore the interactions between systems, and through which these systems are created. Oaxaca often seems about as far as can be from the modern (or even colonial) centers of power, and the role of cochineal production in global trade is easy to overlook in most discussions of Mexico’s colonial economy. Nevertheless, like sugar for Mintz, cochineal production established powerful bonds between native and Spanish society and economy, linking rural producers to merchants in London in profound ways. Cochineal’s rise and fall as a commodity has much to offer those of us who study contemporary crafts from anthropological perspectives. For historians, the book is a reminder of the wealth of information that can be found in small places. Baskes is to be commended for this well written, informative and lively account of the repartimiento.

References Cited:

Cohen, Jeffrey H. 1999. Cooperation and Community: Economy and Society in Oaxaca. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Cook, Scott and L. Binford. 1990. Obliging Need: Rural Petty Industry in Mexican Capitalism. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Littlefield, Alice. 1978. Exploitation and the Expansion of Capitalism: The Case of the Hammock Industry of Yucatan. American Ethnologist 5:495-508.

Mintz, Sidney. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.