Latin American Civilization: History and Society, 1492 to the Present

By Benjamin Keen | Go to book overview

5
THE ECONOMY OF THE SPANISH INDIES

THE ECONOMIC LIFE of the Spanish American colonies reflected both New and Old World influences. Side by side with the subsistence-andtribute economy of the Indians, there arose a Spanish commercial agriculture producing foodstuffs or raw materials for sale in local or distant markets. To some extent this agriculture served internal markets, as in the mining areas of Mexico and Peru, or intercolonial trade, as in the case of the wine industry of Peru, but its dominant trait, which became more pronounced with the passage of time, was that of production for export to European markets. Spain imposed certain restrictions on colonial agriculture, in the mercantilist spirit of the age, but this legislation was largely ineffective.

Stock-raising was another important economic activity in the colonies. The introduction of domestic animals represented a major Spanish contribution to American economic life, because the ancient Americas, aside from a limited region of the Andes, had no domestic animals for use as food or in transportation. By 1600 the export of hides from Hispaniola to Spain had assumed large proportions, and meat had become so abundant on the island that the flesh of slain wild cattle was generally left to rot. The export of hides also became important during the seventeenth century in the Plate area (modern Argentina and Uruguay).

Mining, as the principal source of royal revenue, received the special attention and protection of the crown. Silver, rather than gold, was the principal product of the American mines. The great mine of Potosí in Upper Peru was discovered in 1545; the rich mines of Zacatecas and Guanajuato in New Spain were opened up in 1548 and 1558 respectively. Silver mining was greatly stimulated in 1556 by the introduction of the patio process for separating silver from the ore with quicksilver. As in other times and places, the mining industry brought prosperity to a few and either failure or small success to the great majority.

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