Building a Colonial Resource Monopoly: The Expansion of Sulphur Mining in New Spain, 1600-1820

By LaFevor, Matthew C. | The Geographical Review, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Building a Colonial Resource Monopoly: The Expansion of Sulphur Mining in New Spain, 1600-1820


LaFevor, Matthew C., The Geographical Review


The eighteenth-century Bourbon Reform period is critical to historical research on New Spain's resource monopolies. In New Spain (colonial Mexico), the Bourbon Reforms were a series of economic and political measures, laws, regulations, and reorganizations the Crown issued in an effort to improve economic development, efficiency, and ultimately, the profitability of its overseas empire (Florescano and Gil Sanchez 1974). Although the long-term social and political consequences of the reforms and their impact on the movement for independence continue to be explored (Stein and Stein 2003; Dobado and Marrero 2006); in the short to medium term the reforms appear to have positively affected economic growth (Garner and Stefanou 1993).' Macroeconomic indicators, such as industrial yields before and after the legislation and the increase in total royal tax revenues, point to their net effectiveness in generating wealth for the Crown (Humboldt 1822). Yet beyond the colonial accounting books, comparative tables of yearly revenues, and the broad economic and political reorganizations, the Bourbon Reforms also sought individual, resource-specific solutions for unique management problems (AGN 1767a).

The current study investigates the impact of the Bourbon Reforms on New Spain's sulphur monopoly, which focused on two main areas: increasing production, which meant improving both the quality and quantity of sulphur the azufreros (sulphur miners) produced, and preventing contraband sulphur mining. To accomplish these goals, the Crown published a set of formal rules, regulations, incentives, suggestions, and mining advice for the azufreros: the Sulphur Ordinances of 1767. In this article I argue that the ordinances, as an arm of the Bourbon Reforms, successfully drove the expansion of sulphur mining during the late eighteenth century by increasing the number and size of the mines I explore the geographical expansion of the industry, specifically detailing the mechanisms that inspired sulphur prospecting and mining development, and thus, overall production.

As for the second goal, contraband sulphur mining continued to pose problems for the monopoly even after the Sulphur Ordinances outlined harsh penalties for illegal possession and/or mining of sulphur. My analysis reveals why contraband sulphur mining continued to proliferate after the ordinances were issued and how royal administrators confronted this black-market industry. Although legal sulphur mining offered some institutional advantages over contraband trade (Ebert 2011), the incentives offered by the Sulphur Ordinances favored large landowning azufreros over small-scale prospectors. The imbalance encouraged small-scale, illegal sulphur mining. Although historical research on colonial contraband continues to be "an extremely elusive issue" (Baskes 2011, 3), this article offers insight into why clandestine mining occurred and how colonial administrators responded to the challenges of controlling it.

Finally, I investigate whether commodity producers, in this case the azufreros, were passive victims of colonial domination and a repressive monopoly system. In the case of the tobacco monopoly, for example, the complex relationships between royal administrators and producers demonstrate a mixture of defiance and resistance, as well as accommodation (Deans-Smith 1992). In addition, other studies propose that Latin American producers were "much more than simple marionettes set to dance by overseas commands and demands" and that producers often played "enterprising, defining, and even controlling roles" (Topick, Marichal, and Frank 2006, 3).

Although I found little evidence to support a "controlling" role by producers, the azufreros did develop and exercise codependent relationships with royal administrators that were critical to the functioning of the monopoly. Fully aware the Crown was in desperate need of sulphur and gunpowder for its military and silver blast-mining industries, azufreros exercised considerable leverage during contract negotiations over mining quotas and sales prices for the mineral. …

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Building a Colonial Resource Monopoly: The Expansion of Sulphur Mining in New Spain, 1600-1820
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