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Colonial Mexico, Economy

repartimiento, encomienda system, Spanish monarchy, Taxco, draft animals

An important aspect of the early colonial economy of Mexico was the exploitation of Native Americans. Although thousands of Native Americans were killed during the Spanish conquest, they were still the great majority of inhabitants and inevitably became the laboring class. Native Americans performed much of the farming, mining, and ranching work in the colony. Although Spain had decreed that the Native Americans were free and entitled to wages, they were often treated little better than slaves. Their plight was initially the result of the encomienda system, by which European settlers, explorers, and soldiers were granted access to Native American labor to work their large land holdings.

The government of Spain made several attempts to regulate the exploitation of Native American labor on farms and in mines in the mid-16th century. The New Laws of 1542 forbade the enslavement of Native Americans, prevented the granting of any new encomiendas, and declared that existing encomiendas would revert to the Spanish monarchy upon the death of their holders. Because the colonists strongly opposed the reforms and threatened general revolt, Spain relaxed its position on the inheritance of encomiendas. Spanish officials were largely unable to enforce the remaining measures.

Another system of forced labor, known as the repartimiento (division), emerged in the mid-16th century. The repartimiento required Native American communities to supply a quota of workers that would be available for hire by the Spanish settlers. This system could be burdensome and harsh, especially in silver mines, and it diverted native laborers away from their own agricultural tasks.

Slaves and free blacks worked in the ports of cities such as Veracruz and Acapulco, and labored in mines, factories, plantations, and sugar mills. Some slaves worked as household servants in urban areas, while some free blacks managed rural properties for absentee owners or were put in charge of Native American workers. Colonial Mexico witnessed several slave riots and some runaway slaves managed to establish independent communities in rugged, isolated regions.

European crops such as wheat, oats, barley, and a variety of secondary items were introduced after the conquest and soon flourished. Cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, oxen, mules, burros, and horses added new food stocks as well as draft animals. By 1600 an estimated 10 million animals of European origin roamed the countryside. Land holdings varied in size depending on climate. In the north, scarce water and dry grasses required vast haciendas, or estates, to support cattle. In more fertile areas in central Mexico, the land holdings were much smaller, and hacienda owners generally engaged in mixed agricultural activities.

Mining operations centered on silver deposits. Cortes owned the first silver mine in New Spain, which opened in Taxco (Taxco de Alarcon), located about 110 km (70 mi) southwest of Mexico City. Small, but disappointing strikes followed until 1546, when rich silver deposits were discovered to the northwest of the capital, in what is now the state of Zacatecas. Other major strikes followed, mostly in the north, drawing miners and settlers into that region. Unlike agricultural items, silver enjoyed an instant market in Europe and Asia, and its high value covered the cost of transportation. Mining, exporting, and trading silver made possible a complex and diversified economy in colonial Mexico.

Large merchants tended to dominate commerce in New Spain. Merchants dealt in products imported from Spain, as well as items obtained from trade with other nations. This trade was illegal, as Spain required Mexican colonists to export to Spain raw materials such as silver and sugar, and to buy processed goods only from Spanish merchants. These attempts at strict regulation of trade in colonial Mexico were largely ineffective. Thus, much of Mexicoís silver was used to buy goods from foreigners and found its way into the pockets of Spainís competitors; an estimated one-third of the silver mined in colonial Mexico ended up in Asia.

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