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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 Baskess 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
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 Mexicos 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 Crowns interests, cochineal was a good investment, and one that
would cover the short fall in Spains 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.
Baskess work is all the more satisfying given
contemporary trends in Oaxacas 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, todays 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 repartimientos 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 Mintzs 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 Mexicos 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. Cochineals 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.
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
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.