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Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain, 850-1520

Author(s):Dyer, Christopher
Reviewer(s):Masschaele, James

Published by EH.NET (September 2002)

Christopher Dyer, Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain,

850-1520. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. x + 403 pp. $35.00

(Cloth), ISBN: 0-300-09060-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James Masschaele, Department of History, Rutgers


Christopher Dyer’s latest book, Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The

People of Britain, 850-1520 appears as part of The New Economic History

of Britain series published by Yale University Press. The aim of the series

is to offer monographs that are sufficiently scholarly to be taken seriously by

academic historians, but sufficiently accessible to appeal to a broader market

of sophisticated amateurs curious to understand why a small island off the

coast of Europe came to have such an inordinate influence on the history of the

world’s economic development. Dyer, now professor of regional and local history

at the University of Leicester, has achieved this objective by providing a

thorough synthesis of existing literature in a book that is highly readable.

Specialists may come away from the book feeling that he hedged his bets on some

of the more controversial issues in the field, but most readers will find the

book to be a clear and well-articulated account of the medieval British


Dyer divides the period covered into three eras: from 850 to 1100; from 1100 to

1350; and from 1350 to 1520. The first era was one of vigorous and creative

growth, during which the basic patterns of village life, manorial economy, and

urban geography that would survive beyond the medieval period were put in

place. In making the argument for substantial and influential growth, Dyer

relies heavily on archeological evidence to support the meager written evidence

of the period, and his use of archeology and his arguments for major advances

in economic sophistication in the period are among the most original and

interesting parts of the book. Reginald Lennard once famously remarked that by

1066 England was already an old country. Compared to later medieval periods,

relatively little has been written about the economic history of this early

period, but Dyer makes a convincing case that we need to give more heed to

Lennard’s old saw. Whether one looks at settlement patterns, at the exchange

economy, or at the social relations of production, one finds an economy that

looks surprisingly familiar to those better versed in the economic structures

of later centuries.

Dyer divides his second era (1100-1350) into the two phases traditionally

depicted by historians, one of growth in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries

followed by a period of crisis in the early fourteenth century. The growth

phase is presented as a continuation of the first era, essentially a process of

filling in the mold set in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Population grew

quickly, for example, but mostly within settlements founded before the Domesday

Book; similarly, the money supply grew dramatically, but its growth was

associated more with a change in degree of commercial orientation than a change

in kind. Dyer portrays the crisis phase primarily in Malthusian terms, the

consequence of too many mouths feeding from too few acres of land. He expresses

dissatisfaction with several key components of the neo-Malthusian approach

championed by Michael Postan, but like most other economic historians, he finds

it difficult not to view the crisis phase as a consequence of the growth phase.

Dyer’s third era is one of flux, in which different sectors of the economy

experienced different phases of growth, stagnation, and decline, preventing any

easy generalizations. Dyer favors a high estimate of plague mortality, arguing

that a death rate of fifty percent accords well with the evidence. He also

argues for a relatively late date for a return of population growth, offering

1540 as his best guess. Most economic trends in the era are related to this

severe demographic regime. Some towns clearly suffered through the period as

markets shrank and new rivals emerged, but overall Dyer believes that towns

held their own through the period, noting that urban populations comprised

about the same proportion of total population in 1520 as they had in 1300. The

countryside saw considerable conversion from arable to pasture land, as

producers sought to cope with the collapse of the market for cereals in the

fifteenth century. Individual holdings of land increased in size, but many

proprietors of these larger holdings still had difficulty making ends meet. The

principal beneficiaries of the new circumstances of the era were laborers and

smaller landholders, while lords and those who employed labor had the greatest

hurdles to overcome. Dyer insists that collective action by peasants and

laborers, particularly in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was instrumental in

bringing about the redistribution of wealth that favored the lower orders in

the period.

Viewed as a whole, the book has many features to commend it. Dyer’s survey of

existing literature is thorough and his synopsis of the work of other scholars

is intelligent and fair. His inclusion of economic trends in Scotland and Wales

adds refreshing geographical breadth to the work, and often makes for

interesting comparative observations. Reports of archeological fieldwork are

skillfully integrated with documentary sources, and furnish considerable

support for the author’s contention that the material world of medieval

peasants and townspeople was richer and more accomplished than is generally

recognized. (The inclusion of twenty plates and illustrations also is helpful

in this regard.) One is particularly struck by the author’s use of anecdotes

and vignettes to enliven the general description of economic trends. Dyer

insists that individual decision making needs to be set along side impersonal

economic forces to explain why the economy behaved as it did. The story of

deserted villages, for example, is not simply a consequence of the exogenous

influence of disease on society, it is also a consequence of decisions made by

individual peasants to leave particular villages to seek better fortunes

elsewhere. Recapturing the motives, fears, and aspirations of a wide spectrum

of medieval people is not an easy task, and few, if any, medieval economic

historians do it better than Christopher Dyer.

The purpose of a good synthesis is to draw attention to what we don’t know as

well as to highlight what we do know. By adopting relatively broad geographical

and chronological frameworks, Dyer’s book raises a number of issues that beg

for further study. Regional variation is one such example. The author notes on

a number of occasions that pastoral areas differed from arable regions in their

responses to prevailing economic circumstances, but it is far from clear in

these discussions what such shifts mean and how we ought to relate them to the

economy as a whole. Why, for example, did the southwest fare so much better in

the late medieval period than other parts of the country? Similarly, the

author’s reconstruction of population trends over the period raises a host of

questions that defy easy explanations. His reconstruction (seen most readily in

Figure 2 on p. 235) opts for gentle growth from 850-1150, followed by

dramatically faster growth from 1150-1300. Given his emphasis on the structural

continuity between these periods, one is puzzled to explain their fundamentally

different demographic trajectories. One also wonders why late medieval

population levels stagnated for so long. Dyer suggests that both mortality and

fertility issues need to be included in the explanation, but he fails to give a

clear statement of how they ought to be weighted, nor does his treatment of the

subject offer many insights into earlier population dynamics. Perhaps the most

interesting issue raised by his population estimates is the aberrant nature of

the thirteenth century. Dyer’s model suggests that the population of England

ranged between two and three million for every century between the ninth and

sixteenth, except for the thirteenth, when it rocketed to about six million. By

crafting such a fine synthesis of other aspects of the medieval economy, Dyer’s

work suggests that we still have much to learn about the inner dynamics of

medieval demography, as well as about the structural relationships between

population movements, commercial change, and the social relations of production

and income distribution.

James Masschaele is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University. He

is the author of Peasants, Merchants, and Markets: Inland Trade in Medieval

England (St. Martin’s Press, 1997), and “The Public Space of the

Marketplace in Medieval England,” Speculum 77 (2002).

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation

Author(s):Harris, J. William
Reviewer(s):Virts, Nancy

Published by EH.NET (April 2002)

J. William Harris, Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in

the Age of Segregation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

xii + 454 pp. $49.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8018-6563-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Nancy Virts, Department of Economics, California State

University, Northridge.

In Deep Souths, J. William Harris writes a ground-level history of

three southern regions, the Mississippi Delta, the Georgia Piedmont and the Sea

Island Region of the Georgia coast, from reconstruction to World War II. The

book is divided into three sections, each of which covers a twenty-year period.

Each section has a chapter each on economic development, culture and politics.

There are many similarities among these regions. The economies of all three

were dependent on plantation agriculture and had a majority black population

before the Civil War. After the Civil War each struggled to revive the

plantation economy in a capitalist system with free labor and to deal with the

rise of African American political power. In all three regions the result was a

new era of segregation and consolidation of white power. One of the most

important points made is that this consolidation was never complete because of

the resistance of African Americans. In spite of the similarities among these

regions, however, Harris’s careful research into plantation records, county

records and the personal histories of diverse groups of individual citizens

shows that the economic, political and cultural development of these regions

also differed in important ways.

In the Sea Island region, initial attempts to grow rice on large plantations

were unsuccessful. Former slaves became landowning peasants who continued many

traditional practices that died out elsewhere. Harris does a good job of

describing both this unique culture and attempts to preserve it by African

American middle-class reformers. The rates of black land ownership were higher

in this region than elsewhere, and as a result blacks were more likely to hold

public office and mob violence against blacks was less common than in the other

two regions. However, as the old plantations either receded into the swamps or

became vacation destinations for wealthy northerners, opportunity for black

economic advancement stagnated.

The plantations of the Piedmont region, worked with black and white tenant

labor, survived after the Civil War but were in decline by the 1930s. Harris

shows that even in this region the number of black landowners increased,

although the number of black tenants increased faster. The presence of a large

number of small farmers, both white and black, made this area the center of the

Populist movement. Harris shows how the Populists initially attempted to unite

both white and black farmers on the grounds of economic interests, but were

ultimately unsuccessful.

In the Delta region, this was an era of expansion. Huge public work projects

along the Mississippi brought a large amount of new land into cultivation. The

scale of these new plantations was much larger than most slave plantations,

even though they were worked with tenant labor. Labor migrated to the region

from all over the South. These large plantations were well financed and well

managed. Although many were able to withstand natural disasters such a floods

and drought, the boll weevil and the variable price of cotton, there were also

those that did not. Harris makes clear that the planter elite was firmly

committed to the idea of white supremacy. The number of lynchings in the Delta

was higher than in any other region. Even here African Americans actively

pushed the color line. The need for a stable plantation labor force caused some

whites to protest the most shocking examples of racial violence. It was also a

place of African American creativity, which gave rise to a new musical form,

the blues.

One of the strengths of the book is the use Harris makes of the personal

stories of individuals of these regions. The individuals described are a

diverse lot including white planters, African American sharecroppers, and

middle class African American reformers, as well as Charley Patton the “king”

of the Delta Blues and Arthur Raper, a white sociologist who was prosecuted in

Georgia for referring to his African American co-workers as “Mrs.” and “Mr.”.

Their stories illustrate the varied reactions of both whites and black to


The government played an important role in this story in all three regions.

American entry into World War I challenged the racial code of the South in

important ways. The increased demand for labor resulted in increased migration

of African Americans to the North. African American soldiers in uniform were a

direct challenge to existing social norms. The New Deal also brought change to

the South, but African Americans continued to struggle against the color line.

The book makes an important contribution to our understanding of both the

origins and the evolution of segregation in the South. Harris is able to see

the broad similarities in economic, political and cultural developments in

these three regions. However, his effective use of primary source material also

allows him to highlight the differences as well. Although plantation

agriculture dominated all three regions before the Civil War, by the 1940s it

remained important only in the Delta region. Traditional African American

practices were preserved in the Sea Island region, while the Delta gave birth

to a new musical form, the blues. The stories of the many different people

Harris describes make the book compelling reading.

Nancy Virts’ publications include “The Efficiency of Southern Tenant

Plantations, 1900-1945,” Journal of Economic History, June 1991 and

(with Kenneth Ng) “The Black-White Income Gap in 1880,” Agricultural

History, Winter 1993.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History

Author(s):North, Douglass C.
Thomas, Robert Paul
Reviewer(s):Coelho, Philip R. P.

Project 2001: Significant Works in Economic History

North, Douglass C. and Robert Paul Thomas, The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973. viii + 171 pp. ISBN: 0-521-29099-6.

Review Essay by Philip R. P. Coelho, Department of Economics, Ball State University. <>

New or Old Economic History? Incentives and Development

This is a landmark book on the impact of property rights on European economic development. Published over a quarter of a century ago, its stated goal is “… to suggest new paths for the study of European economic history rather than … either [a detailed and exhaustive study or a precise empirical test that are the] … standard formats” (p. vii). North and Thomas attempt to identify the elements that allowed the Western European economy to rise to affluence. Their argument is made transparent in Chapter One (Theory and Overview): the key to growth was and is an efficient economic system. Efficient in the sense that the system of property rights gives individuals incentives to innovate and produce, and, conversely inhibits those activities (rent-seeking, theft, arbitrary confiscation and/or excessive taxation) that reduce individual incentives. They argue that property rights are classic public goods because: (1) once a more efficient set of property rights is discovered the marginal cost of copying it is low (compared to the cost of discovering and developing it); (2) it is prohibitively expensive to prevent other political jurisdictions from emulating a more efficient set of property rights regardless of whether they contributed to their construction; (3) and finally, the idea of a set of property rights, like all ideas, is non-rival — we can all consume the same idea and the “stock” of the idea is not diminished. These public good aspects lead them to conclude that there may be under investment in the attempts to create more efficient sets of property rights because the jurisdiction that invests in the development of property rights pays the entire cost of their development but receives only benefits that accrue to its jurisdiction, while other jurisdictions can get the benefits without any of the developmental costs. Thus, the problems of public goods and the “free riders.”

Chapter Two (“An Overview”) sets the historical stage for their analysis. North and Thomas begin with tenth-century Europe and an examination of the classic feudal system. They contend that relatively low population densities and the absence of security (both economic and personal) led to a retreat from market exchange to one of self-sufficiency and to the development of feudalism. Protection was valuable and had to be paid for, but in the absence of markets it was paid for in kind rather than money. Since agricultural output could not be exchanged in the market (land) lords demanded labor services (dues) rather than output shares. Labor dues could be used to produce a more desirable set of consumables than output shares. Lacking market exchange, manorial labor was more fungible than agricultural output. The authors argue that from kings down to peasants, the absence of markets was the mid-wife to feudalism. The second prong of their thesis is that in feudalism, as in any societal arrangement, there existed a myriad of details, known as the custom of the manor that allowed the system to function. Once established, these customs became the set of property rights that molded the economic and personal relationships of feudalism.

As the centuries progressed populations grew and manorial economies replicated themselves. North and Thomas contend that land was available at the constant marginal cost (the cost of clearing land) up to the thirteenth century. At the end of this period diminishing returns to labor employed in agriculture manifested itself. The growth of population densities and the establishment of political order allowed markets to emerge. Diminishing returns and emergent markets gave feudal lords incentives to convert their serfs’ labor dues into fixed money payments. The lords were better off receiving a fixed payment rather than labor dues because the market price for labor was falling due to Malthusian diminishing returns to labor in agriculture. The commutation of labor services into money payments could not be reversed when labor became more valuable during the plagues of the fourteenth century. Amending the custom of the manor was subject to severe transactions costs, consequently by the sixteenth century servile labor in Western Europe was not viable.

Part Two (Chapters 3-7) presents evidence to buttress this thesis. Chapter 3 explores property rights in humans and land, Chapters 4 and 5 develop the frontier movement and the settling of land. Chapter 6 explores diminishing returns to agriculture in the thirteenth century, and Chapter 7 the devastation associated with the fourteenth century. Part Three of the book deals with the period 1500 to 1700 and covers the “unsuccessful” national economies of Spain and France and the successful ones of Holland and England. North and Thomas argue that inefficient sets of property rights hindered economic growth in Spain and France, while more efficient sets promoted the economic growth of England and Holland.

The paragraphs above are a rough sketch of the North-Thomas thesis on the growth of Western Europe. How well have the last 25 years of the twentieth century treated it, and how much consideration should it be given? The first question is relatively easy to answer. Texts and books in European economic development and history generally cite The Rise of the Western World, with the notable exceptions of David Landes and Rondo Cameron. In the academic literature it is frequently cited: The Social Science Citation Index for the years 1986-1990 gives the book about fifteen citations per year (68 total citations in the entire five year period), and for the last decade of the twentieth century (and subsequent to North winning the Nobel Prize in economics) citations rose to about twenty per year.1 But how big is that? It is larger than most, but not in the league of scholarship that alters the way a subject is considered. A relevant example is Ester Boserup’s The Conditions of Agricultural Growth that, for the same period (1986-90), was cited 158 times, or more than twice as frequently as North and Thomas. I believe the citation count assessment of the significance of this book is relatively accurate. The Rise of the Western World is an addition to the historiography of property rights, but it does not accomplish its stated goal: to explain the rise of the West. Furthermore there are significant gaps in its argument.

First, its reliance on Malthusian population theory may be misplaced. In 1966 the aforementioned Ester Boserup published her work The Conditions of Agricultural Growth (not cited in North and Thomas). From empirical evidence she argued that increasing populations led to the intensification of economic activities: From hunting and gathering, to a long-cycle agricultural rotation mixed in with hunting and gathering, to settled agriculture. In Boserup’s analysis output per man-year rises in agricultural societies relative to hunting and gathering societies, but output per hour devoted to the acquisition of food may have fallen. Boserup’s thesis is much more sophisticated than (and contradictory to) the simple Malthusian framework that North and Thomas rely upon. She points out that it is extraordinarily difficult to compare outputs in societies with different levels of production intensity. Population densities lead to different modes of production and entirely different societies. An increase in population density increases the range of productive activities that can be produced for market exchange, and as Adam Smith explains increased specialization leads to increased output and the size of the market limits specialization. North and Thomas recognize this interdependency explicitly. They state that increasing specialization due to increasing population densities may have partially offset Malthusian diminishing returns. How do they know it was a partial offset? The evidence they offer on diminishing returns and a Malthusian crisis in medieval England is primarily derived from the works of James E. Thorold Rogers, who investigated six centuries of wages and prices in England.2

As a source, Rogers is an excellent compilation of manorial roles and other data sources, however he is not a transparent writer and he is difficult to interpret. In volume one of A History of Agriculture and Prices in England (1866) he states, “… we may… conclude that the price of the service [wage labor], in so far as it was affected by competition, represents fully the economical conditions of supply and demand, and is interpreted by the evidence of prices” (p. 253). This may be interpreted to mean that wages are an accurate representation of the laborers’ incomes, but that does not seem to be what Rogers meant. Two pages later he writes that: “In many cases the labourer or artisan was fed. In this case, of course, he received lower wages. … At Southampton, the various artisans are almost invariably fed, … [In 1385] we read … of an allowance instead of food. As a rule, however, the wages paid are irrespective of any other arrangement. Sometimes, but very rarely, and only in the earlier part of the period, the labourer is paid in kind.” And in Six Centuries of Work and Wages (1884), Rogers indicates that feeding workers was considered routine (pp. 170, 328, 354-55, 510, 540-541, etc.).

I interpret Rogers to mean that in the early centuries of his study day laborers did not normally receive family food allowances, but that they were typically fed on the job. Given the nature of work (agricultural labor from shortly after sunrise to sunset) and medieval food preservation and preparation technology, not feeding workers would have forced them to devote significant amounts of time away from working to food preparation and to feeding themselves (just getting bread would be a formidable task given their work hours and the work hours of bakers). Besides being fed on the job laborers frequently had other perquisites such as gleaning, allotments of beer, and small amounts of land for individual agricultural activities (kitchen gardens). All these in-kind payments are mentioned in Rogers (1866) and are considered normal. North and Thomas base their work not only on the wage data from Rogers, but also on his price data for agricultural products.3 In order to determine real wages, money wages are divided by an index of agricultural prices.4 Notice that the numerator typically ignores payments in kind and the denominator is exclusively a food index. Medieval workers’ consumption bundles had a heavy food component, but if one is being partially paid in food and resources devoted to food (kitchen gardens), then real wage indexes that focus solely on the costs of food may be seriously distorted unless the income (both in money and in kind) elasticity for food is one and the overwhelming preponderance of the budget is devoted to food. Mildly put, the data that North and Thomas rely upon to show Malthusian diminishing returns are not entirely adequate to the task.

Other sources question the use of the Malthusian paradigm. James Z. Lee and Wang Feng unequivocally deny that Chinese agriculture from 1300 to 1800 experienced Malthusian crises. Similarly, Julian L. Simon disputed the empirical validity of the Malthusian model. Others question the North and Thomas view of medieval English agriculture. Gregory Clark questions the view of a primitive English agriculture running into diminishing returns in the early fourteenth century.5 Certainly the fourteenth-century plague was a disaster to the European economy, but it does not follow that the plagues that devastated it were direct consequences of Malthusian diminishing returns. More likely it was, as William McNeill hypothesized, a result of an integrated Old World economy that led to the introduction of a “new” pathogen to a dense, flea-ridden European population.6

So there are difficulties with North and Thomas’s belief that the diseases of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are a manifestation of declining living standards (Malthusianism). They do not consider that the plague may have been exogenous, that pathogens are subject to their own dynamics and evolution and not necessarily a result of human intervention.7 North and Thomas simply assert that the plague was a result of over population, diminishing returns, and declining living standards. But if that is so, why did the plague reoccur after population had declined and (according to the data they rely upon) wages had increased? And why did plague occur earlier — in the mid-sixth century? North and Thomas do not have answers.

There is a straightforward explanation to these questions that is grounded in epidemiology: It is that the plague was a “new” disease to fourteenth-century Europe and its relatively dense population resulted in high rates of infection and mortality. These rates decreased as immunities (both acquired and genetic) became more predominant in the populations of Europe. What has this to do with Malthus and diminishing returns? Nothing: The simple Malthusian doctrine correlating high death rates with low living standards is suspect. It assumes that diseases are a function of poverty while there is evidence that the causation runs from diseases to poverty, and it is contradicted by data which show areas with high money incomes (cities) having higher death rates than those areas with low money incomes (rural areas). Consequently any line of reasoning that relies upon the Malthusian doctrine, as does The Rise of the Western World, is suspect.

There are other flaws in their thesis, some minor, some major. A minor omission is that they do not specify why the servile labor force accepted the original commutation of labor services to money payments. According to their high transactions cost model, “the custom of the manor” would have made the initial negotiations prohibitively costly. A simple observation that personal freedom to the individual was worth more than the value of the money payments would correct this omission. And, such an observation would reinforce their claim that when the purchasing power of a unit of money fell (inflation) the lords were unable to switch back to servile labor.

A more significant difficulty with their thesis is their claim that while diminishing returns to labor existed in the countryside, urban areas had constant returns. These are inconsistent with declining real wages, because migration from village to town will prevent agricultural wages from falling.8 Another difficulty is their lack of knowledge of antiquity: They seem to believe that institutional innovations such as insurance and bills of exchange were medieval innovations, but these were known and used at least by the Hellenistic era, and the ancients developed many contractual forms that were resurrected and used again during the European Renaissance.9

So North and Thomas’s book is not without its flaws, but blemishes and all it still makes significant contributions in its emphasis on an efficient set of property rights as a necessary condition for economic development to take place. In this emphasis North and Thomas returned to the fundamentals of economics and its founding father, Adam Smith, who said: “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought by the natural course of things.”

The Rise of the Western World is right to echo these sentiments. Since its publication in 1973 the modest increases in economic and personal freedom that the Chinese have experienced have led its population to a degree of affluence entirely unanticipated a quarter of a century ago. Similarly, the decline in law and order has bought economic and personal disasters to many in parts of Asia and Africa. The lesson seems a hard one to learn: the protection of the liberties of people to both their persons and properties is the most effective way to promote the general welfare in the long run. Short-run policies that restrict these liberties inevitably reduce welfare in both the short and long run. By focusing on this lesson in The Rise of the Western World, North and Thomas have done the profession and humanity a meritorious service.


1. Counting citations is a tricky business because a slight change in the citation can result in an entry separate from the main one. Thus D.C. North and R.P. Thomas may be counted differently from D. North and R. Thomas.

2. North and Thomas cite other evidence, but much of this is ultimately derived from Rogers’s work. For example E.H. Phelps Brown and Shelia Hopkins’s works on wages and prices are based on data gathered from Rogers.

3. North and Thomas rely on the Phelps Brown and Hopkins works (1955, 1956, 1957) on real wages whose data are derived from the wage and price data of Rogers.

4. “Index” may not be a completely accurate term because the index frequently contains only one commodity; then, to be specific, it is a wage series expressed in wheat units.

5. Clark (1991) using labor inputs in harvesting as a proxy for wheat yields finds little change in output per acre over the medieval era. He observes that: “Interestingly the labour input on reaping wheat from 1250 to 1450 seems to have risen little, implying a constancy of yields over this period. This is consistent with the work of Titow and of Farmer on the Winchester and Westminster estates over the medieval period. … Wheat yields were fairly constant over the medieval period, the population losses of the Black Death having little impact on yields” (p. 454, footnotes omitted).

In another article, Clark (1988) observes that relatively low yields per acre in medieval England could be attributed to the relatively high interest rates. Taken together these observations do not lend support to the thesis that medieval Europe was in a Malthusian crisis because, if it were so, we would expect to see declining mean output per unit of labor and increasing mean output per unit of land as diminishing returns makes labor relatively abundant and land relatively scarce. The opposite would occur if, as a result of the Black Death, labor became relatively scarce.

6. North and Thomas do not recognize that the plague may have been the result of increasing living standards. As incomes rose trade increased and disease pools in different regions became integrated. Mortal diseases newly introduced to an area frequently have a devastating impact on the native population. For more on this see McNeill.

7. Exogenous in the sense that the plague was not a disease endemic to fourteenth-century Europe, although, most likely, it had appeared in Europe in the first millennium CE; see J. C. Russell for further information.

8. For a complete specification of this model see Chambers and Gordon.

9. Edward F. Cohen argues and presents persuasive evidence that these institutional forms were abundant in fourth-century BC Athens.


Boserup, Ester. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure. Chicago: Aldine, 1965.

Cameron, Rondo. A Concise Economic History of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Clark, Gregory. “Yields per Acre in English Agriculture, 1250-1860: Evidence from Labour Inputs,” Economic History Review 44 (1991): 445-60.

Clark, Gregory. “The Costs of Capital and Medieval Agricultural Technique,” Explorations in Economic History 25 (1988): 265-94.

Chambers, Edward J. and Donald F. Gordon. “Primary Products and Economic Growth: An Empirical Measurement,” Journal of Political Economy 74 (1966): 315-32.

Cohen, Edward E. Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Lee, James Z. and Wang Feng. One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Landes, David S. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. New York: Norton, 1998.

McNeill, William H. Plagues and Peoples. New York: Anchor Books, 1976.

Phelps Brown, E. H. and Shelia V. Hopkins. “Seven Centuries of Building Wages,” Economica 22 (1955): 195-206.

Phelps Brown, E. H. and Shelia V. Hopkins. “Seven Centuries of the Prices of Consumables, Compared with Builders’ Wage-Rates,” Economica 23 (1956): 296-314.

Phelps Brown, E. H. and Shelia V. Hopkins. “Wage-Rates and Prices: Evidence for Population Pressure in the Sixteenth Century,” Economica 24 (1957): 289-306.

Rogers, James E. Thorold. Six Centuries of Work and Wages. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1884.

Rogers, James E. Thorold. A History of Agriculture and Prices in England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1866.

Russell, Josiah C. “That Earlier Plague,” Demography 5 (1968): 174-84.

Simon, Julian L. The Economics of Population Growth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Simon, Julian L. Population and Development in Poor Countries: Selected Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Simon, Julian L. The Ultimate Resource 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Simon, Julian L. and Herman Kahn (editors). The Resourceful Earth: A Response to Global 2000. New York: Oxford, 1984.

Philip R. P. Coelho has written on long-run economic growth (“An Examination into the Causes of Economic Growth,” Research in Law and Economics 1985) and is currently working on the impact of morbid diseases on economic history and growth (see: “Biology Disease and Economics: An Alternative History of Slavery in the American South,” with Robert A. McGuire, Journal of Bioeconomics Vol. 1, 1999; “Epidemiology and the Demographic Transition in the New World,” Health Transition Review, Vol. 7, 1997; and “African and European Bound Labor in the British New World: The Biological Consequences of Economic Choices” with Robert A. McGuire, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 57, 1997.)


Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

After the Galleons: Foreign Trade, Economic Change and Entrepreneurship in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines

Author(s):Legarda, Benito J.
Reviewer(s):Giraldez, Arturo

Published by EH.NET (November 2001)


Benito J. Legarda, After the Galleons: Foreign Trade, Economic Change and Entrepreneurship in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1999. x + 401 pp. $22.95 (paperback), ISBN: 1-881261-28-x.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Arturo Giraldez, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, University of the Pacific.

The title of Benito Legarda’s book is somewhat misleading because the time span covered in the work begins well before the nineteenth century. In fact, After the Galleons is an economic history of the Phillippine Islands from the time of the arrival of Miguel Gomez de Legazpi’s expedition in 1565 to the independence from the metropolis in 1898. Legarda studies the Philippines’ evolution from an archipelago inhabited by almost self-sufficient communities to the era when it became an agricultural export economy dependent on external trade to meet domestic needs. But, as the author remarks: “The nineteenth-century Philippine economy did not start from scratch. The preceding Age of Transshipment dated back to pre-Hispanic times, and, during the centuries when it was in effect, a process of administrative unification and geographic consolidation took place that laid the groundwork for the rise of national consciousness” (p. 5).

These sentences outline the plan of the book. Part 1 studies Philippine trade from before the Spaniards’ arrival until 1815. Part 2 focuses on the domestic exports and economic changes in the Islands. Part 3, “Entrepreneurial Aspects,” studies the establishment of merchant houses, their activities and innovations. Legarda follows Joseph A. Schumpeter’s ideas on entrepreneurial activity, paying detailed attention to the agents responsible for the “creative responses” in the economy. Businessmen and firms are introduced in relation to new technologies, activities and financial institutions.

Fifteenth-century Chinese and Muslim (Persian and Arab) merchants frequented the archipelago’s coastal areas, attracting a population that established settlements dependent on sedentary agriculture and craft production. These communities, called “barangays,” traded among themselves and with the rest of Southeast Asia and China. Slaves, beeswax and gold were exchanged for porcelain, iron, lead, tin, silks, etc. The early connection with China was going to have a crucial role in Philippine history. The presence of the Spaniards dramatically changed the position of the Philippines with respect to the Asian continent and placed the Islands as one of the crucial points in the global economy created by the galleon trade. From 1565 to 1815 the ships came and went from Manila to Acapulco — “it was the longest shipping line in history” (p. 32). American silver and predominantly Chinese silks were the commodities exchanged between Mexico and the Philippines. A Ricardian model explains the trade. The bimetallic ratio of silver and gold in 1560 was 13 to 1 in Mexico, 11 to 1 in Europe and in China was 4 to 1. “China was long the suction pump that absorbed silver from the whole world” (p. 31). Obviously there were periods of convergence of bimetallic ratios, but until the end of the nineteenth century China continued to be the main receiver of the world’s silver. Considering the price differential in silver prices: “The opportunities for arbitrage profits were staggering” (p. 31). And indeed, they were. Net profits oscillated between 100 and 300 percent. The Chinese brought the wares for the galleons but they also provided supplies for shipbuilding, materials to the military garrisons and foodstuffs to Manila’s citizenry. Also the junks brought artisans and tradespeople to the Islands. The Chinese have played a crucial role in the Filipino economy since the sixteenth century up to the present.

The eighteenth century witnessed plans and proposals to change the monopolistic framework of the galleon trade. After the British occupation of 1762-64, war frigates sailed between Cadiz in Spain and Manila carrying European merchandise. The Royal Philippine Company founded in Madrid (1785) was “encouraged to try Asian ventures,” (p. 58) and the port of San Blas on the Pacific coast was established in 1766 to trade with the Philippines, challenging Acapulco’s position as the only Mexican port in the galleon route. The regulation of libre comercio in 1778 allowed several Spanish ports besides Seville and Cadiz to trade with the colonies, which provided Mexico with new sources of merchandise.

Revolutionary changes did not happen in the eighteenth century — Philippine commerce was still a transshipping operation — but they sowed the seeds of future developments: foreign merchants arrived in Manila; local merchants could travel to other Asian ports; export trade of native products was stimulated and local textile manufactures were encouraged. “And the combined effect of the tobacco monopoly and the domestic operations of export producers, including the company, was the start of agricultural specialization in the Philippines” (p. 90). The tobacco monopoly was established by Governor Jose Basco y Vargas by decree in 1781, was implemented in 1783 and was the main source of fiscal revenue for Spain in the Philippines. There was also a “tentative use of bills of exchange in transferring funds through Canton” (p. 89).

The decades from 1820 to 1870 were crucial in the economic history of the world and produced significant changes in the economy of the country. An increase in trade and navigation in Asia accompanied the opening of the Suez Canal. Goods like sugar, fibers, coffee, etc. became the main export commodities. The Spanish government granted shipping subsidies. As a result of all of this, in the Philippines there was “a saltatory rise in the level of foreign trade” (p. 179). These events and trends were common to the Southeast Asian transformations from subsistence to export economies. However, the trajectory followed by the Islands was different from the Southeast Asian path. The economies of the region’s colonial powers tried to increase agricultural output pressuring the peasants to produce more goods for export and to develop plantation agriculture. According to Legarda in the period between 1820 and 1870: “Neither pressure on the peasantry nor the development of large-scale plantation agriculture was primarily responsible for transforming the Philippines from a subsistence to an export economy” (p. 186). Such a role was played by foreign businesses — “they formed the main nexus between the Philippine economy and the currents of world trade” (p. 211). The foreign merchants introduced agricultural machinery, advanced money on crops which stimulated the opening of new agricultural areas and consequently exports grew. There was an increasing commodity concentration of exports (sugar, abaca, tobacco and coffee) to the United Kingdom, China, British East Indies, United States and Spain [Tables 1 to 5]. Textiles dominated imports accompanied by a decline of local manufacturing and in 1870 rice became an import commodity. “Both trends had significant social and demographic repercussions” (p. 178) [Tables 6 to 13].

British and Americans were predominant in the foreign trade. The Chinese occupied the position of intermediaries between foreign western merchants and the domestic market. In spite of the dominant presence of foreigners in the Philippine economy “a native middle class was rising” (p. 213).

In order to raise funds the merchant houses issued notes taking deposits in local currencies from people of different economic backgrounds. This capital was given as an advance to finance agricultural operations. “Liquid wealth” reached Filipinos in the countryside, at the same time the merchants’ exercised control over the supply of export commodities (p. 256).

The Philippines’ economic landscape was different from Southeast Asia, i.e. Malaya and Indonesia. Western foreigners, public entities, and the Chinese joined rising domestic entrepreneurs. The Spanish government participated financially in the origination of utility companies (steam navigation, telegraphy); western investors entered some joint ventures with local capital (rice, sugar mills, textile industry, railroads and electricity), and domestic businessmen invested in the tranways and created the brewing industry. “But the crucial dichotomy between economic initiative and political authority stamped the Philippine case as being more in the East Asian tradition than the Southeast Asian mold” (p. 289).

This processes of economic integration in the world market had its drawbacks. Income disparities between regions and occupations became more marked. The domestic textile industry could not compete with foreign imports. During the 1880s, ‘the decade of death,’ the lower income groups became more susceptible to diseases due to an imbalance between commercial and subsistence agriculture and due to the arrival of epidemics (p. 335). The upside of these transformations was improvement in communications (telegraphy, mail, cable, steamship lines, electricity, railroads), in finance (foreign banks arrived to Manila), and in infrastructure. The funds of the Obras Pias, a church institution employed in the past to finance the galleon trade, were used to establish the Banco Espanol-Filipino in 1851 and the Monte de Piedad (a savings bank and a pawn shop) in 1882. In the same year with Obras Pias monies coming from the cargo of the galleon Filipino, a municipal water system was built in Manila (pp. 337-38).

Benito Legarda quotes Victor Clark who wrote: “A period of industrial development and expansion immediately preceded the insurrection that marked the beginning of the end of Spanish rule in the Philippines” (p. 339). The United States’ occupation of the country after the war produced increases in exports, innovations in technology, and much higher standards of living. The Philippines’ economy now would resemble more closely the Southeast Asian model. “The price of twentieth-century progress would be economic dependence” (p. 340).

Historians of the Philippines have produced excellent work. Benito Legarda’s economic history of the archipelago is an important addition to this body of literature. For historians of Asia and of the Spanish Empire After the Galleons is essential, but Legarda’s care in placing the Philippines in the context of with global economic trends makes the book an excellent addition to the field of “World History.” For economic historians and development experts, Legarda has written an important book. With clarity, rigor and avoiding unnecessary jargon, After the Galleons addresses questions and processes that are still affecting our times. Scholars, graduate students and advanced undergraduates in economics, history and other social sciences should read Legarda’s work. It is an indispensable book.

Arturo Giraldez, along with his colleague Dennis O. Flynn, is the editor of The Pacific World: Lands, Peoples and History of the Pacific, 1500-1900 an 18-volume series published by Ashgate/Variorum. With Dennis O. Flynn and James Sobredo, he has edited in 2001 European Entry into the Pacific, the fourth volume of the series.


Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis, 1600-1750

Author(s):Vries, Jan de
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Project 2001: Significant Works in Economic History

Jan de Vries, The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis, 1600-1750. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. xi + 284 pp. ISBN: 0-521-29050-3.

Review Essay by George Grantham, Department of Economics, McGill University.

An Economy in Crisis

First published in 1976, The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis was chronologically the fourth in a series of general syntheses of European economic history commencing with Robert Lopez’s account of the medieval economic boom and carried forward by Harry Miskimin’s two volumes on the economic history of the Renaissance.1 The four works by two Yale professors of economic history and one of their students constituted as it were a ‘Yale’ history of the European economy, which was distinguished from other works by its attention to macroeconomics and the implications of general equilibrium. One recalls hoping for an ultimate volume from the pen of Yale’s other senior economic historian that would bring the story out of Europe to America and through the Industrial Revolution to the mid-twentieth century. Alas. The hungry sheep look up and are not fed. … Weep no more, woeful shepherds.

Jan de Vries’ contribution to this series deals with a particularly enigmatic period in the history of the European economy. The Age of Crisis began as a prolonged recession during which the older centers of economic growth, strung out like beads on a strand extending from the cities of Northern Italy to the trading and manufacturing towns of Flanders, fell into a deep economic sleep from which they were not roused until the coming of the railway. Elsewhere, sectarian violence, civil war and repeated incursions by Turkish troops ravaged vast regions of central and eastern Europe into the first decade of the eighteenth century; from the 1660s to 1713 commercial and real warfare between France, England and the Low Countries perturbed Europe’s most prosperous economies. Sovereign default occasioned by the financial burden of these conflicts ruined financial intermediaries; the supply of money declined and prices fell; population grew hardly at all and in some places actually declined. The paradox is that from this age of social and economic turmoil emerged an Industrial Revolution and the onset of sustained economic growth. The question addressed by The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis is how could this have happened. The answer is summed up by an aphorism and a label. The aphorism – ‘The division of labour is limited by the extent of the market’ — was Adam Smith’s; the label — an ‘Industrious Revolution’ — belongs to Jan de Vries.

To appreciate the how difficult it was in the early 1970s to explain how an economy of growth could emerge from an economy in crisis one must know something about the contemporary state of early modern economic historiography. The literature dealing with economic and social development between 1500 and 1800 fell into four broad classes: studies inspired by the stages theory of economic evolution, which were mainly concerned with the evolution of business and commercial organization; a literature on Mercantilism, which focused on economic policies of states and the attitudes and ideas that informed them; a literature centered on population, prices, and wages, which emphasized the Malthusian/Ricardian agricultural constraint on pre-modern economic growth; and a Marxist literature that viewed the period as the crucial transition from feudal to capitalist society. None of these approaches — with the latent exception of the Marxist labor theory of value — embodied an endogenous model of how the economy changed. Change came from outside the ordinary workings of the economy. Monographs on the economic history of particular industries and regions took the general economic context as exogenously given, as did the Malthusian literature, which interpreted falling wages and rising rents as infallible signs of overpopulation in an economy characterized by fixed production possibilities. Broader treatments like Braudel’s Material Civilization (1967) on the other hand, envisaged the period as a struggle between an aggressively expanding capitalist sector and agricultural traditionalism. Apart from some discussion of the relation between price levels and the supply of money, there was little economic analysis of factors affecting the general equilibrium of the economy.

The stages theory was the foundation of most narrative accounts of the period. As is well known, it hypothesizes a chronological taxonomy of economic forms or ‘stages’ that purports to describe in a generalized way how the western national economies progressed from familial and tribal self-sufficiency in the early middle ages to the economy of large-scale industry and international specialization of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the canonical sequence of stages the economies of early modern Europe occupy an intermediate position situated somewhere between the urban guild economy of the later middle ages and the industrial economy of the nineteenth century. The narrative thus emphasized the organizational response of urban and rural industrial enterprise to growth in trade, which was not explained but simply assumed to have happened for reasons of its own. The analysis of agricultural evolution was largely confined to the description of settlement patterns and modes of tenure. In the degree that the period was defined by the ‘stage’ attained by the most progressive nations, it was characterized by the expansion of municipal and regional market economies to a larger national level of aggregation.

Part of the appeal of this typology to the German historical economists most closely associated with it was its historical justification of protectionist policies accompanying Germany’s political unification in the nineteenth century, which combined reduced barriers to domestic trade with increased tariffs on imports from other countries. The departure from the abstract precepts of the theory of comparative advantage were rationalized as measures fitting the requirements of an economy that had not yet attained its ‘national’ stage of economic development. This argument was closely related to a relativistic proposition holding that economic motivation also varies across stages, an idea supported by philosophical traditions going back to Hellenistic times and by the striking social and economic disparities between rural and urban societies and between Europe and the underdeveloped world. The very magnitude of these disparities, however, caused scholars to conflate the supposed continuum of economic stages and behaviors into a dichotomy that contrasted a traditional rural sphere where social values and institutions worked to reproduce self-sufficient and self-sustaining communities, and a modern urban one where actions were motivated by the individualistic goals of social advancement and wealth maximization. This vision, which is most fully articulated in the sociologies of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber and which survives in the economic anthropology of Karl Polanyi and his followers, was adopted by the influential Annales historians as the central framework of their history of social and economic evolution. In the words of Braudel, the early modern economy was comprised of “two universes distinct from each other” — a rural world ruled by instinct and habit; and an urban world of “energy, innovation, new awarenesses, and even progress.”2 Economic and social development thus unfolded as a war between two mutually antagonistic worlds. This Manichean vision of social and economic process clearly left little space for the analysis of economic complementarities between town and countryside. The countryside and small towns were passive recipients of ‘energy’ emanating from the city. Metaphors like this provided little guidance as to how that energy was channeled, nor exactly how it was generated.

The second strand in early modern economic historiography revolved around the idea of Mercantilism. Coined by Adam Smith as an Aunt Sally, the term experienced rebirth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in works by economic historians like Schmoller, Cunningham, Ashley and Lipson, who held that the international division of labor reflected the unequal capacity of competitive nation states to protect their economic interest. To them the early modern period represented an age when princes tried to protect their people from the disquieting effects of rapid economic and social change. This rosy view of the paternalistic and authoritarian policies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century government, which was advanced as a model for the paternalistic policies of the national welfare state, was devastatingly criticized in a monumental study by the Swedish economist Eli Heckscher, and in a comparative analysis of early modern France and England by the American economic historian John Nef.3 As the policies in question were quite diverse, the ensuing debate mainly emphasized questions of definition. Exactly what was Mercantilism? The quantitative significance of specific policies could not be analyzed given the limited available documentation, so the debate shed little light on the causes of economic change, although there are topics in this general sphere of enquiry that are more immediately fruitful of insight into this topic than the analysis of industrial and commercial regulations, most of which were easily circumvented. The first is the economic and administrative response to the transfer problem created by central taxation of rural districts; the second concerns the impact of military provisioning on the organization of the wholesale trade in cereals and other materials that were cumbersome to transport and costly to store. The Age of Crisis was an age of rising taxation and growing armies and navies. Neither trend could fail to affect industrial and commercial organization.

The third strand of economic historiography was unreservedly quantitative. Since the 1930s an international effort to collect prices and wages for the period prior to 1800 had provided numerical data that seemed to bear out the Ricardian hypothesis of an inverse correlation between movements in population and real income, which was explained as the joint consequence of a fixed supply of land and a static agricultural technology. By the 1970s compilations of crop yields and yield ratios further supported the impression that outside a few exceptional districts agricultural technology and agricultural productivity were indeed mired. At the same time, however, the price data indicated a positive correlation between the price of cereals relative to meat and dairy products, and growth in population. This was explained by the higher income elasticity of demand for animal products than for subsistence cereals; when population increased, real per capita income declined due to diminishing returns in farming, causing demand for meat and dairy produce to fall faster or rise more slowly than the demand for grain. Since scattered observations of the amount of land in different kinds of crops indicated a rise in the output of livestock products in periods when their relative price was increasing, the apparent increase in the output of the pastoral sector and the diffusion of forage legumes after 1650 could plausibly be explained as a consequence of demographic stagnation, which in the context of an unexplained upward drift in overall productivity generated the increase in per capita income needed to support the rising relative price of livestock. The difficulty with this demographic explanation of shifts in demand was that it didn’t explain how demand and agricultural production could increase in an otherwise stagnating economy, in which demand for all kinds of produce should have been contracting. Output had risen in a period when incentives to increase it seemed weak. The Ricardian paradigm was incomplete.

The final strand of the economic historiography suffered from no such logical misgivings. Marxist historians viewed the seventeenth century as crucial to the transition from ‘feudalism’ to capitalism. The defining event was the long English Revolution that began in the late 1620s and culminated in the substitution of a Dutchman for King James II in 1688. To English Marxist historians, the six decades represented the original ‘bourgeois’ revolution, which instituted political preconditions for capitalism. The crucial preconditions were the expropriation of the peasantry by Parliamentary acts of enclosure and the creation of a free labor market by the enactment of laws and judgments limiting the right of rural laborers to seek work outside their home parishes and the removing the right of all workers to combine in defense of wages and working conditions. Relieved of paternalistic regulations promulgated by Tudor and Stuart monarchs intended to protect peasants and maintain social stability, English landlords and businessmen could create a subservient force of free labor exploitation that was the source of the capital on which rested England’s later industrial supremacy. The crisis of the seventeenth century planted the seeds of capitalism and the industrial revolution. In a variant of this argument Wallerstein argued that the capital-creating surplus was extracted not so much from domestic labor, but from serfs and slaves in peripheral regions. Economics followed politics.

None of this added up to a theoretically coherent account of how the economy of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century gave birth to sustained economic growth. The stages literature described the changes in industrial organization, but could not explain them; the debate over mercantilism and the role of the state was virtually devoid of economic analysis of cause and effect. The Malthusian approach was more promising, and by the 1970s had been reinforced by outstanding regional studies in early modern agriculture and better demographic information, but the analysis was typically couched in terms of the tension between population and resources, and ignored the implications for agricultural productivity of farm specialization induced by the growth of cities and rural industrial districts. The Marxist approach focused on the evolution of social classes and politics.

The facts are that by the middle of the eighteenth century, the economies of the Netherlands, England, and in lesser measure France were significantly larger than they had been a century and a half earlier. Although some technical change had occurred, it was not enough to explain the apparent growth in output and productivity, since most production was done with the old techniques, albeit on a larger scale. The source of growth therefore had to be increased inputs. One input, however, could not have increased. Although population had expanded, the land available to supply it with food, fuel and building materials had not, which implies that the positive effect of a larger labor force should have been offset by diminishing returns. But in regions of Europe where population was rising, the standard of living — as evidenced by the kinds of goods people had in their homes when they died — had apparently increased.

De Vries’ proposed solution to the problem of how growth could proceed in the face of diminishing returns involved two correlations. The first was a regional correlation between the rate of urbanization and agricultural productivity. A survey of the agricultural regions of Europe reveals that places where the urban economy thrived were also places where agriculture prospered. In the Dutch Republic and southern England, the growth of Amsterdam (and other Dutch cities) and London created new incentives for nearby farmers to intensify and ameliorate methods of cultivation. It is now known that similar incentives had similar effects in other regions, most notably on the great farms that supplied Paris with grain and straw. By contrast, farming in the hinterlands of the declining Italian, Flemish and Iberian towns stagnated. Both economic logic and the price data indicate that the causal link runs from changes urban demand to changes in rural supply, rather than the other way round. De Vries also argued the traditional hypothesis that pre-existing differences in agrarian structure affected the rural response to changing market opportunity. The evidence for the exogeneity of rural institutions, however, is less convincing than the regional correlation between urbanization and agricultural productivity, as the regions where agrarian structure permitted an elastic response to market opportunity had the strongest market incentives to adjust agrarian institutions to that opportunity. In one part of the world such responses may nevertheless have worked to limit the range of subsequent response to economic opportunity. In Eastern Europe and in the American tropics, landowners used their political authority to solve the problems of growing labor scarcity caused by growing demand for produce by subjugating the labor force.

The second suggestive correlation is between urbanization and interregional trade. Between 1600 and 1750 much of the long-distance trade of Europe came to pass through a handful of entrep?ts situated on the southwest margins of the North Sea. Although geographical factors determined that this region would contain nodes of exchange between the Baltic and the Western Atlantic, it was the spatial economies of scale in distribution and exchange of economically useful information that caused them to capture the lion’s share of Europe’s trade with other continents as well as a significant share of her internal commerce. The entrep?t trade attracted related industries processing exotic materials and servicing the shipping and financial sectors. The growth in population supported by these activities was so large that it created a market large enough to induce economies of scale in production, of which the counterpart was rising real returns to capital, land and labor. De Vries noted that unlike other parts of Europe, where population growth lowered real wages, in urbanizing Holland and England it raised them. The land constraint was not absolutely binding. Spending the higher incomes created an effective market demand for more expensive kinds of farm produce, textiles and housewares, and so diffused the prosperity of the town into the countryside. The dynamic thus reflected the reciprocal relation between the extent of the market and the division of labour summarized by Smith’s famous maxim.

Economies of scale resulting from the concentration long-distance trade and related activities into a smaller number of large cities, however, could not fully explain how an economy in crisis could generate points of economic progress and prosperity. The major exogenous event in this century and a half of slowly growing population and imperceptibly improving technology was the colonization of North and South America and the growth of trade with Asia. The chief products of this expansion in Europe’s commercial space was increased supply and falling prices of exotic commodities, some of which are highly addictive. Unlike traditional commodities manufactured locally or within the household economy of peasant families, exotic goods and the cheaper kinds of manufactures available through trade had to be paid for with cash, which in the steady state could only be earned by exporting more goods to the urban sector. This, plus the demand for cash to pay increased taxes, explained why the extra rural income was not dissipated in leisure. The advent of exotic commodities and cheap manufactures changed tastes in a way that shifted the supply of labor, enterprise, and most likely capital, outward.

How, then, did the economy of crisis become an economy of growth? Part of the answer was the end of civil and religious warfare in Germany and the stabilization of government in France and England after 1720, which provided a period of comparative calm during which population could begin to grow again and the web of financial intermediation could be re-knitted. The continued growth of long-distance trade with Asia and the accelerated expansion of the European colonies in the New World imparted a further positive impetus, though its main effects happened late in the day. In the first century of the age of crisis the most important source of long-term growth was the dynamic scale economies associated with the concentration of trade and related activities on a handful of cities in Northern Europe. At first the growth of Amsterdam and perhaps London was at the expense of older centers like Antwerp, Venice and Genoa, but as overall activity stabilized and began to grow again after 1713, falling transaction and distribution costs fell throughout the continent. Declining costs of manufactured and imported goods improved the rural terms of trade, and induced more agricultural and industrial production in the countryside. The growing trade financed the improvement of transport facilities linking town and countryside, and provided the means of greater financial integration. The crisis, then, was in many ways a tipping event that led Europe’s economy to a new geographical and economic equilibrium. An important and as yet unanswered question is whether in the absence of the negative shocks of the seventeenth century the tipping would have favored southern Europe and the developing spine of development in central and western Germany, which were to be the heartland of Europe’s nineteenth-century industrialization.

Despite criticism from Dutch economic historians wedded to the Malthusian paradigm, De Vries’ economic model of the early modern transformation of the European economy has stood up well. Based to a large extent on the Hymer-Resnick model of gains from trade to be had from the specialization of rural households on agricultural production, and on Adam Smith’s scale economies, De Vries’ account of the dynamic returns to scale in the early modern economy found support in the arguments for increasing returns embedded in the economics of coordination failure and in the new trade theory of the 1980s and the early 1990s. In this respect, the book was ahead of its time. An Economy in Crisis has also influenced the reconstruction of Chinese economic history, where a similar dynamic has been found to operate with similar results.4 According to Kenneth Pomeranz a market-based division of labor in eighteenth-century China supported living standards comparable with the European standard of 1750.

One of the overlooked merits of this account of early modern economic development is its denial of the inevitability of an Industrial Revolution. Smithian trade dynamics could lift productivity for a long time, but not forever; it could alone give rise to the fundamental technological breakthroughs that have sustained economic growth since the late eighteenth century. Perfect property rights and easy trade might actually limit incentives to innovate by providing tradable substitutes for intellectual effort. These notions underlie Pomeranz’s assertion of an eighteenth-century Chinese ceiling that led to what he calls the Great Divergence. According to De Vries, the exceptionally commercialized Dutch economy was bounded by a similar ceiling.

As is to be expected some parts of the book have held up less well than the general model. The agricultural discussions are dated; it is now clear that French agriculture was more productive and less static than the accounts on which De Vries based his discussion indicated, and it appears that traditional husbandry was capable of supporting a more elastic supply response than was then believed to be possible. The role of structural determinants of regional differences in agricultural productivity is also problematic. The discussion of the role of rural industry in creating a proletariat reflects historical debates of an earlier time, and ignores the agricultural implications of a growing non-agricultural population. The analysis of the financial sector, including the evolution of commodity moneys, is less sophisticated and detailed than one would demand today. In particular, a new edition would have to incorporate the insights into public finance derived from the theory of rational expectations and the theory of games. A modern, longer treatment would also probably pay more attention to what one might call business cycles, bringing the short run back into the story of the long one. The study of population dynamics in this period has also progressed from its state in the early 1970s, and much more is now known about the role of women in the economy. A new edition would extend the discussion of technological change to the development of scientific institutions and scientific publishing. Nevertheless, it is surprising how well the book holds up. A recent textbook by Robert Duplessis covering the same ground has little more to say except in having more detail.5

In its modest way, The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis has made a signal contribution to the way we think about pre-industrial economic development. One might argue that the dynamics the book expounds are based on the atypical experience of a few rapidly growing regions; but this is the nature of dynamic economies of scale. They gather in business and enterprise from other places. One of the unanswered questions is how fragile was this trade-based growth. Was it rooted in the irreversible expansion of colonial trade, or did its continuance depend on the maintenance of stable trading relations? How integrated was the European economy of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century? How vulnerable was it to monetary instability? How close did it come to coming unraveled in the dark years between 1640 and 1660, and again between 1690 and 1713? How important for the subsequent growth of the European economy were the stabilization of finances and the political tranquility of Europe’s largest nation (France)? Exactly how crucial was the growth of population and production in North America? These are questions to which we still lack answers. That we can ask them is a tribute to the achievement of this remarkable little book.


1. See Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350, Cambridge (1971); Harry Miskimin, The Economy of Early Renaissance Europe, 1300-1460, Cambridge (1969); and Harry Miskimin, The Economy of Later Renaissance Europe, 1460-1600. (Cambridge (1977).

2. Fernand Braudel, Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and Capitalism. Baltimore (1977), p. 17.

3. Eli Heckscher, Mercantilism, London (1935); John U. Nef, Industry and Government in France and England, 1540-1640, Ithaca (1964).

4. Philip Huang, The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China, Stanford (1985); R. Bin Wong, China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience, Ithaca (1997); Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: Europe, China, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton (2000).

5. Robert S. Duplessis, Transitions to Capitalism in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge (1997).

George Grantham was awarded the Cliometric Society’s annual prize — the Clio Can — in 2000. His recent publications include “La faucille et la faux: un cas de d?pendence temporelle?” Etudes Rurales (2000); “The French Agricultural Productivity Paradox: Measuring the Unmeasurable,” Historical Methods (2000); “Contra Ricardo: On the Macro-economics of Europe’s Agrarian Age,” European Review of Economic History (1999); and “Espaces priviligi?s: productivit? agricole et zones d’approvisionnement urbains dans l’Europe pr?-industrielle,” Annales. histoire, sciences sociales (1997).


Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century

New World Economies: The Growth of the Thirteen Colonies and Early Canada

Author(s):Egnal, Marc
Reviewer(s):Kulikoff, Allan

Published by EH.NET (August 2001)

Marc Egnal, New World Economies: The Growth of the Thirteen Colonies and

Early Canada. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. xix + 236 pp.

$49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-511482-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Allan Kulikoff, Department of History, University of


I am writing this review from Beijing, capital of one of the most vibrant

capitalist economies in the world. Foreign trade has clearly underwritten

China’s remarkable growth, but what is most apparent, sitting at my

father-in-law’s computer, is the astonishing growth of China’s domestic

economy. Since my last visit in 1997, Beijing has built thousands of new

apartment blocks, constructed hundreds of kilometers of limited-access roads,

and opened dozens of new department stores. Middle-class Chinese have

purchased and remodeled their apartments; they have bought stylish clothes,

air conditioners, multi-language DVD players, and computers (and signed up for

email and surfed the internet).

While reveling in this newfound abundance, I read Marc Egnal’s interpretation

of the much more modest economic growth of the eighteenth-century British and

French mainland colonies, which averaged perhaps a half percent a year. Even

such modest growth meant that mid eighteenth-century families lived in greater

abundance, with more varied possessions (forks and knives, higher grades of

cloth) than their parents.

Building on a long tradition (of the so-called staple thesis), Egnal argues

that colonial prosperity depended upon the mother country and its demand for

staples the colonies produced. Using a mountain of data, some newly uncovered,

he documents long economic cycles in England and France and connects them to

levels of colonial exports and imports. He traces the substantial temporal

differences in growth in Quebec, the British Northern colonies, the Chesapeake

colonies, and the lower South to patterns of demand for colonial staples.

Egnal traces the different rhythms of growth in the four regions to the

economic experiences of major export partners: France for Quebec, England for

the northern colonies, England and western Europe for the Chesapeake, western

Europe and the West Indies for the lower South.

Egnal critiques the staple thesis for its lack of quantitative precision and

its failure to take other parts of the colonial economy (such as cultural

differences, capital accumulation, and shifts in the terms of trade) into

consideration. And unlike staple theorists, he emphasizes two long swings in

the colonial economy that stretched from roughly the 1710s to the 1780s, ones

heavily dependent upon government spending and warfare (that poured money into

the colonies but reduced prospects for trade). Yet the book follows staple

theorists in making foreign trade central and for economic development and in

downplaying the importance of the domestic economy. Most of Egnal’s measures

of credit and capital formation, for instance, strongly depend upon trade.

The book’s great strength is in its use of simple (but ingenious) statistical

measures of trade, credit, growth, prices, economic cycles, and consumption.

There are 103 figures and 17 tables in the 159 pages of the book’s main text,

taking up something like two-fifths of the text pages — but nary a regression

equation in sight. Egnal, for instance, measures trade by comparing exports

and imports, and using the difference (when imports outpaced exports) to

calculate the level of credit; and he uses relative prices (of staple exports

and manufactured imports) to determine the changing terms of trade.

The major arguments of New World Economies are generally persuasive.

The non-capitalist social formations that the expansion of the world

capitalist economy created in the European periphery did depend on the

European core for its survival. And trade was clearly of central importance in

the colonists’ well being. When tobacco prices dropped, Chesapeake planters

suffered; when French subsidies lagged or European fashions changed, Quebec

habitants descended toward subsistence. As Egnal shows, colonists’ attempts to

foster manufacturing usually failed, forcing them to import such basic

necessities as cloth and eating utensils. In developing economies, where both

labor and capital remained scarce, colonists needed a steady supply of credit,

even on the eve of the Revolution.

This reviewer nonetheless has several reservations about the thrust of Egnal’s

arguments. Can one truly compare the regions chosen? Quebec, in particular,

seems too different from the other regions to allow a coherent contrast.

Granted, its population grew as rapidly as that of the thirteen colonies, but

far fewer French peasants came there than English wage laborers, dispossessed

peasants, and yeomen came to the British colonies. Slavery thrived everywhere

in the colonies (even, to a small degree, in New England), but was generally

absent in Quebec. Perhaps Egnal should have compared the mainland British

colonies to the West Indies. Such a strategy would have allowed comparisons of

four British slave-holding societies and avoided the problem of contrasting

what Egnal knows were profoundly different cultures.

More importantly, Egnal seriously underestimates the significance of the

domestic economy. At first, colonists did have to import nearly all consumer

goods, could acquire credit only from abroad, and faced starvation and

nakedness if English supplies faltered. But by the early eighteenth century,

colonists had procured the basic necessities of life and could pass them on to

the next generation. During the Atlantic depression of the late seventeenth

and early eighteenth centuries (one that affected, as Egnal shows, both the

northern and Chesapeake colonies), farmers and planters took up home

manufacturing. Although colonists still imported textiles and finished

ceramics and metal ware more cheaply than that they made them, they gradually

acquired spinning, weaving, and smithing skills and readily made simple cloth,

clothing, and metal goods. Since Egnal uses imports as a proxy for growth, he

has no way of writing about, much less measuring, the significance of the

domestic economy.

Work on colonial crafts and domestic manufacture is just beginning, but

historians are beginning to measure its impact. The most promising work

revolves around craft skills (there are important articles and books on

seventeenth-century New England artisans, Connecticut furniture makers,

Pennsylvania weavers, and Eastern Shore artisans) and detailed considerations

of consumer goods found in probate inventories and store account records. A

recent issue of the William and Mary Quarterly examined the issue, from

a theoretical point of view, in some detail. If a historical economist as

imaginative as Egnal turns his or her mind toward measuring the domestic

economy, this reviewer is certain that robust numbers can be calculated.

These quibbles to the contrary notwithstanding, Egnal’s book is an essential

analysis of eighteenth-century international commerce, adding essential

details and arguments to Shepherd and Walton’s and McCusker and Menard’s

earlier works. Every economic and early American historian ought to read it.

Allan Kulikoff is Abraham Baldwin Professor of the Humanities at the

University of Georgia. His most recent book is From British Peasants to

Colonial American Farmers (University of North Carolina Press, 2000), an

examination of the early modern English economy, early immigration to the

colonies, the relations of farmers and Indians, and colonial population, land

acquisition, and household formation. He is currently working on three books:

a methodological examination of the theoretical bases of early American

history, an examination of farmer identity in eighteenth-century America

(The Making of the American Yeoman Class), and an analysis of the

impact of the American Revolution in the countryside (The Farmer’s


Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century

New Spain’s Century of Depression

Author(s):Borah, Woodrow Wilson
Reviewer(s):Salvucci, Richard

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.


Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):17th Century

The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure

Author(s):Boserup, Ester
Reviewer(s):Federico, Giovanni

Project 2001: Significant Works in Economic History

Ester Boserup, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure. London, G. Allen and Unwin, 1965; Chicago: Aldine, 1965. 124 pp.

Review Essay by Giovanni Federico, Department of Modern History, University of Pisa.

Population, Agricultural Growth and Institutions: The Real Long-Run View

This may be an unusual review for the series. In fact, Ester Boserup was not a professional economic historian and this is not properly speaking a work of history. Boserup was part of the staff at the United Nations and she wrote the book out of her experience as a consultant in developing countries. The book does not discuss in depth any specific historical event, and quotations of historical works are rather rare. It nevertheless is one of the most widely quoted works in economic history. Usually, it is labeled as “anti-Malthusian” and encapsulated with a sentence such as “population growth causes agricultural growth.” This is undoubtedly an implication of her model and comes in handy to scholars who do not believe that the (human) carrying capacity of a given area is set, and cannot be exceeded. From this point of view, one can draw a parallel between The Conditions of Agricultural Growth and another highly influential book, Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford 1981), which dismantled another tenet of Malthusian theory — i.e. that famines were always (or mainly) caused by absolute deficiency of food.

However, Boserup’s book is much more than a simple rejection of Malthus. It aims at explaining all the characteristics of agriculture in any specific area and time according to the resource endowment — the land/labor ratio. The more dense population is, the more intensive cultivation becomes. Agrarian economists in the 1950s focused on the Western world, and thus they could appreciate only a relatively narrow range of techniques. Looking at less developed countries, Boserup could list five different agricultural systems, according to the length of fallow between periods of cultivation (pp.15-16): 1) forest-fallow or slash and burn (15-20 years of fallow), 2) bush-fallow (6-10 years); 3) short-fallow (1-2 years); 4) annual cropping (a few months); 5) multi-cropping (no fallow). Even if the original evidence comes from the observation of primitive societies in the 1940s, the leap from changes in space to changes in time is short. Thus the rest of the book explores the consequences of intensification — i.e. of the move from one stage to another caused by population growth. Each of them entails more labor per unit of (total) land, and thus the intensification increases the productivity of land and reduces that of labor. A household has to work more to keep the same level of income. The intensification brings about an improvement in tools (from the digging stick, to the hoe, to the plough) and in the long run also brings some investments in land improvement (e.g. irrigation schemes). With pre-industrial technology, land improvements had to be done manually by peasants. Thus, they are typical of the last stages of the process, when there is enough work-force and enough demand for food to justify them. Total factor productivity may increase in the long run, but surely most of the increase in total output is achieved with a massive growth of work effort by the agricultural population. Finally, the intensification also shapes institutions, and this is the most innovative aspect of Boserup’s model. The forest-fallow system is inconsistent with household property of any given plot of land. The land belongs to (or more precisely is exploited by) the tribe as a whole. Property rights have to be created only when the cultivation cycle is shorter, and the quality of each single piece of land begins to matter. In the later stages of development some people could cease to work, and be entitled to rights to a part of the product (a “two-tier” society). However, Boserup is not nostalgic about primitive societies. She makes it crystal clear that the “two-tier” societies are better, even if in these latter some men did not work as hard as others.

Some years later, Boserup extended her model from agriculture to the whole of society (Population and Technological Change: A Study of Long-term Trends, Chicago, 1981). She added the concept of economies of scale. Many technologies can be properly exploited only if the population is dense enough. Population growth makes urban civilization possible. The second book is highly interesting, and has many insightful passages. Yet it fails to reach the simple elegance of The Conditions of Agricultural Growth — that quality which makes this book really deserving of being added to this list of masterpieces.

Of course, one could quibble endlessly about the “details” of Boserup’s model such the number and the exact features of the “stages.” The overall view provides a short, but powerful, history of the world, from prehistory to the nineteenth century arranged around one of the basic principles of economic theory — that techniques (and much else) depend on resource endowments. As you would expect from a seminal work, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth launched and refocused many modern debates. Let me give two examples. When Boserup was writing, the British agricultural revolution (i.e. the change in rotations with the substitution of fodder crops for fallow) was considered an epochal change with far-reaching implications for the entirety of world history. This view is still diffused, if no longer dominant. In Boserup’s model, the change is only part of the long-run process of world-wide intensification, and Europe was trailing behind the two other major civilizations, India and China. In fact, the most advanced areas of Europe reached Stage 4 while China was already at Stage 5. Another, and perhaps less obvious, example may be Greg Clark’s thesis on the differences in work intensity between Eastern Europe and the West (including the US). He argues that in the early nineteenth century Eastern Europeans were less productive than Westerners, because they worked less hard, and that they worked less hard because “they were different” (Clark, “Productivity Growth without Technical Change in European Agriculture before 1850,” Journal of Economic History, Vol. 47, 1987, p. 431). The thesis is very controversial (see the subsequent debate with John Komlos in the Journal of Economic History, in 1988 and 1989), but let’s assume it is true. Is it not possible that the “different” work ethic had been shaped over the centuries by different land/labor ratios? Other examples could follow, but the main point is clear: Boserup’s book is a treasure-trove of ideas. Unfortunately, it is more often quoted than used in actual research. As far as I know, there are very few really “Boserupian” works — i.e., long-term analyses of agricultural change as driven by changes in factor endowments. The most ambitious is Kang Chao’s book on Man and Land in Chinese Economic History: An Economic Analysis (Stanford 1986).

Why this (relative) neglect in spite of the so frequent quotations? One can put forward three causes, which are not mutually exclusive. The first is academic specialization. Intensification lasted for centuries, even for millennia, and few scholars would feel at ease in discussing both pre-historical agriculture and nineteenth century techniques. This fate is common to all interpretations of long-term change (cf. J. L. Anderson, Explaining Long-term Economic Change, Basingstoke, 1991). Second, the evidence on early-stage societies is very scarce, and by its nature it is often unfamiliar to historians. “Real” historical sources exist for Western Europe, China and India in the last three stages.

Last, but not least, the model has its own weaknesses. It is surely convincing as an account of long-term growth. It is less convincing as an explanation of short-term trends, and in this case the “short” term can last for decades. Boserup speaks as if all the techniques were known since the beginning, so that the population had only to choose the one best suited to its resource endowment and adjust its institutions if necessary. On the contrary, new techniques had to be learned, and sometimes discovered or re-discovered. In backward economies, information travels very slowly or not at all, and thus a people may not know that another one, maybe hundreds or thousands of miles away, has successful managed to overcome a specific problem. And, even if it gets to know the right technique, plant, or implement, the population still may need time and effort to master it and to adapt it to its own environment. Thus a success in the long run may conceal several short-term crises. Outright failure cannot be ruled out entirely.

Second, Boserup assumes that population growth is exogenous, following a standard practice among economists in pre-Beckerian time. Today, however, most consider population growth to be endogenous, and largely affected by economic calculations. People could reduce population increase by delaying marriages, controlling births, migrating and the like. Slower population growth would, ceteris paribus, reduce the drive to agricultural intensification. This is, of course, an empirical issue.

Finally, Boserup seems to neglect the different nature of modern technology or, if you want, the new role of capital. Her world is a two-factor world — labor and land. As said, capital does exist either as simple tools or as labor-intensive investment projects — but not as labor-saving machinery and above all land-saving fertilizers. In her world, intensification is possible up to a point, but sooner or later it has to reach a limit. It is unclear whether in real history this limit had ever been reached, even if China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries may be a good candidate. Aside from China, even in, say, 1800 there was a lot of “free” land on the Earth and thus a “Malthusian” crisis was still far away for the world as a whole. But sooner or later, a limit had to be reached, and further population increase beyond it was bound to cause a Malthusian crisis (even if smart people may prevent it with birth control). As everyone knows, the solution was technical progress, which has increased the productivity of both land and labor. (One wonders whether there are ecological or maybe ethical limits to technical progress). Boserup should have added a Stage 6 to her intensification model. Of course, she was very well aware of the technical progress, but she did not. One may speculate that she was more interested in less developed countries than in advanced countries, or simply she did not want to add a stage which could not fit easily in a model based on the length of fallow.

It is too easy to criticize ex post with the hindsight of decades of research. In spite of all its shortcomings, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth remains a small masterpiece which economic historians should read — and not simply quote.

Giovanni Federico is the author of An Economic History of the Silk Industry, 1830-1930 (Cambridge University Press, 1997) and (with Jon Cohen) The Economic Development of Italy, 1820-1930 (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming for the Economic History Society).


Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation

Author(s):Perelman, Michael
Reviewer(s):Clark, Gregory

Published by EH.NET (March 2001)

Michael Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy

and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation. Durham, NC: Duke

University Press, 2000. 412 pp. $22,95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8223-2491-1; $64.95

(cloth), ISBN: 0-8223-2454-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gregory Clark, Department of Economics, University of


One of our popular diversions here in California is “channeling” the thoughts

of those who have passed on to the spirit world. Michael Perelman has

seemingly by these methods made contact with Karl Marx himself. For his book

is a lively polemic directed at the Classical political economists, full of

allegations of double dealing and bad faith, that the master himself would

have been proud to deliver. Marx lives. He lives in Chico, California.

Perelman interprets Classical political economy as a political program in

search of an intellectual justification. Classical economists wanted to

promote the interests of the new capitalist class. To this end the Classical

system celebrated the virtues of the free market. But free markets were of no

use if the capitalist class could not recruit the wage slaves they needed for

their factories. So Classical economists simultaneously promoted intervention

in markets to strip the peasantry and handicraft workers of the vestiges of

their independence and reduce them to the wage labor. They advocated in Marx’s

terms (or at least in the terms of Marx’s English translators) “primitive

accumulation” as necessary to make a market economy. But they did not advocate

this openly: thus the “secret history of primitive accumulation.” Free

competition was optimal, unless it produced an independent peasantry unwilling

to submit to wage labor. “While energetically promoting their laissez-faire

ideology, they championed time and again policies that flew in the face of

their laissez-faire principles” (pp. 2-3).

Exhibit A in Perelman’s indictment of the Classical mob is the case of the

Game Laws. The Game Laws banned the landless and small owners in the

countryside from taking game animals. Thus in England by the laws of 1670 to

take game even on your own land a person had to meet a very substantial

property qualification. In both England and Scotland these laws became more

severe as the eighteenth century progressed, and more people were convicted

under the laws. Why, asks Perelman, did the new capitalist class and their PR

agents, the Political Economists, support these feudal restrictions in favor

of the country squires? They did so because it took away the sources of

support that kept the poor in the countryside from the factory door. They did

so because a hunting peasant was an idle peasant and an insolent peasant, not

a docile and dependable worker.

That is the Perelman claim. What is his evidence? The main evidence that

Classical political economy promoted the game laws to dispossess the peasantry

is their almost complete silence on the subject! Adam Smith, “that great

master of capitalist apologetics” (p. 49), was, writes Perelman, the only

Classical Economist to ever mention the Game Laws. Smith, however, condemned

the game laws as a feudal relic, noting that “The reason they give is that the

prohibition is made to prevent the lower sort of people from spending their

time on such unprofitable employment; but the real reason is that they

delightin hunting” (p. 50). In light of this Perelman concludes this

discussion by noting generously that “Although Smith refuses to acknowledge

any association between the Game Laws and the interests of capital, he

deserves some credit for broaching the subject, since all other political

economists failed to make any mention whatsoever” (p. 51).

Since Classical writers cunningly concealed their support and promotion of the

Game Laws by not discussing them, or pretending to be opposed to them, their

guilt is established by the silence of their friends in Parliament on the

issue. “When Parliament debated the Game Laws again in 1830, not one prominent

spokesperson for political economy called for their abolition” (p. 54). The

alternative hypothesis, that Classical economists really thought the Game Laws

were a feudal relic too minor to bother with, is not explored.

Exhibit B in the indictment of the Classical mob is their treatment of

household “self provisioning” or as Perelman also refers to it “the social

division of labor.” Here again we know of their bad faith in this matter in

the contrast between their obvious desire to destroy self-provisioning and

force all workers into the market and their public silence on the issue. Thus

“Smith, insofar as he addresses the subject, treated the social division of

labor as the result of voluntary choices on the part of free people” (p. 90).

On the other hand any random statement by anyone criticizing sloth or

indiscipline by independent producers is sign of a plan to eliminating

independence and create a proletariat.

It is true that Classical economists often wrote about the indolence of the

poor and of smallholders. But was this casual moralizing just a relic of

earlier modes of discourse, on the way to a more systematic way of thinking

about the economy? Here I read their general silence on the issue very

differently. It is the silence that shows that concern with forcing the poor

to labor for wages was a peripheral element of their system. Perelman, has to

transform this casual silence into a much more sinister conspiracy to conceal.

The book makes little progress in that direction. Indeed the bold links drawn

on the most tenuous of evidence are one thing that distinguishes the Chico

Marx from the original. Those connections are so bold that this book might

better be placed on the shelf with the “grassy knoll” and “Roswell” genres.

As a historian who has written on England in the Industrial Revolution period

I have a more innocent interpretation of the Classical conspiracy of silence

on the alleged expropriation of the peasantry. This is that the process

whereby independent peasants and artisans became wage laborers was already

largely complete in England by the time the Classical economists arrived on

the scene in the eighteenth century. Their silence on the issue is a silence

of true indifference. They had no need to conspire in the expropriation of

the means of subsistence by capitalists, because a free labor market was in

place. The issue of common rights, access to land, and self-provisioning had

been settled in favor of wage labor by 1700 in all but the rural fastnesses of

the Scottish highlands. Even before the formal Parliamentary enclosure

movement of 1750 and later common rights had mainly become private tradable

rights of access unlikely to be owned by the poorest workers. Truly common

areas with free access were limited and of little value (see Leigh

Shaw-Taylor, “Did Agricultural Laborers Have Common Rights?” forthcoming,

Journal of Economic History, and “Labourers, Cows, Common Rights and

Parliamentary Enclosure: The Evidence of Contemporary Comment, c. 1760-1810″

forthcoming, Past and Present).

Perelman, like Marx, suffers from a wildly romantic vision of a pre-industrial

England of laughter and leisure that accords little with reality. Marx had the

excuse that he was writing at a time when little was known about that past.

Gregory Clark is Professor of Economics at the University of California,


Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

Asian Merchants and Businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea

Author(s):Lombard, Denys
Aubin, Jean
Reviewer(s):Giraldez, Arturo

Published by EH.NET (November 2000)

Denys Lombard and Jean Aubin, editors, Asian Merchants and Businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000. iii + 375 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0195641094.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Arturo Giraldez, Modern Languages and Literatures Department, University of the Pacific.


This collection of essays was edited in 1988 by two professors of the L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and was published originally in French by the institution’s publishing house. The volume was produced after a conference on the same topic organized by these two eminent historians some years before. As Sanjay Subrahmanyam points out in the “Foreword,” it was a response to the perspective taken by Dutch historians of the Early Modern Period who considered the trading world of Asia in terms of the European Companies and the reaction of ‘non-Western’ societies. The economic dynamism was perceived as coming from Europe and acting upon backward economies. Denys Lombard and Jean Aubin tried to promote a contrary view of an Asian history “that was largely controlled by its internal rhythms, even if related in complex ways after 1500 to various forms of European commercial and political presence” (Subrahmanyam, p. i). This historical debate is not new; it follows controversies involving specialists in Indian, Chinese and African histories. Despite the twelve-year lapse between the French version and the current translation, these essays come at a time when the debate between Eurocentric paradigms and new historiographic perspectives is taking on a new life. The work of Andre Gunder Frank, Ken Pomeranz and R. Bin Wong, among others, place China and the ‘rise of the West’ in a different light, showing the importance of China in world history before the beginnings in Britain of the so called ‘Industrial Revolution.’ (See Andre Gunder Frank (1998) ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age, Berkeley: University of California Press; Kenneth Pomeranz (2000) The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton: Princeton University Press; and R. Bin Wong (1997) China Transformed. Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. A recent exposition of the ‘Eurocentric’ paradigm is David Landes (1998) The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor, New York: Norton. For a criticism of these ideas, see James M. Blaut (2000) Eight Eurocentric Historians, New York and London: Guilford Press.)

Despite inherent theoretical problems related to the meaning of the term ‘Europe,’ with even greater confusion in the case of the term ‘West,’ those intellectual constructs form the basis of historical interpretations of wide acceptance. This set of ideas considers past developments in the “European West” as essentially endogenous processes that produced economic and social institutions whose rationality and efficiency renders them the paradigm of economic modernization. Eurocentric views have the common trait of creating an intellectual template to be applied to the transformations of other societies and ranking them accordingly to the similarities and differences from an ideal historical development. To counteract this view, Denys Lombard and Jean Aubin have collected a vast array of articles dealing with the dense network of exchanges from the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the African East Coast to the shores of China and Japan. The Europeans — Portuguese, Spaniards, English and Dutch — took advantage of pre-existing dense economic networks but their disruptions did not essentially upset their control by Asian powers until the nineteenth century.

Four main themes structure the authors’ historiographical perspective: 1) “Harbor Towns” as centers of economic stimulation; 2) The role of Islam in developing merchant networks since the ninth century; 3) The study of merchant ‘diasporas’; and 4) The ‘Continuity’ of business in Asia.

Chronologically, the collection begins with Chen Dasheng and D. Lombard’s “Foreign Merchants in Maritime Trade in ‘Quanzhou’ (‘Zaitun’): Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries” and ends with “The Major Japanese Groups of Enterprises (Kigyoshudan), Heirs to the Zaibatsus” by Bertrand Cheng. This time span was chosen to avoid an Asian economic history “in which all exchanges are seen through the prism of a periodization, whose pulse is to be found in Lisbon, London or Amsterdam” (Lombard, p.3).

Cities were crucial to trade in Asian waters. Denys Lombard distinguishes between the ‘hydraulic’ city connected to an agricultural space and merchant cities, which depended, in fact, on the maritime nexus and its links with foreign land (p.114). An early case was Quanzhou in China: “a precursor of the merchant cities that we shall later see at different points of the Indian Ocean.” (Dasheng and Lombard, p.20). Luis Filipi F.R. Thomaz studies Melaka in the sixteenth century. Genevieve Bouchon places Calicut in relationship with the Arab world, Ceylon, the Moluccas and the trade with China. Studying the city-port of Surat, Ashin Das Gupta discovers how the arrival of the Dutch and English and the Portuguese departure opened a window of opportunity for Indian merchants to became ship-owners (pp.105-112). This is a good example of how Asian entrepreneurs were able to take advantage of changes produced by the European presence.

Islam played a great role in merchant networks after the ninth century. We find Muslim communities in Quanzhou in the eleventh century; by the sixteenth century they were present in Hurmuz, Malacca, Mindanao and Manila. “As late as the 19th and 20th centuries, Islam continued to animate a whole series of intermediate networks from one end to the Indian Ocean to the other” (Lombard, pp. 5-6). Several authors study these Muslim merchants: Hadramis, Gujaratis, Ismailis, Bohras, Kashmiris, Panthay, and so on.

One of the most intriguing aspects illustrated by these essays is the “continuity” of merchant family networks and how they took advantage of the opportunities provided by different social contexts. When “Saudi Arabia developed into a petro-economy state, it attracted a flood of Hadrami emigrants; two Hadrami multi-millionaires were known everywhere, Bin Mahfuz and Bin Laden” (R.B. Serjeant, p.149). Hadrami origins come from Yemen. Claude Markovits studies other industrial groups in India like the Kasturbhais family of Gujarati merchants whose ancestor, Shantidas Zaveri, was ‘jeweler’ to the Mughal Imperial Court. The family owned textile factories but during the 1960s the group expanded into the chemical industry in collaboration with European companies, ICI and CIBA. They passed from traditional merchants to modern industrialists: “This adaptation has been achieved without any basic modification in the working methods or in the forms of organization” (Markovits, p.318). Similar cases can be found among the Chinese Hakka studied by Claudine Salmon. In 1862 Aw Chi Ching, a Hakka doctor from Fujien settled in Rangoon where he practiced traditional medicine and sold medicinal herbs. His descendents marketed a remedy called “Tiger Balm” of great mass appeal. They began advertising in Chinese newspapers in Hong-Kong, Macao and Northern China. To fight competitors in the balm business they bought newspapers in Guandong, Amoy, Singapore, Hong-Kong and Penang. Despite losing their properties in China after the Revolution, the family overcame the post World War crisis. A successor, Sally Aw, bought newspapers in Hong-Kong and Australia and also invested in a variety of businesses. The Hakka network was a great contributor to family success. After World War II one family member founded the first Hakka Bank in Singapore, the Chong Qiao Yinhang.

The vicissitudes of business development in Japan are well exemplified by one prominent conglomerate of the country: “The Iwasaki family had created the Mitsubishi company, which was the result of a commercial enterprise installed in Nagasaki and financed by the Tosa fief. It had closely collaborated with the earlier Meiji administrations” (Akamatsu, p.365). Before World War II Mitsubishi was one of the ‘Big Four’ Zaibatsus — the others being Mitsui, Sumitomo, and Yasuda. “However, as early as the 1950s, a new type of structure called kigyoshudan emerged to regroup the erstwhile zaibatsus” (Chung, p.367). Mitsubishi is one of them. The previous cases go beyond mere anecdote, implying large theoretical issues. In the words of Lombard (p. 7): “The question still remains whether the recent development of Asian capitalism is a reproduction of Western capitalist systems or an outgrowth of an independent stand taken with regard to them.”

Asian merchants were not always able to develop into industrialists. Another completely different role was the symbiotic relationships between Chettiars and Kalangs with European powers. The Chettiar studied by Hans-Dieter Evers were a Tamil caste of South India. Initially they were moneylenders whose activities expanded to South Africa, Mauritius, Ceylon, Burma, Malaya, South Vietnam and Indochina at the end of the late nineteenth century. The Chettiar expansion coincided with development in South-East Asia of the corporate plantation system and the mining and logging industries. “The Chettiar money-lenders played a major role in the transformation of the remaining peasant subsistence economy and connecting it with the export crop-producing sectors” (Evers, p. 206). They also provided capital to Chinese, Burmese, Pathan and Sinhalese moneylenders, but at the same time were connected with European banking institutions. “Chettiar agents had turned peasants into ‘capillaries of a network of financial arteries leading to the banks of London and Paris'” (Evers, p. 208). The Kalangs are a group of Javanese merchants studied by Claude Guillot. Fatimah, a Kalang woman, involved herself in money lending, like her mother, and in buying and selling gold. The gold was melted down and made “into pure gold ingots that Fatimah personally took to sell to the Javasche Bank in Batavia.” After World War I, this bank “introduced Fatimah to diamond merchants from Antwerp.” The family became the most prominent diamond merchants of the Dutch East Indies (Envers, pp. 272-73).

One might criticize the editors’ decision to “set aside all that we know of the European networks” (Lombard, p.4). Ignoring the presence of the Europeans in Asian waters implies ignoring the substantial links developed between Asian economies, America and other colonial powers. For instance, the Chinese tributary system used Japanese and American silver as one of its main monetary substances; and in the nineteenth century the Atlantic economy, Australian gold, Chinese tea and Indian opium formed a network of exchanges with the British playing a pivotal role. This observation does not detract from the quality of the collection. The essays are full of information and their findings should be carefully incorporated into current historical narratives.

Denys Lombard and Jean Aubin were much aware of the difficulties of studying Asian economies. Whereas European companies and countries contain rich sources amenable to statistical treatment, that is not the case for many economies in the Indian Ocean and China Sea. That explains why many of the essays’ authors use biographical sources and anthropological research to fortify their cases. However, to dismiss their findings because of lack of statistical information would be a serious mistake. In so-called western societies many economic activities are not reported in a reliable numerical form, such as the drug trade that forms part of the, non-reported, “submerged economy.”

Sanjay Subrahmanym’s “Foreword” finishes with the following thoughts that express very well the book’s theoretical relevance. “It is a timely reminder, at the end of the twentieth century, that the family firm, the merchant community, and the networks of capital-raising and investment based on kinship, affinity, and sociability, are still a reality that one needs to contend with, in Asia, but also perhaps in Europe and even in America” (p.ix).

Overall, this is an excellent collection that is tremendously useful for the historian and social scientist willing to get acquainted with aspects of economic and social history usually known only to specialists. It is a deep loss that both Jean Aubin and Denys Lombard are no longer with us. Both were great examples of an excellent French tradition in social sciences. Also two other contributors to the volume, Ashin Das Gupta and R.B.Serjeant died in the last decade of the twentieth century. The book is a great occasion to get acquainted with their work.

Arturo Giraldez has published several articles (in collaboration with D. O. Flynn) on precious metals in the modern era and has edited Metals and Monies in a Global Economy (Aldershot: Varioum, 1997). Also he is a general co-editor of the Variorum collection The Pacific World: Lands, Peoples and History of the Pacific, 1500-1900.


Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):General or Comparative