The Commercial Machine: Reforming Imperial Commerce in the Spanish Atlantic, c. 1740-1808

by Fidel Tavarez

Institution: Princeton University
Year: 2016
Keywords: Bourbon Reforms; Commercial Empire; Commercial Society; Enlightenment; Political Economy; Spanish Empire
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2075475
Full text PDF: http://arks.princeton.edu/ark:/88435/dsp018049g7534


Towards the middle of the eighteenth century a new imperial program took shape in the very heart of the Spanish Monarchy. Its intellectual architects included officials who served in the new Bourbon Ministries, the Board of Trade, the Council of Castile, and the Council of the Indies. Fervent students of Enlightenment political economy, these ministers envisioned the Spanish Monarchy as a kind of machine, with the king as its engineer and imperial officials as scientific advisors. In this new imperial machine, Spanish American territories acquired a singular function: to consume the commodities produced by the metropole. This dissertation investigates what Enlightenment ministers were attempting to accomplish with the monarchy by deploying this new mechanical vision of empire. It argues that they sought to transform the “composite” or “polycentric” monarchy inherited from the Habsburgs into a commercial empire, a kind of state whose power derived from its ability to harness colonial markets to improve its productivity. Through a deep contextual reading of archival and print sources, this dissertation tracks the intellectual coalescence of this new imperial program and the policy implications that arose from it. The turn towards commercial empire entailed two main operations. First, it challenged an older form of military statecraft that worried most about channeling money into the king’s coffers to invest in developing the state’s military capacity. In its stead, Spanish ministers developed a new commercial science of state with the conviction that power stemmed from controlling markets, rather than from bullion and military strength. Imperial ministers realized that Spain could not compete with its European rivals unless it adapted the monarchy’s administrative and commercial systems to the dictates of commercial society. Second, Enlightenment ministers sought to convert the Spanish American autonomous kingdoms into dependent colonies that consumed the manufactures of the metropole. While previous scholars have described this change as an attempt to centralize the empire, this dissertation demonstrates that it was, instead, an attempt to create one where none had existed before. Situating the Hispanic world at the forefront of Enlightenment debates concerning commercial society, this dissertation uncovers how and why the Spanish commercial empire was invented. The dissertation is divided in two parts. Part I reconstructs the birth and application of the new theory of commercial empire between 1740 and 1765. Enlightenment ministers realized that, to harness colonial markets for the metropole’s advantage, they had to implement internal comercio libre as a replacement for the old fleet and galleon commercial system. This new policy of commercial empire materialized in 1765 with the first comercio libre decree for the Caribbean and continued through the subsequent decrees of 1778 and 1789. Part II seeks to reconstruct some of the tensions that surfaced from the new imperial program, especially the… Advisors/Committee Members: Adelman, Jeremy (advisor).