Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520-1720

Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520-1720

Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520-1720

Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520-1720


The seventeenth century has been characterized as "Latin America's forgotten century." This landmark work, originally published in 1973, attempted to fill the vacuum in knowledge by providing an account of the first great colonial cycle in Spanish Central America. The colonial Spanish society of the sixteenth century was very different from that described in the eighteenth century. What happened in the Latin American colonies between the first conquests, the seizure of long-accumulated Indian wealth, the first silver booms, and the period of modern raw material supply? How did Latin America move from one stage to the other? What were these intermediate economic stages, and what effect did they have on the peoples living in Latin America? These questions continue to resonate in Latin American studies today, making this updated edition of Murdo J. MacLeod's original work more relevant than ever. Colonial Central America was a large, populous, and always strategically significant stretch of land. With the Yucatán, it was home of the Maya, one of the great pre-Columbian cultures. MacLeod examines the long-term process it underwent of relative prosperity, depression, and then recovery, citing comparative sources on Europe to describe Central America's great economic, demographic, and social cycles. With an updated historiographical and bibliographical introduction, this fascinating study should appeal to historians, anthropologists, and all who are interested in the colonial experience of Latin America.


by Murdo J. MacLeod

A student of the era in Central American colonial history that runs from the years just before and after the Spanish invasions of the 1520s to the early decades of the eighteenth century soon notices several tendencies in scholarly research and publication.

One trend is that the incursions from the central Mexican base receive more attention than those starting from Panama and, later, Nicaragua. Some of the reasons for this are obvious. Colonial Panama, with some very notable exceptions, has attracted surprisingly little scholarly attention given its importance to Spanish imperial geography and economy, while colonial Mexico, with Peru one of the great centers of the first two centuries of Spanish colonialism, has produced a comparatively huge volume of work.

Another reason may have to do with what the invading bands found. The areas that became colonial Guatemala, Izalcos, and San Salvador, while minor compared to central Mexico, contained greater populations and potential wealth than Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, where, after early boomlets, servile native labor became the leading export for some years. Thus, more Spaniards, interest, rivalry, reporting, and probably documentation emerged in and from the north and west of the whole region.

Of greater importance to any surveyor of these two colonial centuries is that he—in this case he—soon cannot fail to discover that research and writing have much favored the more recent colonial years after 1720. Scholars have devoted more attention to the later eighteenth century and to the nineteenth century before national independence. (These studies, in their turn, are less numerous than the ones dedicated to the study of the nation-states of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.) Much of this, again, is easy to explain. Documents of almost all categories are more numerous and accessible, and the research is more “relevant” as far as present-day priorities are concerned. Moreover, for young graduate students or professors outside Central America, anxious to complete dissertations or first publications, accessibility and, even more, comparatively modern . . .

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