(Un-)godly Capitalism in Colonial Spanish America

Course Material 2024/25


Between 1492 and the 1810s the Spanish Empire ruled over an enormous extension of territories from today’s US South to Argentina and populations of mostly indigenous, European, and African descent. Its history has overwhelmingly been written as driven by an extractivist logic based on mining and silver transfers for the benefit of the colonial metropolis, Spain. And yet, by the late 18th century this was an empire that was almost exclusively self-financing and whose 
economy was largely controlled by local elites. So how did the Spanish colonial economy function, and what was the role that silver, money, credit, and debt played within the colonial economy? In this paper we will look at a large variety of historical sources used to understand the economy of colonial Spanish America through the lens of financial dealings and the actors that were involved in them.
In the first term the paper looks at the workings of the silver economy from the mid-16th century onwards. We examine critically the way in which the discoveries of large amounts of silver, which could be minted into coin, transformed the workings of the colonial economy. Euro-descendants in the colonies sought to harness indigenous labour to turn mining into new forms of wealth, but what was the role of indigenous actors in the financial sector of the colonial economy? Christian teaching across Europe was often equivocal about lending, and Christian commentators thought to define the rules that separated legitimate credit operations from usury.
We explore how Catholic colonisers grappled with the tension between wealth and religious duty and how the indigenous population became part of and shaped this quintessentially Christian form of sociability and wealth creation.
In the second term the focus shifts to the institutions of what we could call an emerging financial market and to the people who engaged with them. European religious institutions and charitable foundations were increasingly adapted to the financial needs of the colonial economy in the Americas. Monasteries and convents, confraternities, and the Inquisition became active financial institutions, and we trace the way in which the very same institutions that were generally seen as 
critical of money-lending in Europe became the go-to credit providers. Different groups in colonial society, Euro-descendants, Indigenous, and Afro-descendants, used and sometimes repurposed these institutions for their own needs, while also being embedded in the skewed socio-political structures of the empire. What do we know about the men, and the many women, who participated in this? How did the religious norms underpinning their activities evolve? We 
follow them into the different places in which they invested: among them large agricultural haciendas, urban houses and shops, the town treasury, the King’s debt and significant numbers of enslaved African and Afro-descendent labourers.

Introductory Readings

Antunes, C., Grafe, R., & Lamikiz, X. (2024). Trade and the Colonial Economies, 1500–1828. In P. Lains, L. F. Costa, R. Grafe, A. Herranz-Loncán, D. Igual-Luis, V. Pinilla, & H. V. Vilar (Eds.), Iberian Economic History, 700-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burkholder, M. A. (2010). Colonial Latin America / Mark A. Burkholder, Lyman L. Johnson (7th ed. ed.). New York: New York : Oxford University Press, 2010.

Burns, K. (1999). Colonial Habits: Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press.

Grafe, R. (2018). Empires of Charity: Imperial Legitimacy and Profitable Charity in Colonial Spanish America. New Global Studies, 12(2), 131-155.

Lane, K. E. (2019). Potosí: the silver city that changed the world / Kris Lane: Oakland, California : University of California Press, [2019]

Mangan, J. E. (2005). Trading roles: gender, ethnicity, and the urban economy in colonial Potosí. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Quiroz, A. W. (1994). Reassessing the Role of Credit in Late Colonial Peru: Censos, Escrituras, and Imposiciones. Hispanic American Historical Review, 74(2), 193-230. 

TePaske, J. J., & Brown, K. W. (2010). A new world of gold and silver. Leiden, Netherlands; Boston: Brill