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Apogee of Empire: Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759-1789

Author(s):Stein, Stanley J.
Stein, Barbara H.
Reviewer(s):Ringrose, David

Published by EH.NET (April 2004)

Stanley J. Stein and Barbara H. Stein, Apogee of Empire: Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759-1789. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. xiv + 464 pp. $52 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-7339-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Ringrose, Department of History, University of California – San Diego.

The culmination of literally decades of careful scholarship, this book is both magnificent and a bit frustrating. The frustrations are not so much due to flaws in the book itself as to some thoughts about what has been left out. Since that amounts to complaining about the book that the authors did not write, such comments will be kept to a minimum. The book is also a fitting sequel to the Stein’s equally impressive Silver, Trade, and War: Spain and America in the Making of Early Modern Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

Although the title hints at a more comprehensive presentation, this book is focused on two interlocking themes. One of these, around which the vast and detailed analysis of sources is organized, is the attempt by the Spanish Crown to modernize the peninsular economy and reorganize and reform trade between Spain and its Empire, specifically with New Spain. The second theme is interpretive. The Stein’s presentation emphasizes the inability of the Spanish monarchy to carry out the kinds of structural reforms that might have allowed the Spanish colonial system, with its many pre-capitalist vested interests, to adapt to the more intensely industrial and capitalist environment of the coming nineteenth century. In this, the presentation builds upon the authors’ conclusions in Silver, Trade, and War.

This interpretation, while well founded, is the source of one bit of frustration. The book shows how and why Spanish reformers failed to achieve more than a small part of what they aspired to do, leaving the Spanish state vulnerable. At the same time, however, it ends abruptly in 1788 with the implication that these internal problems explain the subsequent debacle of the Spanish empire. Nothing is said about the external forces that contributed to that demise and the tenacity with which the monarchy held on, nor do the authors actually examine the longer-term seriousness of the debacle.

The first third of the book deals with the initial years of the reign of Charles III and the effort by Charles and his ministers to promote widespread reform inside Spain as well as in the colonial system. The book provides a detailed discussion of the reform effort, including the first reforms of trade with the empire. This first Reglamento del Comercio Libre, promulgated in 1765 offered a modest challenge to Cadiz’s official monopoly on colonial trade, facilitating trade between a small number of peninsular ports and a limited number of ports in the Caribbean. This reglamento, did not, however, challenge the protected trade with Mexico, which accounted for half of Spain’s colonial assets, nor did it infringe on the Caribbean preserves of the Royal Guip?zcoa Company in Venezuela.

Domestic reform projects and the first reglamento then set the stage for the Stein’s remarkable dissection of the political crisis of 1766. This crisis brought down the King’s reform ministry, resulted in the expulsion and then suppression of the Jesuit Order, and seriously compromised the authority of the Spanish monarchy. Drawing upon a vast collection of information about interpersonal, familial, and professional interconnections, the book identifies a range of political factions and the special interests they represented. The result is a complex account of the lines of reasoning for and against reform, of the shadowy processes that precipitated the riots of 1766, the missteps that turned this into a serious challenge to royal authority, and the links between the subsequent expulsion of the Jesuits and the restoration of the prestige of the crown. In contrast to many accounts of this episode, the Steins’ version investigates the role of colonial interests as well as peninsular ones.

In the Steins’ interpretation, this episode marks the failure of serious structural reform under Charles III. Subsequently, the Crown pursued less sweeping, incremental changes. While these changes were more substantive than under the first two Bourbon kings, in the Stein’s view Charles III and his ministers gave up on serious structural change in the peninsula and focused their attention on Spain’s colonial empire.

Most of the rest of the book then examines the step-by-step discussions and actions that led to the so-called Comercio Libre of 1778, a reform that opened most important peninsular ports to most colonial ports outside of New Spain. The book then goes on to detail the subsequent extension of the Comercio Libre to New Spain in 1789. The Steins untangle the long sequence of commissions, secret deliberations, reports by vested interest groups, and unofficial publications that set out the various rationales for and against aspects of the proposed reforms. While the authors do not evaluate the evidence about the results of these reforms in a systematic way, they do something even more interesting. They attempt to give us an understanding of the quality of the information that the key personalities actually had at their disposal as they combined preconceived notions with various versions of reality. The overall impression is of the limited effectiveness of the reform agenda, of tension between fiscal priorities and developmental ones, and of the intransigence of established commercial structures.

At the end of Part Two on the “Colonial Option,” the authors insert a fascinating chapter on Spanish trade policy and France. It is a first-rate synthesis of the topic but stands somewhat to one side of the larger analysis. It starts with a flashback to the seventeenth century and traces the complexities of trade between France, Spain, and Spanish America throughout the eighteenth century. The chapter draws together data on the stagnation of key French textile industries in the 1780s, connecting this with stagnating demand for French textiles in Spanish-America. The explanation emphasizes the penetration of Spanish trade by English and Silesian textiles, but the discussion does not address the role of Catalan textiles in the story.

The book ends with two short chapters, both of which are conclusions of a sort. Chapter 11 juxtaposes optimistic and pessimistic views of reform as articulated in the 1780s by Spaniards themselves. Predictably, the optimists, led by Prime Minister Floridablanca, lined up data that showed both the expansion of trade and expansion of the share of exports produced within Spain as well as increases in state revenue.

The pessimists pointed to continued rampant smuggling, the power of vested interests in Cadiz, and massive fraud in the labeling of supposedly Spanish goods and equally massive smuggling of specie into France. Then, as well as now, critics suggested that the reforms were better designed to increase royal revenue than to stimulate economic development.

The authors’ own conclusion, Chapter 12, summarizes the situation as they see it. The role of silver in the Spanish system kept the commercial bourgeoisie in Mexico and Cadiz small and backward looking. This part of Spain’s economic system resisted any reform that implied more flexible commercial capitalism. Their resistance prevented major change and resulted in incremental reform that did not address structural problems. Similar domestic resistance also led the crown to abandon its promotion of an industrial establishment in peninsular Spain. The whole Spanish system thus ended up more, rather than less, dependent on silver and America. As a result, Spain was fatally vulnerable to wartime interruption of Atlantic communications and to illegal, peacetime penetration by English trade, which diverted colonial silver and profits away from the home country.

This reviewer would have liked to see a bit more of the larger context, in particular the role of imperial reform outside of New Spain. Little is said about the administrative (as opposed to commercial) reform of the empire (and of the peninsula). There is little sense of the long-term trends in Spanish trade, including domestic exports, both of which grew dramatically and much of which went to Europe. As indicated at the start, these are mostly comments about the book the authors chose not to write and do not detract from the achievement.

Few books in recent decades have been so successful in mining a vast amount of primary material in order to evoke the arguments and counter arguments that shaped policy in an Ancien R?gime monarchy. The authors’ account of the crisis of 1766 is stunning in its detail and mastery of political infighting. Their ability to present the interactions between colonial and peninsular factions is unique. We have long known that the failure of serious reform was a key factor in the collapse of the old regime Spanish monarchy. No other account, however, provides such a vivid picture of how and why that failure came about.

David Ringrose has published several books on Spain from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, including Spain, Europe and the “Spanish Miracle,” 1700-1900 (Cambridge Univrsity Press, 1996). His current book project is tentatively entitled Europeans Abroad, 1400-1700: Support Networks, Middle Ground, Collaboration and Cohabitation. He is Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego and, for 2003-2004, a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina.

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):18th Century