Conquest and Agrarian Change: Robert Keith

Robert Keith’s 1976 Conquest and Agrarian Change: The Emergence of the Hacienda System on the Peruvian Coast, explored the rise of Spanish plantations in seven valleys along Peru’s southern coast in the second half of the sixteenth century. Keith emphasized the legacy of pre-Colombian societies in the development of the hacienda, arguing that in addition to European culture, colonists also borrowed from Andean traditions to give the hacienda its physical and ideological shape.

According to Keith, Spanish settlers made use of pre-Incan and Incan technology and labor organization, contributing much of the irrigation infrastructure and technology needed to produce crops in the microclimates of the valleys. They used techniques such as sunken gardens to tap groundwater and complex systems of canals, which brought water down from the mountains (87-88). They also contributed the curacas, Andean leaders who managed indigenous workers, a role that was incorporated into both the encomienda and hacienda systems in the colonial period.

Writing shortly after James Lockhart’s work on Andean encomiendas, Keith explored some of the same issues, but from an indigenous perspective, focusing primarily on the changing social and economic conditions that brought about the decline of encomiendas and subsequent rise of haciendas. While their positions overlap in terms of arguing that local socioeconomic factors and demographic collapse were the primary causes for the decline of encomiendas, they disagree on how that affected the hacienda economy.

Keith argues that as a political-military instruments from the Spanish Reconquista, encomiendas worked well in the beginning as a tool of conquest (76-77). But the encomienda only made sense in the early years of the colony when the Crown sought to exert control over the newly conquered territories and create incentives for loyal soldiers to settle. After several decades of state bureaucratization and Spanish population growth, the rationale for maintaining encomenderos, who viewed themselves as New World lords with power to challenge the Crown, no longer made sense. Instead, colonial society needed more commercial agricultural producers to feed and supply its growing cities. In other words, where Lockhart saw connections and evolution between encomiendas and haciendas, Keith saw different tools for different times. When it no longer made sense to allow encomenderos direct access to tribute and labor drafts, those roles were given to corregidores de Indios more closely aligned with the Crown and the market-oriented functions were pursued by encomenderos and their families as commercial enterprises (48, 79).

One of the more interesting chapters deals with Spanish “gentlemen-farmers” in the period between the end of encomiendas in the coastal region in the 1550s and the consolidation of hacienda society at the turn of the century (88-90) Keith explains how after stripping encomenderos of their control, the Crown issued a series of smaller land grants, known as chacras, to groups of former soldiers in the hopes that they would found new towns and settle the territory. While many of these small-producers eventually failed due to lack of capital and prohibitively small markets, Keith shows areas where they did succeed, providing a comparison of the types of environmental, geographic, and market factors that helped colonial enterprises succeed (101).

Keith’s iconic example are the wine vineyards of southern Peru. Not only is the area’s coastal environment ideal for grape production, but in the colonial period it could be done profitably on smaller landholdings like the chacras. The reduced costs of shipping wine, as opposed to larger bulk goods like wheat, also extended the range of markets that these gentlemen-farmers could reach, permitting the development of a series of smaller commercial enterprises in coastal areas, such as Ica (101-02). In areas where this worked, landholdings tended to remain limited. But in areas where the chacra system failed,they were often bought up and consolidated into larger haciendas. In this respect, by looking at encomiendas as separate institutions from haciendas, Keith was able to shed light on a different system of land tenancy in the areas he studied.

Taken together with Lockhart’s work on colonial encomiendas, the two scholars straddle a major turn in Latin American historiography in the sense that they explore newer methods of social and economic history to answer older questions raised by legal and political historians before them. In the 1980s, Andean historians like Nicholas Cushner and Susan Ramírez would build off their work, asking new questions about how the estates actually operated, the extent of slavery, and how market, social, and religious networks intersected at this time.

Keith, Robert G. Conquest and Agrarian Change: The Emergence of the Hacienda System on the Peruvian Coast. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1976.

By N. H. Gill
Quito, 2020

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