Thursday, March 19, 2020

Trade Monopolies and Silent Trade

The Capture of the Spanish Galleon Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, 20 April 1743
John Cleveley, the younger. Shugborough, National Trust.
Oil on canvas, 1756. 1029 x 1518 mm (40 1/2 x 59 3/4 in).

The Spanish Empire developed a system of controlled fleets in certain selected ports of a vast dominion. However, in many occasions merchandise transportation requirements exceeded official shipments and their concentration in Veracruz (New Spain) responded to other reasons. The authorities of this port practiced disguised or clandestine trade, which is reflected in an apparent drop in trade records between 1600 and 1720. This source of wealth was exploited by other countries. In turn, Spain could not adequately supply the market in New Spain and did not import enough goods, except metals. (1)
Smuggling promoted by England, Holland, France, and Portugal represented the arrival of a large quantity of high-valued merchandise to New Spain through the Caribbean. It was carried out through official commercial companies, forced arrivals and even threats. In the Pacific Ocean, trade between Acapulco and Manila or from Acapulco to Callao was also carried out outside official regulations, due to excessive tonnage or exports disguised as cabotage. Foreign agents operating in Manila and the "useless" Caribbean ports made enormous profits from the spill of Mexican metals. 
This dynamic trade activity contrasts with the rigidity of the Spanish system, which mercantile prohibition system did not stop shipyards from Callao to Acapulco to open, an activity only accessible to the great potentates, eager traders in New Spain with a commercial vision and power. (2)
On the other hand, silent trade to New Spain was supported by numerous establishments in the Antilles: Jamaica and Barbados (English), Curaçao, Tobago and Saint Eustace (Dutch), and Saint Thomas (Danish). From where it was trafficked with Campeche wood, European manufactures and especially with slaves. Though, Cuba remained the jewel of the Spanish Crown and developed its own protected economy based on slavery, mostly to produce sugar cane and ships building.
Mexico City merchants had numerous contacts at Seville’s Trading House, called Casa de la Contratación. This institution had been created to defend metropolitan commerce by supporting fleets and monopolies. It also promoted nautical and geographic knowledge; instructed the teaching of navigation techniques, construction and repairing of ships, and the commercial information. (3) However, the Crown soon became an economic predator by increasing taxes; not respecting the rules of the game applying forced seizures and acted arbitrarily applying transportation percentages (avería). 
The Crown also favored certain groups by allowing informal negotiations and yielding economic power in exchange for merchant consulates influencing the decisions of the Trading House. Finally, allowed the transfer of power to the officials in Seville, who obtained economic and social benefits through clandestine businesses and prevented free access to public offices by the sale of trades, thus promoting the rapine of the officers. (4) In consequence, the fleets became less frequent during the XVII century in order to push prices up.

From Ruggiero Romano, Coyunturas opuestas, pp. 124-143.

The Thirty Years' War forced King Philip IV to order the importation of quicksilver from the Idria mines in Slovenia. To achieve this goal, the king had to resort to credit and the intermediation of Sevillian and merchants from New Spain, who counted on a network of representatives in Antwerp, Venice and Idria’s mercury dealers. (5) Before 1642, Spanish commercial networks used to reach Lisbon, since the union of the crowns of Castile and Portugal in 1580 had allowed the participation of an extensive network of commercial relations led by members of the Sephardic Portuguese community, who owned numerous contacts in Seville and the main European economic centers, and enough capital to support the Spanish Crown through numerous concessions. 
These activities enabled the Portuguese to link up with the English, Dutch and French ports, as well as funding from the Spanish Navy (Armada de Barlovento). In 1642, Portuguese kingdom independence, radicalized anti-Semitic positions, among which the rumor of a "great complicity". Between 1641 and 1649 the wealthiest merchants from Veracruz and Mexico City were arrested and questioned by the Inquisition. (6) In the following years, other processes indicted some Mexico City merchants and staged dramatic Autos de fe (religious public executions). (7)
Other merchants in Mexico City benefited from financing silver production, manipulating the activities of the Mint, and credit for the acquisition of quicksilver in times of crisis. Among the most prominent were the Biscayan José de Retes Lagarcha and Luis Sánchez de Tagle, both merchants called their nephews in Spain to marry with their daughters and establish family and client relationships with the highest viceregal authorities. Their commercial networks extended to the mining ores in Pachuca or Parral, where they operated through agents (factores), by means of which they concentrated mining equipment and the purchase of silver to coin. 
Retes and Sanchez's privileges at the Mint consisted of controlling the positions of treasurer, chief guard of the Mint, major carver or general metal setter. This type of merchants have been called mercaderes de la plata. (8) The sale of public positions and the practices derived from their businesses, could be seen as harmful to the king and the royal institutions, however, the large sums awarded to the Crown caused that their crimes were minimized and even they obtained noble titles: Luis Sánchez de Tagle that of "Marquis of Altamira" and Juan Urrutia Retes that of "Marquis of Villar del Águila". 
Silver traders were not the only beneficiaries of restrictive policies. In the 1640's, the ban to carry out intercolonial trade was evaded by Mexico City merchants through a triangular route between Acapulco, Manila and Callao based on the importation of cacao beans to New Spain, the main world consumer. A small group of merchants in Mexico City, specialized in cacao trading, transported large quantities of the beans to optimize their costs. During the restrictive period, most imports were made under cover, through  the ports of Veracruz, Acapulco, Huatulco and Zihuatanejo, where shipments from Guayaquil were received. This kind of chocolate was cheaper, and allowed its massive distribution in the thrifty market. (9) 

1. Ruggiero Romano, Mecanismo y elementos del sistema económico colonial americano. Siglos XVI-XVIII, México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Fideicomiso Historia de las Américas, 2004, pp. 273-290 y 299 a 305.
2. Ibid, pp. 273-290.
3. Carlos Álvarez Nogal, “Instituciones y desarrollo económico: la casa de la Contratación y la Carrera de Indias (1503-1790)”, en La Casa de la Contratación y la navegación entre España y las Indias, Sevilla, 2003, pp. 21-34.
4. Ibid., pp. 34-50.
5. Renate Pieper y Philipp Lesiak, “Redes mercantiles entre el Atlántico y el Mediterráneo en los inicios de la guerra de los Treinta Años”, en Antonio Ibarra y Guillermina del Valle, Redes sociales e instituciones consulares en el Imperio Español. Siglos XVII a XIX, México, Facultad de Economía, UNAM, Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José Ma. Luis Mora, pp. 19-39.
6. Carlos García de León Antonio, “La malla inconclusa. Veracruz  y los circuitos comerciales lusitanos en la primera mitad del siglo XVI”, en Antonio Ibarra y Guillermina del Valle, Redes sociales e instituciones consulares en el Imperio Español. Siglos XVII a XIX, México, Facultad de Economía, UNAM, Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José Ma. Luis Mora, Fundación Carolina, 2007, pp. 41-83.
7. Gregorio Martín de Guijo  wrote in his diary about some of these trials, remarkably the one of Duarte de León y Tomás Tremiño del Campo en 1649.
8. Guillermina del Valle Pavón, Redes de negocios de los mercaderes de plata de México a finales del siglo XVII y principios del XVIII, Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José María Luis Mora, documento de trabajo, s/f. 
9. Guillermina del Valle Pavón, Tráfico de cacao de Guayaquil y apertura comercial. La promoción del comercio de cacao y azúcar a través del Consulado de México, documento de trabajo, s/f.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Mexico City Cathedral

Interior of Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, open in 1665.

The Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City and its side chapel represent a synthesis of art in New Spain. After penetrating its imposing sun-bathed baroque and neoclassical facade, the visitor enters the ethereal half-light of this hallowed shrine, with its five separate naves, 16 side chapels, full of sacred religious icons. The religious ceremonies are endlessly performed, (sometimes against the interest of hundred of visitors), but with a little luck, it may be possible to listen the strains of one of the cathedral's monumental organs during the services. The City's soft clay subsoil, subject to continuous movement over the years, has propitiated the gradual sinking of many building such as the cathedral. To protect this heritage, expensive and sophisticated restoration works, partially visible, have prevented its collapse.
The cathedral represents the contributions of many people, authorities and the faithful, but also is a symbol of destruction. The transformation of the Aztec city started when Spaniards destroyed the pagan temples in 1521: the outdoor ceremonies were then celebrated in open chapels, the holy Eucharist took the place of human sacrifices, green feathers were replaced by golden thread cloths and ancient rain and wind gods took the form of Catholic saints posing on golden altar pieces.
Turquoise and pedernal stone were buried to give life to gold monstrances, and the sound of native drums to imported organs. An ancient pagan skull platform (tzompantli), located in site was substituted by ossuaries and graves beneath the monument. Today, both words mingle just in front of the Cathedral by the means of conchero dances and chaman rites.
Mexico City Cathedral evolved through three centuries, gathering artistic stiles, devotions, lavish ceremonies and encoded bell rings, that marked the pace of time in the Viceroyalty’s capital. For this reason, the monument is not only an outstanding architectural piece, but most of all a social symbol that reveals the power of the Catholic hierarchy, a refuge for sorrowed souls, the origin of riots but also the grave or our ancestors and the centre of a nation.

Exterior harmony
The cathedral monumental structure, which today dominates Mexico's main square called Zocalo, replaced a smaller church in 1572. Archbishop Pedro Moya de Contreras laid the first stone which, after 42 symbolic years, and was inaugurated by the Duke of Alburquerque, later re-dedicated in 1667 by Viceroy Mancera.
Mexico City's cathedral had the privilege of introducing new architectural styles that subsequently flourished throughout New Spain. Classic style evolved into baroque and is crowned by Neoclassic forms without detracting from it. Much of this is owed to architect Manuel Tolsa, who added the final details to the project in 1813 with a balustrade and by enlarging the central dome.

Kings' Chapel, by Jerónimo de Balbás, 1735.

The exquisite interior
Crossing the threshold framed by the magnificent main doors carved in 1659, leads the visitor into a more subtle world, geared towards uplifting the soul with a spirituality that permeates the senses: magnificent fluted columns which soar upward and return to earth in a display of infinite motion, akin to the sounds produced by the monumental organs, exquisitely carved in fine wood, crowned by a marble lanctern, golden galleries, and resplendent altar pieces.
The vestry is probably the heart of the building's religious ceremonies. Priest preparing for mass are staged by a heavenly pictorial dream painted by Cristobal de Villalpando and Juan Correa, who were devoted to proof in images that the Catholic institutions were called to save the world, assisted by endless number of angels and directed by Archangel Saint Michael. It is difficult not to feel the bliss of movement, color and light coming from the lofty regions of this extraordinary room, a wonder of the New World.
Looking like another cathedral, on the left of the main building, the adjoining Sagrario chapel can be visited. The sober interior provides a sharp contrast to its splendid capricious exterior facade, designed to be the new model of Baroque art by Lorenzo Rodriguez in 1749. Today, baptism ceremonies are performed here as well as regular services, observed with a curious eye by Saint Christopher, from his lofty framed painting.
Back to the metropolitan headquarters, the special light filtering into the naves is due to the modern stained glass, designed by Mathias Goeritz in 1968. Today, there is a difference of almost five feet between the levels of the opposing walls of the cathedral's huge structure, which stoically resists the vagaries of the urban landscape.

Roberto Escartin, August 2022.

Information sources:

  • Benitez, Fernando, La Ciudad de México, Salvat Eds. México, 1984, vol. V,  p. 49-55.
  • Manrique, Jorge Alberto, “La catedral como monumento manierista y símbolo urbano”, en Marta Fernández (ed.), La catedral de México. Problemática, restauración conservación en el futuro, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, UNAM, México, 1997.
  • Rubial García, Antonio, “La sociedad novohispana de la Ciudad de México”, Ensayos sobre la Ciudad de México, DDF, Universidad Iberoamericana, Conaculta, 1984, vol. II.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Echoes of Paris in Mexico City

Between 1875 and 1914 merchants of French origin in Mexico City experienced a boom era. In Europe, France lived the consolidation of its hegemony from the proclamation of the Second Republic and French culture became the model of the elites of Latin American societies. While France was competing with Great Britain, Austria and Prussia, French fabrics and clothing were enthusiastically received in Mexico and the constant arrival of French immigrants transformed the social life of the capital. But the beginning of the First World War marked the end of French hegemony in Mexico, the Mexican Revolution, and the infamous American attack to Veracruz led to the end of the Belle Époque.

The French presence in Mexico was due to the emigration of individuals who maintained their identity with a discrete inbreeding. The consolidation of their capitals and the extension of their commercial networks allowed the diffusion of their culture among local elites. Some immigrants responded to the call of the Mexican authorities, who needed to populate the rural areas with Europeans. A first group arrived in Veracruz area, establishing themselves in ​​San Rafael and Coatzacoalcos. But most settled in the cities, specially a group of Alsatian Jews and the contingent of Barcelonnettes. (1)

France and Mexican politics
To compensate the external threats, the Mexican president Porfirio Diaz regime paid the country's debts promptly and sought to make Europe a moderating force against the United States influence, with France as its epicenter. From the governmental point of view, French emigrants would bring prosperity to the Mexican nation, which became true after few decades with investments in banks, railways, mines and textile industries. The latter were linked to numerous businesses and produced their own cotton and cashmere wool fabrics. Trading these products benefited from the expansion rail transportation, hard policies over the masses of workers, the integration of the national market, and the reduction of the external trade deficit. The telegraphic network was of paramount importance for the improvement of business. (2)

The struggle for the hegemony of France over Mexico dates back to the Mexican Second Empire (1862-1867), which benefited certain groups. The Alsatians were placed among the elite of society, around the Societe Financière pour l'industrie au Mexique, which competed with the Rothschild organization and German interests in Mexico. Porfirio Diaz foresaw the need to import capital for infrastructure works and gave the French entrepreneurs the opportunity to manage the National Bank of Mexico, an issuing bank, government lender and private enterprises funder. The role of the Alsatians is very unique, because it was a group of Jewish origin, modernized, urban and individualistic. Their religious manifestations were very discreet because they knew that there was anti-Semitism and the French identity was a more prestigious than their religious background. (3)

The economic liberalism was favorable to the immigration of groups that had been denied entry to Mexico before, especially the case of French Jews such as Eduard Noetzlin, who was a representative of the Societé Financière, and who directed the National Bank from Mexico later on. Although the railroads were the domain of Americans and British investors, Robert Simon and his partner Ernest Cassel participated in the Central Railroad and were shareholders of the Western Bank, based in Mazatlán. Noetzlin was a key figure in the financial agreements between France and Mexico. After the establishment of the National Bank, he returned to France to head the organization's office in Paris, leaving in Mexico several partners, all of them French Jews. (4)

Other shareholders of the National Bank of Mexico were the brothers Joseph and Henri Tron, who started modest clothing business in Mexico City. Since the 1860s these shops were located in the central “Portal de Flores” whose owner was Mr. Gassier, who was associated with other merchants such as Reynaud, Tron and Leautaud. This company was called "Tron & Company" and created a large warehouse in 1873. This building was located in San Bernardo street and designed by architects Ignacio and Lorenzo de la Hidalga. Its innovative steel structure, adjacent to the viceregal palaces, came to the public to be called El Palacio de Hierro (Iron Palace). 

The lavish opening of El Palacio de Hierro in 1891 was linked since then to the elegant architecture and social life of Mexico City. Towards 1893 the stores established the policy of fixed prices and changed status to an anonymous society, expanded the building and inaugurated a high couture workshop within the premises. Despite various vicissitudes (the building's fire in 1914) and the revolutionary movement, in 1922 the new building was inaugurated on Cinco de Febrero street, with Art Nouveau decoration by architect Paul Dubois and expanded again in 1925. (5)

The French merchants in Mexico City took advantage of the central location of their businesses in the heart of the “city of palaces”. At the junction of Plateros and Espíritu Santo streets another filigree work was built, which still looks more like a French toy store: called “La Esmeralda”. This flamboyant jewelry shop was founded in 1864 by David Zivy and then bequeathed to the Bloch family. The building was adorned with Parisian attics, a beautiful clock and stuccos in the interiors. The Zivy family also managed “La Parisiense” glassware store and the Iturbide Hotel restaurant, with the furniture they produced. 

At the end of San Francisco Street, the elegant Jokey Club was established, whose president was Ives Limantour and his vocalist the French banker Louis Lavie. Since 1904, these rich men could read the newspaper published in French by Max Athénosy, L'Écho français in comfortable armchairs. (6)

During the convulsions of the XIX Century, the state monopoly of tobacco cigarettes manufacturing passed into the hands of businessmen. One of them was Ernest Pugibet (1855-1915). While in Cuba, Pugibet met the cultivation of tobacco and observed the techniques of cigars manufacturing. In 1884 this French entrepreneur established in Mexico a small cigar factory called El Buen Tono, whose production he distributed personally. Later he introduced modern machines, reorganized the plant and constituted a society with contributions of Mexican and French capitalists. 

Pugibet was remarkable innovator in the advertising of products and used means such as hot air balloons and even an airship, being one of the first to sponsor comics. Together with Philippe Suberbié and other investors, he acquired the large Moctezuma Brewery. He participated in the founding of the Mexican National Company of Dynamite and Explosives, was a shareholder and advisor of the National Bank of Mexico, the textile factory San Ildefonso, the Monte Alto Railroad and the famous department store Palacio de Hierro. He donated the temple of "Our Lady of Guadalupe" in San Juan neighborhood for his factory workers, designed by engineer Miguel Ángel de Quevedo in 1912. (7)

French enterprises set up a new era of business in Mexico City and spread the model over the country with successful managerial models which soon permeated over local businessmen. Today it is possible to observe some of the mentioned buildings, which added a touch of French style to the Mexican Capital. (8)

Roberto Escartin Arroyo, 2017.

1. Martínez Montiel, Luz María y Araceli Reynoso Medina, "La inmigración europea y asiática,


 siglos XIX y XX, en Simbiosis de Culturas, FCE, México, 1993, p. 319-336.

2. González, Luis, "El liberalismo triunfante", en Historia General de México, El Colegio de México, 2000, p. 678-681.
3. Krausse, Corinne, Los judíos en México, Universidad Iberoamericana, México, 1987. p.73.4. Krausse, op. cit., p. 69. 
5. Martinez Gutierrez, Bertha Patricia, El palacio de hierro: arranque de la modernidad arquitectónica en la Ciudad de México, Tesis de Maestría en Historia del Arte-UNAM, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, 2005. 
6. Krausse, op. cit., p 71 y CEMCA. La prensa francesa en México.
7. Pérez Siller, Javier, "Una contribución a la modernidad: la comunidad francesa en la Ciudad de México",  en México-Francia, presencia, influencia, sensibilidad, 2000.
8. Gouy, Patrice, "Peregrinaciones de los Barcelonnettes a México", en Artes de México, vol. 39, p. 62-67.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

La Sorpresa y Primavera Unidas

Mexico City: Plateros & Alcaicería st.  Figueroa Domenech, 1899.

The clothing store “La Sorpresa y Primavera Unidas” located in the corner of Alcaicería and Plateros streets, was owned by A. Fourcade and Goupil. This elegant establishment offered French perfumes, fine linen fabrics, exquisite silk gauzes and cotton clothes, with an abundance of imported European items, and support from their headquarters at Rue de l'Echiquier 41, Paris 10.

La Sorpresa y Primavera Unidas offered its merchandise in five departments: articles for furnishing and table linen; bed sheets; fashions for ladies; lace, ornaments and gloves, and religious articles. These goods could also be sent home. In their 1891 commercial announcements proudly announced their telephone line: number 608.

In 1907, the building was transformed and modernized by architect Hugo Dorner and the engineer Luis Bacmeister, with a remarkable metallic structure, an engineering marvel, finished in only three months, which satisfied speed and modernity requirements of the owners; in addition, the new warehouse was extended one more floor for the solace of the demanding clientele. The great and spacious building was 30 meters in front by 40 meters deep, carved in local gray quarry stone.

The building you can observe today is only a section of a larger one, corresponding to the corner of Madero and Palma. The adjoining building was demolished by ignorant pickaxe developers. What survives retains delicate details, such as the stone placrads and a kind of niche, perhaps rescued from an older building. The signs that use to be under the cornices have disappeared, but its central balcony and the extraordinary iron works, and mansardes which show an outstanding French neoclassical style. The excellent foundations, engineering and materials have allowed this wonder to survive.

Mexican writer Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera evokes the doors of this establishment in his poem to the Duchess Job (who was a beautiful grissette or employee), while José de T. Cuéllar was impressed by the crinolines and lingerie sold in the famous store. In other old photographs you can observe the frenzy of carriages and pedestrians coming to their purchases. The same activity occurs on Madero street today, but its doors are now open to new firms, which splendor has to do with the beauty of this heritage building.

Mexico City: Plateros & Alcaicería st. 2017.

Further reading: Historia del comercio en México

Information sources:

  • Figueroa Domenech, Guía general descriptiva de la República Mexicana, Barcelona, 1899, vol. I.
  • Paz, Ireneo y José Ma. Tornel, Guía comercial de la Ciudad de México, 1882.
  • Silva Contreras, Mónica, "Arquitectura y materiales modernos: funciones y técnicas internacionales en la ciudad de México, 1900-1910, en INAH, Boletín de monumentos históricos, Tercera época, núm. 22, mayo agosto, 2011.