Published by EH.Net (May 2014)

Mariano Ardash Bonialian, El Pacífico hispanoamericano: Política y comercio asiático en el Imperio Espanol (1680-1784) – La centralidad de lo marginal. México D.F.: El Colegio de México, Centro de Estudios Historicos, 2012. 490 pp. $36.36 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-607-462-344-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Marie Christine Duggan, Department of Economics, Keene State College.

Mariano Ardash Bonialian’s El Pacifico hispanoamericano complements David Igler’s recent work which has inspired a resurgence of U.S. academic interest in eighteenth century Pacific trade.  Igler attributes the take-off of Pacific commerce to James Cook’s voyages in 1768.[1]  Bonialian’s El Pacifico hispanoamericano reveals that Latin American merchants financed thriving commerce in an earlier period (1680 to 1740) between Manila, Acapulco, and Callao.  Using data on confiscated contraband and multiple proposals for reform from the archives of Lima, Mexico City, Manila, Seville, and Madrid, Bonialian explains why Spain actively sought to limit commerce in the Pacific, and identifies the strategies of actors in Mexico City and Lima to undermine the restrictions.  As recent research has clarified, business in Spanish America was neither private nor completely controlled by the state, but rather the Consulados de Mexico and Lima were corporate bodies of business families who were granted limited captive markets in return for support to the Crown such as loans in time of war.[2]   Bonialian’s thesis is that Asian imports via Manila increased the bargaining power of the Consulados of Mexico and Lima relative to the Consulado of Cadiz by reducing their dependence on Spanish goods.  In reaction, the Crown limited such Asian trade as a means to increase the bargaining power of Spanish merchants in the markets of the Viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru.

Chapter 1 reviews Spanish policy restricting Asian imports.  As early as 1593, Spain began to suppress the China trade.  However, in 1660 war with Britain led the Spanish state to seek extra revenue from the Consulados of Lima and Mexico.  The Crown sold the right to collect port taxes to the hispanic Consulados.  This gave the merchants of Mexico City and Lima greater autonomy with which to evade restrictions on Asian goods.  Spain had authorized two Manila galleons of specific tonnage per year, so the merchants of Mexico City stuffed them to the gills with extra cloth.  Bonialian notes that they used up space that should have gone to water in order to squeeze in this much merchandise.  Though the trip from Manila to Acapulco could take four to six months, the ships had only enough water for two months.

Chapter 2 illustrates that despite the multiple bans on Asian goods flowing from Acapulco to Callao since 1671, Acapulco was known not only as the gateway to Asia, but also as the path to Peru. Viceroy Duque de Linares pointed out in 1711 that since the state-sponsored fleet had arrived at Portobelo only once since 1696, Spanish restrictions on trade between Acapulco and Callao were simply handing profits to the French (indeed, Spain authorized French ships to sail to Callao and the Philippines between 1701 and 1726). Yet the detailed manner in which Linares wrote of that trade suggests he was involved as more than a spectator.  One loophole was permission to import mercury from Peru, on the grounds that it was essential for Mexico’s silver production.  Bonialian shows that Lima’s merchants picked up cacao in Guayaquil as well as mercury on their journey from Callao to Acapulco, bringing back Asian imports or Spanish products on the return.

Chapter 3 argues that not only Asian, but even Spanish goods flowed from Acapulco to Callao. The merchants of Cadiz over-wintered in New Spain in order particularly to make contact with Peruvians plying illict trade out of Acapulco.  Perhaps they found the prices offered by the New Spanish merchants too low, and hence looked for better prices from the Peruvians.  The possibility of staying in New Spain to negotiate gave, then, the Consulado de Cadiz a bargaining advantage over the Consulado de Mexico. Bonialian lists captains sailing ships along the Pacific coast between 1671 and 1712, along with the names of contraband ports.  He finds proof in a legal case that Pedro Sanchez de Tagle, head of the Consulado de Mexico at the time (1703), was the intended recipient of boxes of silver in payment for illegal traffic from Acapulco confiscated on the ship upon its return from Callao.

In Chapter 4, Bonialian considers the end of the thriving interregional trade in the Pacific around 1740.   British Captain Anson’s taking of a Manila galleon in 1743 may have caused the Consulado de Mexico to shrink from risking more capital on Asian imports[3], but Bonialian attributes decline in Manila-Acapulco trade to the makeshift Spanish policy of individual authorized ships (navios de registro) from Spain after 1739 – the year in which the British sacked the state-sponsored port for Peru, Portobelo (Panama). The Spanish ships brought Asian products from Europe, where Spanish merchants had bought them from the Dutch and French.  Officials in Lima wrote to Spain to ask whether Asian goods imported via Spain were contraband or not.  And of course if Asian goods were permitted via Spain, they had an excuse for arriving in the warehouses of Callao merchants even if purchased illicitly from Dutch, British, or French ships as well.

In Chapter 4, Bonialian also addresses the debate as to whether Carlos III (1759-1789) freed trade or consolidated government control.  Bonialian agrees with Stanley and Barbara Stein[4] that the term “free” cannot be applied to Bourbon Reform, which simply increased the number of Spanish and Latin American ports which could participate in the state-sponsored system. Late eighteenth century reform shifted interregional trade in Latin America from contraband to legal status so that the Crown could tax it and increase revenues.  The Spanish state took back control of tax collection in Mexico City in 1754.  Furthermore, Carlos III acted to increase the bargaining power of merchants of Spain relative to those of Mexico City or Lima.  Pacific reform gained urgency when Britain occupied Manila from 1762 to 1764. After expelling the Chinese businessmen who had cooperated with the British, Carlos III created a Consulado de Manila in 1769 and permitted its members to sail to China and India to purchase goods.  Yet membership in the Manila consulado required a capital of only 5,000 pesos (380) while members of the Consulado de Mexico had been putting up 50,000 to 100,000 pesos each, so it could not have been the Philippine Spanish who financed the Manila Acapulco trade. Indeed, as part of the reforms, Carlos III opened the trade with the Philippines to companies based in Spain (400). Though reformers hoped the Spanish companies would bypass the Consulado de Mexico by travelling to Asia via Africa, the old route to Spain via Mexico persisted.  Indeed, twenty percent of the Manila-Acauplco galleon’s business was financed by the Casa de Uztariz, with other business undertaken by the merchant guild of Madrid, the Cinco Gremios.  This evidence supports Bonialian’s argument that Carlos III’s logic was not to free trade, but rather to shift the gains from trade to Spanish merchants rather than those of Mexico City.

Because of the contraband nature of the trade, quantitative data are difficult to rely upon.  Bonialian presents tax revenues on European and Asian products from Mexico City, but mentions that he thinks it less than perfect.  Furthermore, we learn that goods confiscated from one merchant as contraband would be sold in Lima at auction, with the tacit agreement of members of the Consulado of Lima that the original merchants should win the bidding.  Hence the use of auctions to estimate wholesale prices a few pages later rings false.  Bonialian brings to light remarkably well the competitive logic that motivated the actors in various markets.  Econometricians may be able to build on his insights by exploring retail prices for Asian and Spanish products in regional markets.

As English-language literature tends to overlook the vibrancy of Spain’s Pacific commerce, so does Mexican economic history tend to relegate Baja and Alta California to obscurity.  Bonialian does discuss the port of San Blas used to supply California in the 1770s, but he overlooks that in 1697 the Viceroy Duque de Linares along with the Conde de Miravalle and the treasurer of Acapulco (Pedro Gil de la Sierpe) financed Jesuit expansion into California.[5]  Bonilian writes that the Philippines were unique as a colony of Mexico rather than Spain, but his naming of actors in contraband Pacific trade permits us to see Mexican agents of commerce as responsible for expansion into Baja California as well.  All the more reason to read this fine work of original scholarship.

1. David Igler (2013). The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 13.

2. Guillermina del Valle Pavon (2012). Finanzas piadosas y redes de negocios: Los mercaderes de la ciudad de México ante la crisis de Nueva Espana, 1804-1808.  México: Instituto Mora.

3. Yuste Lopez, Carmen (2007). Emporios transpacificos: Comerciantes mexicanos en Manila, 1710-1815. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, 2007.

4. Stanley Stein and Barbara Stein (2003). Apogee of Empire: Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759-1789. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

5. María del Carmen Velázquez (1985). El fondo piadoso de las misiones de Californias. Mexico: Secretaría de relaciones exteriors.

Marie Duggan is researching a book to be titled Behind the Veil of 1848: Piety and Profits in Spanish California.

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