Landowners in Colonial Peru

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In 1540 a small number of Spaniards founded the city of Arequipa in southwestern Peru. These colonists, later immigrants, and their descendants devoted considerable energy to exploiting the surrounding area. At first, like many other Spaniards in the Americas, they relied primarily on Indian producers; by the late 1500s they had acquired land and established small farms and estates. This, the first study to examine the agrarian history of a region in South America from the mid-sixteenth through late-seventeenth century, demonstrates that colonials exploited the countryside as capitalists. They ran their rural enterprises as efficiently as possible, expanded their sources of credit and labor, tapped widespread markets, and lobbied strenuously to influence the royal government. The reasons for such behavior have seldom been explored beyond the colonists' evident need to sustain themselves and their dependents. Arequipa's case suggests another fundamental cause of capitalist behavior in colonial South America: rural wealth was inextricably tied to the colonists' desire to reinforce and improve their stature. Arequipa's Spanish families of the upper and middle social levels consistently employed land and its proceeds to attract prominent spouses, to acquire prestigious political and military posts, and to enhance their standing by becoming benefactors of the Church. They rarely lost sight of the crucial role that wealth played in their lives. Thus, when the region's economy flourished, as it did during the late 1500s, they expanded and improved their holdings. When it faltered at the beginning of the next century, they made every effort to retain properties, even fragmenting land to accommodate family members and new spouses. Unlike patterns sometimes suggested for Spanish America, many Arequipan colonial families possessed land and retained it over many generations. Neither the increasingly rich Church nor a few powerful persons managed to build up extensive estates. Landowners in Colonial Peru explains how and why rural property became so important. It emphasizes both the capitalist bent of Hispanics and the manner in which wealth served social aspirations. The approach makes clear that many of the economic and social characteristics so often attributed to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Latin Americans were present from the early Colonial period.