Society and Stress in the
Late Colonial Period
Wealthy colonials seemed even less attuned to the tensions of the late colonial period as they accumulated greater riches. A disproportionate number of the wealthiest were peninsulares who had made good in America, but there were many prosperous criollos as well. Great fortunes were made in mining, such as those of the counts of Valenciana, Regla, and Bassoco. Regla’s staggering wealth (the greatest fortune in the colony) is difficult to assess, but in the late eighteenth century Valenciana sometimes took a net profit of more than a million pesos annually, quite aside from his millions tied up in land and various other interests. Bassoco, elevated to count only in 1811 after a gift to the government of two hundred thousand pesos, accumulated assets worth some 3 million pesos.
These mining barons, along with some wealthy ranchers and merchants, frequently made generous gifts to the crown, which in gratitude conferred on the donors cherished titles of nobility—usually that of conde, less often that of marqués. Some prominent men had to be content with knighthood in one of the prestigious military orders. During the eighteenth century about fifty titles of nobility were granted to residents of New Spain, most of them after 1750.
But while these dignitaries appealed to the vanity of the recipients, many of the rich were philanthropic for less fatuous reasons. They contributed large sums of money to religious organizations, funded charities, and financed the construction of schools, hospitals, and lovely churches. They also financed festivals and cultural events for the enjoyment of the community. In times of pestilence the rich often paid for medicines, and when famine struck they distributed large supplies of grain and other foods. Unfortunately these gestures were often little more than tokens, for some catastrophes were overwhelming. A subsistence crisis in 1785–86 resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths due to starvation and disease.