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Project 2001: Significant Works in Economic History
Woodrow Wilson Borah, New Spain’s Century of Depression. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951. 58 pp.
Review Essay by Richard Salvucci, Department of Economics, Trinity University.

An Obscure Century in a Backward Country: Woodrow Borah and New Spain’s Century of Depression

In 1938, the English novelist Graham Greene traveled to Mexico to investigate the condition of the Catholic Church under the regime of President Plutarco El?as Calles. While there, Greene interviewed the strongman of San Luis Potos?, General Saturnino Cedillo. In the most memorable terms, Greene called Cedillo “an Indian general in an obscure state of a backward country.” So my title, I fear, is a plagiarism, but an appropriate one. For certainly some who read this essay will wonder why a brief (58 pages) book about seventeenth?century New Spain (as Mexico was then known) counts as influential at all, let alone very influential? After all, Lesley Simpson, an authority on Mexico, famously labeled the seventeenth as Mexico’s “forgotten” century, and everyone from Adam Smith to Thomas Jefferson thought the Spanish empire both backward and obscure.

Influence, of course, is a matter of audience. There must be few economic historians of Latin America and fewer still of Mexico who are unfamiliar with the work of Woodrow Borah and the so-called “Berkeley School” of historical demography. Even with prevailing intellectual fashions, it is hard to believe that most English?speaking historians of Latin America have not heard of Borah, although whether or not they read his work in graduate school or after is much less certain. So I might best define my task as to explain why New Spain’s Century of Depression, published in 1951 as number 35 of the University of California Press’s celebrated Ibero?Americana series, should be counted one of the truly important works of twentieth?century economic history, especially for those who have yet to make its acquaintance. I take it for granted that colleagues in my field would agree. But it is a small field, and I am under no illusion that even its best work is widely known, much less regarded as a crucial contribution to economic historiography.

Woodrow Borah, who died in 1999, was one of the outstanding members of the postwar generation of Latin Americanists that included Howard Cline, Charles Gibson, John Lynch and Stanley Stein. At Berkeley, Borah, who was Abraham D. Shepard Professor of History, was one of a stellar cast of scholars drawn from a wide range of disciplines — Sherburne Cook, George Foster, James Parsons, John Rowe, Carl Sauer, and Lesley Simpson come immediately to mind. They exercised a profound influence on each other, sometimes as collaborators, but more often as valuable colleagues. What emerged from their work was a distinctive scholarship that brought together striking research and insights drawn from the natural and social sciences, precocious social science history, you might say. And Borah, his prodigious reading, meticulous scholarship and personal austerity notwithstanding, was one of this group’s more daring and imaginative members. Indeed, in a rueful aside, Borah once told me that his critics (there were a few) had accused him of “inventing Indians,” and this he meant quite literally, not in the now prosaic historicist sense of the term.

The burden of New Spain’s Century of Depression was to suggest the impact of the massive decline of the aboriginal population of Central Mexico (whom we can simply, if incorrectly, call Indians) on the material prospects of the Iberian conquerors (whom we can simply, and equally incorrectly, call Spaniards) and their descendants. As Borah understood it, the intent of the Spaniards was to live off the labor of the dense Indian population they had encountered in Central Mexico, a population accustomed to the rule of a privileged upper stratum by generations of Mesoamerican conquerors of whom the Aztec were simply the most recent. The Spaniards’ intention was no mystery. They announced they had come to the “Indies” (wrong again, but who’s counting?) to get rich, and that they had no intention of tilling the soil “like peasants” in order to do so. To accomplish their goal, the Spaniards, victorious in the wake of Cort?s’ historic expedition, rewarded themselves with the famous encomienda, the right to extract labor from the Indians. For some, like Cort?s himself, the encomienda was the source of great personal wealth and social prestige, although others, including some of Cort?s’ outspoken critics, were less richly rewarded.

For the encomienda to function as an avenue of accumulation, evidently, there had to be Indians to be distributed. At the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, Central Mexico perhaps supported an Indian population as large as 25 million. Within a century, shockingly, the same Indian population had fallen to less than a million, the victims of European disease, massive economic disruption, and the destruction of a coherent civilization that the Spaniards willingly exploited but never really understood. It was one thing for the encomienda to yield a comfortable existence for the Spaniards when Indian labor was abundant. But, obviously, such a system could hardly be expected to function when the people who supported it had disappeared. And here, then, is the gist of the argument of New Spain’s Century of Depression. What happens to a system of colonial expropriation when the society on to which it is fixed essentially disappears?

A bald summary can hardly begin to capture the twists and turns of the research agenda that New Spain’s Century of Depression ultimately entailed. When Borah published it in 1951, Sherburne Cook and Lesley Simpson had produced the population figures for New Spain on which he relied. It would require fully another quarter century, down to 1976, for what are now the standard estimates of early colonial population to emerge. There was considerable controversy along the way, and to an extent, there still is. Yet it is important to keep several things in mind. Much of the controversy regarding the population of New Spain involves the pre?contact population. About the course of events after the Spanish invasion there is far less doubt. The Indian population fell, and it fell sharply within a century, on the order of 90 percent. From an economic standpoint, only one thing really matters: factor endowments. Before the Conquest, labor was the abundant factor in Mexico. By 1620, land had become the abundant factor. No amount of scholastic contention about how many Indians there “really” were can alter that.

The other point is that even if Borah used imperfect population figures or made arbitrary assumptions, his scholarship was sound. He knew the sources and was particularly well versed in the documents associated with the relaciones geogr?ficas, the reports prepared to give Philip II of Spain an idea of what his Mexican dominions contained. While these documents are widely available today due to the efforts of the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropol?gicas in Mexico, it must have required considerably greater difficulty to master them fifty years ago. The impression from reading Borah’s notes is of a reasonably extensive investigation of the archival and printed materials available in the 1940s. In other words, you need to know something about the history of colonial scholarship to appreciate what Borah and his colleagues at Berkeley accomplished and some of the critics simply did not.

The conclusion to which Borah came was straightforward. Beginning sometime in the 1570s, an “economic depression besetting the Spanish cities because of the shrinkage of the Indian base [would last] more than a century,” and a “large number of white families must have found themselves reduced from comparative wealth to straitened circumstances as the drag in the Indian population forced a downward spiral in the economy of the European stratum”(p. 27). Although Borah presented his findings as a “hypothesis of a century?long depression” or “a hypothesis which needs much additional investigation,” the hypothesis is generally accepted as settled fact. It was not until the early 1970s that the work of the English historian Peter Bakewell raised questions about the impact of population decline on the fortunes of silver mining, but Borah’s view of the economic circumstances of the settlers went largely unchallenged. Even John Lynch, whose brilliant synthesis, Spain under the Hapsburgs (1981), called into question the entire notion of a Mexican depression in the seventeenth century, did not address the crucial issue that Borah raised. How did the elite of Mexican society — in effect the advocates, bearers, beneficiaries and putative defenders of colonialism — adjust when deprived of the Indian population on which it depended? My suspicion is that New Spain’s Century of Depression seemed logically unassailable. Borah’s citation (p. 23) of Viceroy Velasco the Younger’s report to Philip II in 1595 was especially acute: “those who consume are many and the Indians who produce are few.” What more could be said?

If you have persisted this far, you may, perhaps, think otherwise or wonder at the peculiar way in which Borah shaped his investigation. Borah did not discuss the fate of the Indians, other than to note that they “seemed doomed to relentless extinction” (p. 28). And even so, life did not come to an end in Mexico in 1576, or 1626, or 1676. Emigration from Spain continued, a fact of which Borah was quite aware. Moreover, if Cook and Borah’s later research indicated that the Indian population reached its nadir around 1620 — Borah puts its size at 750,000 — it began to recover thereafter and probably continued to do so until the 1730s, when severe epidemic disease made is reappearance. A century of population growth in a preindustrial society, however slow, does not square easily with falling living standards. And other developments, particularly the growth of colonial textile production in the middle decades of the seventeenth century, give pause as well. If a “depression” had taken hold, and more people were producing more goods, what sort of a depression was it?

To the extent that there was much data available to answer the question — and by and large, there was not — Borah made some attempt to address the objections, postulating, for instance, the existence of not one, but two economies, one Spanish, the other Indian. But there was not much he could make of the distinction, although there was a hint as to where research might lead. A dramatic change in the land-labor ratio, with the Indian population falling by 90 percent, surely affected the marginal productivity of Indian labor.

However, as Borah pointed out (p. 21), it was inconceivable that rising productivity could have offset the sheer decline in the Indians’ numbers, but the upward drift in real wages of Indian workers in cloth manufactories toward the end of the sixteenth century suggests the horrible irony of a decimated Indian population now better able to sustain itself in the face of Spanish demands. Here was one reason for the subsequent recovery in the Indians’ numbers, along with greater resistance to European disease, more aggressive defense of the Indians’ interests by the Spanish Crown, and even changes in diet — the Spaniards brought chickens with them, which came to be a ubiquitous presence in rural villages. While Borah never said as much in New Spain’s Century of Depression, Borah and Sherburne Cook would go on to argue years later that the material conditions of a reconstituted Indian society may well have been higher than they were before the Conquest. So, in a sense, Borah’s argument about “depression” was potentially revolutionary even if, in some sense, it proved a trap to the unwary who did not think its implications through. The historical intuition was of a very high order, but it was exercised by a scholar who turned twenty in 1932; who hailed from Utica, Mississippi; and for whom the term “depression” was less a technical one than a shorthand for widespread impoverishment.

Another feature of New Spain’s Century of Depression should be attractive to economic historians. It concerns the nature of institutional change that occurred under the pressure of population decline in the sixteenth century. One is sometimes struck by the fact that much (but by no means, all) of the economic historiography that relies on institutions for explanation often does a poor job of explaining why a country has a given set of institutions to begin with. In Latin America, some mix of Divine Providence, Indians, bizarre political culture, difficult geography and dumb luck often seem to be the reasons for the existence of Mexican institutions. This, for all practical purposes, means that institutions are treated as exogenously given. Well, they aren’t, or at least, not always. While Borah, of course, never wrote in these terms, he carefully links the emergence of a Mexican regime of labor and land institutions to the shifting factor endowments with which the colonists had to work. For Borah, the ultimate significance of the dramatic decline of the Indian population was the emergence of the hacienda (which reflected increasingly abundant land) and debt peonage (which reflected increasingly scarce labor). Indeed, this was another central message of New Spain’s Century of Depression. The institutions that had given rise to the Mexican Revolution of 1910 — the hacienda and debt peonage — were a product of the seventeenth century and of the demographic disaster that had destroyed the Indians. This was a remarkably clear statement of what had long been the liberal view of the causes of the Mexican Revolution. Anyone who doubts its durability need do little more than read Alan Knight’s monumental history of the Revolution (The Mexican Revolution, 1986), which largely restates the old verities.

For an historian from Mississippi, an account of “debt peonage” as the defining characteristic of rural labor may not have been untoward. But what exactly one means by “debt peonage” is another matter. Borah’s position was a moderate one. This was not slavery, open or disguised (the enslavement of Indians was forbidden under most circumstances), but an Indian peon who owed a landlord, or, indeed, any employer money was legally required to work for that employer (and for him or her alone) until the debt was discharged. The notion that debt created a form of chattel slavery in rural Mexico does not seem to have entered the vocabulary until well into the regime of President Porfirio D?az (1876-1880, 1884-1910) and provided one explanation for the Revolution in a place like Yucat?n. For a time, colonial historians went to another extreme, intent on showing the agency of free peasants as makers of their own world. They forgot that seventeenth-century Mexico was an unlikely venue for the emergence of a smoothly functioning labor market in which buyers and sellers of labor had no recourse to force or fraud. Indeed, conquest is precisely about force and fraud, depriving the conquered of their possessions, and making them do things they otherwise would never do.

A more fruitful way of viewing the phenomenon of debt peonage — or simply workers’ indebtedness, for debt did not invariably impede their mobility — is to understand how it allowed employers to determine the rate of discount at which workers in a shifting, unstable, and terribly uncertain world valued future income. There is no point in beating around the bush. Life expectancy at birth for a Mexican in the colonial period was about twenty years, and in view of the catastrophic changes that had visited the Indian world since 1519, we can only conclude that Hobbes was right, and that Mexicans knew it. Their lives were short enough, and nasty and brutish as well. In a world in which only God (and whose God was up for grabs too) knew what the future would bring, it made sense for ordinary people to get as much as they could up front, which, after all, is all the “debt” part of debt peonage meant. This was just an extreme form of live for today, for tomorrow, literally, who knew? Workers bargained for better advances and often sought to enlarge them and employers understood this. The wide variance of debts reported by farms and factories for which we have records shows that their owners struck quite different bargains with different workers, a form of price discrimination that allowed them to “pay” no more than they had to, certainly less than raising wages to market-clearing levels. In fact, in the disorganized and fluid circumstances of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when Indian villages were forming and reforming under the pressure of Castillian administration, it would have been impossible to gauge the overall willingness of Indians to leave their communities to work for wages, or even the willingness of their communities to allow individuals to leave, a point to which Borah was quite sensitive (pp. 41-42).

Besides, the point of indebtedness was not necessarily to reduce mobility. The Spaniards had other ways of doing so, which is another aspect of the system of land tenure they devised. As Evsey Domar once wrote, it is impossible to have free labor, free land and a nonworking landlord class simultaneously. One of the three must disappear. In Mexico, the Church prevailed in the 1540s in the struggle against the frank coercion of Indian labor. For most purposes, the labor of enslaved Africans was simply too expensive, even though there was a sizeable black population in seventeenth?century Mexico. No, the Spaniards made another choice, to deprive the Indians of access to free land, for free land they very well may have had. The dramatic decline in the Indian population left vast expanses of Central Mexico essentially empty, so what was to prevent the Indians from moving on to the land as a subsistence peasantry, to the lasting dismay of the Spaniards? The answer is that the Spaniards consciously set about driving the Indians into villages over which they could exercise some level of control, as Bernardo Garc?a Mart?nez demonstrated in Los pueblos de la Sierra (1987). At the same time, they sanctioned land?grabbing by the settlers, usually in amounts far in excess of anything the settlers could reasonably cultivate. At a stroke, the Spaniards accomplished two things. First, they shifted to a system of agriculture that reflected the abundance of land, a regime vastly different from the preconquest one based on the intensive use of labor, of which the famous raised?ridged fields (chinampas) of the Valley of Mexico were but one example. Second, they regularized the settlers’ land titles at the beginning of the seventeenth century, effectively transferring much land to Spanish control, whether or not it was cultivated. The hacienda thus circumscribed the ability of the Indian communities to survive independently of the Spanish economy, and in so doing, obviated the need for a draconian regime of forced labor, at least in Mexico.

This dramatic transition, from an economy based on intensive agriculture and the exploitation of a dense indigenous population, to one that relied on extensive agriculture and scarce Indian labor could not be accomplished rapidly. Moreover, the shift from an economy with relatively high levels of personal wealth in the form of Indians held in encomienda to a poorer one with fewer Indians and no encomiendas reduced New Spain’s capacity to import. It was now necessary to produce at home many goods that were, in the early years of the colony, imported through Spain. A reduction in consumption and a reorientation of expenditure toward investment was required to accommodate such a change. Borah, for instance, noted that the construction of churches tended to slow dramatically in the 1570s (p. 31), attributing this primarily to a redeployment of scarcer labor. (The demand for churches sadly fell as well, for there were far fewer souls to fill them.) For Borah, presumably, all this was a depression. To a later generation of historians, however, notably the British school headed by John Lynch, Borah’s “depression” was more a case of deferred consumption, the redirection of productive effort toward mining, manufacturing and farming that a colony living on its own required. None of this could have come easily or cheaply — the mining and irrigation works, the granaries, fences, sugar mills, ranches and textile manufactories absorbed resources. Hence, for Lynch and his followers, the apparent stagnation of the Mexican economy in the seventeenth century was just that, an apparent stagnation that marked the reorientation underway, one that would result in the visible renewal of economic growth under the Bourbon monarchs of the eighteenth century. It was not so much that Borah was wrong about what he had seen, but that he had, instead, seen wrongly.

Viewed fifty years after its publication, New Spain’s Century of Depression reads much like the pioneering work it was, full of insight, largely intuitive, sometimes wrong in detail and premature in judgment, but, all the same, arresting and audacious. It was, above all, a great work of history, for it sought to explain the present through the past, and to explain in simple but persuasive terms how what was distinctively Mexican, the play of institutions, political economy and an emerging social structure, came together out of the shock of the Conquest in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. If there is anything disappointing about New Spain’s Century of Depression, it is that the response to it has been admiration or assent from most students of Latin American history, but few studies in which appropriately trained scholars have undertaken the work necessary to establish Borah’s hypothesis fully, or to revise and extend it in ways consistent with contemporary population studies. That is the problem with writing a classic about an obscure century in a backward country: it is hard to get people to notice. Those of us who spend our time studying the history of Mexico know full well how important Borah’s elegant “hypothesis” was. It is time for mainstream economic historians, and, one hopes, their students, to develop an interest in replying to Woodrow Borah’s pioneering work as well.

Richard Salvucci teaches economics at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He was a colleague of Woodrow Borah’s at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1980 through 1989. He works on the economic and financial history of Mexico between 1823 and 1884.

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