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The Rise of Capitalism on the Pampas: The Estancias of Buenos Aires, 1785-1870

Author(s):Amaral, Samuel
Reviewer(s):Beatty, Edward

Published by EH.NET (June 1, 2000)

Samuel Amaral, The Rise of Capitalism on the Pampas: The Estancias of Buenos

Aires, 1785-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xviii + 290

pp. $64.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-57248-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Edward Beatty, Department of History, Duquesne

University.

The large rural estates of Latin America have long attracted the attention of

historians, placed at the center of debates concerning social inequities,

political influence, and economic growth and development. Whether labeled

haciendas, fazendas, latifundia, or estancias, the large estate has often been

identified with social inequity, coerced labor, productive autarchy and

inefficiency, and technological backwardness. In short, the landed estate of

the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been seen as one locus of feudal

persistence in Latin America. Although many studies over the past two decades

have offered a more nuanced and largely revisionist view, only a handful have

provided systematic examinations of the internal dynamics of estate operation.

Samuel Amaral, who teaches history at Northern Illinois University and has

published extensively on Argentine rural and economic history, offers a long

overdue contribution to this subject. The Rise of Capitalism examines

the estancia, the large livestock ranch of the Argentine plains, during the era

of its critical reorientation toward the demand for cattle products generated

in the North Atlantic, circa 1780-1860. The importance of this contribution is

not so much the subject as the approach. Using detailed local sources,

including probate records, estate inventories, managers’ reports, travelers’

accounts, and agricultural surveys, Amaral presents an intensive and compelling

portrait of the internal operation of the Argentine estancia. His conclusions

– and the importance of this work –lie on two levels. First, Amaral shows

that the internal operations of the estancia were market oriented and profit

motivated. Owners and managers responded to market conditions and in their

daily behavior sought consistently to maximize efficiency and profit. Second,

Amaral shows that the estancia developed within an environment where

competitive pressures mattered more than political protection and social

privilege. This is not to say that the political environment did not matter,

for estancias evolved within a particular framework of formal law and informal

custom (and themselves helped alter that institutional context), but that

market-based allocation of the factors of production within the estancia “firm”

mattered more.

While the golden age of economic expansion in the Argentine pampas would not

come until the late nineteenth century, Amaral shows that extensive growth and

profitability were well underway in the first half of the century. The economic

foundations of the estancia lay in their use of land, capital, and labor, and

Amaral presents a systematic examination of each. Land was open and abundant

(chapters 2 & 3), estancias were capitalized largely in the cattle stock

(chapters 3 & 5), and labor consisted of relatively small numbers of slaves

(until after independence) and itinerant temporary free workers — the

Argentine gaucho (chapters 2 & 8). This last issue — labor instability in the

form of large numbers of temporary workers — receives careful treatment.

Neither labor scarcity nor cultural traits explain instability, he argues, but

rather the seasonal pattern of labor demand, patterns created by biological,

climatic, and environmental factors. Amaral is convincing here, although doubt

remains as we are given no view of the broader labor market, of gaucho society,

or of changes in labor’s price. Indeed, Amaral’s narrow focus on quantifiable

data and the dearth of reference to the broader political, social, and cultural

context throughout the book weakens and isolates the contributions that are

made here.

Perhaps the most interesting and important chapters of this work are those

which treat the environment (chapter 6), institutions (chapter 7), and

management (chapter 9). Moving beyond the more conventional issues like factors

of production and market conditions, Amaral shows convincingly that competitive

pressures and market signals mattered greatly, but mattered within a set of

environmental and institutional contexts that largely shaped their evolution.

The physical attributes of the Argentine pampas are well known. Fertile soil, a

broad frontier, and vast expanses of rolling grasslands provided an ideal

environment for grazing Old World cattle, with growing investment activity in

grain agriculture and, later, in sheep. Beyond this context, Amaral focuses on

the thistle, which grew prolifically after cattle disturbed the landscape,

providing a haven for rustlers and a constant aggravation for herders. Vast

“thistleries,” higher than a man’s head, spread across the pampas and shaped

the seasonal rhythm of estancia operations until the expansion of sheep grazing

and agriculture later in the century reduced their scope.

Like thistles, political institutions could also impinge on estancia operations

and productive growth. Both estancieros and the state had an interest in the

specification of property rights on the pampas, including survey and titling

provisions, herding conventions, stocking limits, brand management, the

depredations of wandering cattle, and law enforcement. Amaral shows that

estancieros lobbied for minimum restrictions on the full use of their property

rights (p. 150), but that they also sought increased regulation (or at least

enforcement) of their property rights (p. 147). The combination of wandering

cattle, game hunters, and unfenced lands created externalities against which

estancieros sought to rally protection. The outcome was largely a function of

estanciero’s demands, the physical environment of the pampas, and the limits

imposed on political institutions by the costliness of their enforcement in the

countryside. On most issues, all these worked in the same direction and favored

a competitive environment of private properties. Although this discussion could

use a more systematic comparison of pre-growth (circa 1780) institutional

conditions (including land grants, informal use, title legalization, and

emphyteusis) with the reforms considered in the 1850s and 60s, Amaral provides

an effective model for further work along these lines.

Management decisions were crucial to the estancia’s profitability. Allocating

the factors of production and adjusting to uncertainty required constant

vigilance and some expertise. An estancia’s success, Amaral writes, “was

guaranteed neither by vast tracts of land and large herds nor by the right

political connections. All those elements were necessary, but it was up to the

individual entrepreneur to combine them to make a profit” (p. 208). Indeed,

estancia management explains a central paradox of estancia expansion before

1860: that expansion occurred while the cost of inputs (principally land) was

rising and the price of outputs (principally cattle) was falling. Amaral argues

that estancieros succeeded in using resources more efficiently, allowing

survival, expansion, and profitability in the face of deteriorating relative

prices.

Although this book offers important evidence and insights into the formative

stages of the nineteenth century Argentine estancia, it comes at the price of

wading through pages of detailed evidence — often fascinating in itself but

also often tedious. Each chapter takes a narrative approach to the evidence,

and we get a step-by-step, at times disorderly, account of the author’s

exploration of historical minutia. It takes some effort to locate the

conclusions amidst the details (including over 120 tables and figures!),

although each chapter ends with a nice summation. The style is neither concise

nor always direct, and the historical evidence often stands alone. For

instance, Amaral’s extensive evidence on the relative costs and investments on

owned and non-owned lands (or, better put, on lands characterized by formal and

informal property rights) suggests that property right security affected

investment decisions, yet this important topic receives little direct comment

here (pp. 92ff and elsewhere).

For this reader, however, the price was well worth the effort. The Rise of

Capitalism on the Pampas is the result of intensive research, compelling

detail, sophisticated method, and convincing (if restrained) arguments and

insights. It makes a profound contribution to our understanding of this topic,

although it will not end historians’ debates on most of the subtopics. While

the book should appeal most to economic and Argentine historians, it should

also appeal to those interested in comparative agrarian history and in the role

of institutions in economic history.

Ted Beatty is author of Institutions and Investment: The Political Basis of

Industrialization in Mexico before 1911 (forthcoming from Stanford

University Press) and several articles on nineteenth century Mexican economic

history.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century