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Monday, June 09, 2008

On This Day in 1692

Which members of society are instrumental in revolutionary movements? This uses a 1692 riot in Mexico City to draw lessons about the danger to social stability when privileged groups suddenly lose power, prestige, socioeconomic status, etc. The particular example involves the rising price of grain, and there are obvious connections to rising grain prices today, but the lesson is more general and illustrates the societal reaction when change makes things difficult for groups "who are used to ... material well-being and political respect":

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming, by Ari (Creative Commons  License): [...Teo, frequent commenter and outstanding history blogger in his own right..., joins us today for ... This Day in History...] ...

On this day in 1692, a massive riot broke out in Mexico City. The ultimate cause of the riot seems to have been the failure of both the wheat and maize crops the previous autumn and the resulting shortage of grain, but to call this event a “corn riot,” as many have done, is to simplify things overmuch. The viceroy of New Spain, the Conde de Galve, did in fact go to great lengths to supply the city with grain, often at the expense of outlying areas.

The problem, however, at least for the urban poor, was how to get that grain. While supplies in the city were not severely impacted by the overall shortage, prices certainly were, and they climbed dramatically throughout the course of the spring. The system of grain distribution in Mexico City at the time was based on a public granary (pósito) and accompanying grain exchange (alhóndiga). As supplies came in from the agricultural hinterland they were deposited in the posito, which the government put a high priority on keeping stocked. Consumers could then come to the alhóndiga to buy grain from the pósito.

While the pósito and alhóndiga were maintained and overseen by the government, however, much of the grain kept and sold there was not actually publicly owned. Instead, the owners of the rural haciendas where it was grown shipped it to the city and sold it through agents. These agents agreed each day on the price to charge for grain, and they were all bound to stick to that price throughout the day. The alhóndiga, then, though government-sponsored, functioned more or less as a real private market, and was vulnerable to severe price swings such as those that occurred in the early months of 1692.

The government could, of course, change the operating procedures for the alhóndiga if it chose to, and a special meeting the viceroy called with the main city officials on April 29 considered instituting a price ceiling for maize. This proposal was not ultimately accepted, however, and the viceroy ended up following the advice of one of his advisers who suggested a more laissez-faire approach, under which the government would not interfere with prices and would simply let them rise, which would benefit farmers and encourage urban consumers to be more disciplined in their purchases.

While the economic logic here sounds eerily modern, the viceroy’s decision did nothing to help the struggling poor. By early June, supplies at the alhóndiga began to run out, forcing it to close early on June 6 and 7. On June 7 there were some injuries in scuffles between desperate consumers and overwhelmed vendors, so the viceroy ordered one of his major officials to oversee the proceedings the next day to keep things in line. When the grain inevitably ran out early on that day as well, the official was able to keep the peace by showing the restive crowd the empty bins in the pósito to prove that, contrary to persistent rumors, the authorities were not hoarding grain to benefit from the high prices.

Later, however, an angry crowd marched to the plaza. After asking for help at the archbishop’s palace and being rebuffed, the crowd came to the palace of the viceroy, who was away celebrating the Octave of Corpus Christi and was therefore not around to hear their grievances. This was the last straw, and the angry protesters soon began throwing stones at the overwhelmed palace guards and setting fire to the palace itself. The chaos soon spread to the other government buildings on the plaza, and as the riot progressed the participants turned from burning buildings to looting shops. The authorities were eventually able to regain control, but not before there had been significant destruction and theft.

The next morning, the authorities began to take stock of what had happened. The widespread perception, confirmed by the demographics of those killed, wounded and arrested in connection with the riot, was that the main instigators of the riot were Indians, who were widely distrusted and suspected by the Spanish elites despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that their labor was essential to the smooth functioning of Mexican society. The authorities cast a wide net and arrested Indians based on the mere possession of suspiciously nice clothing or other goods (or coins of higher value than ordinary workers generally earned). A court was hastily set up to try cases, and the normally strict rules of evidence were relaxed, especially for Indians, who could be convicted of looting based merely on being caught with apparently stolen goods. For those accused of more serious offenses, such as arson, torture was used to extract confessions, though with strict limitations and the chance to disavow such confessions later.

As a result, over the next few weeks 86 people were tried. Despite the atmosphere of public hysteria surrounding the trials, the most common outcome was actually acquittal, generally of those rounded up on little to no evidence in mass arrests. This result was likely helped by the fact that all of the accused were allowed legal representation. Of those who were convicted, the largest number were sentenced to the traditional penalties of corporal punishment and forced labor, in keeping with the Spanish judicial system’s preference for useful punishments. Ten, however, were executed, and the bodies of five more who had died in jail were publicly hanged. This is an extremely high proportion given the judicial system’s usual distaste for capital punishment, and it reflects the unusual circumstances under which the trials arose.

The vast majority of the accused, regardless of the eventual outcome of their cases, were Indians. This seems to confirm the sense among Spaniards that Indians were the main instigators of the riot, and while this feeling may well have led to a propensity to arrest Indians more than others, similar proportions hold for those killed in the riot and those who were wounded and went to city hospitals. The remainder of the accused were a mix of mestizos, blacks, and Spaniards, the other main groups in the city.

More surprising than the racial makeup of the rioters, perhaps, is their economic status. A considerable majority of those convicted of crimes were skilled artisans such as shoemakers, hatters and tailors, while the rest were unskilled workers such as porters. These were not, therefore, the poorest of the poor, despite the fact that most of them were Indians, who were generally the poorest group in Mexican society. Rather, they were those members of the poorer ranks of society who were relatively prosperous and not dependent on charity in their daily lives, and thus the people who were, in some ways, hardest hit by the grain shortage. They were the people who were usually able to afford food, but now suddenly could not. Coming from a group that was largely marginalized in society as a whole but also given certain privileges by the secular authorities and often represented in their disputes by the Church (note that the protesters went to the archbishop first and only went to the viceroy after getting no help there), they may also have felt entitled to more than they were getting.

This is a class of people, in fact, that is often thought to be instrumental in revolutionary movements more generally. It is usually not the most desperate peasants who overthrow tyrannical regimes, but the better-educated, more prosperous members of marginalized groups who have a little more time on their hands and who are used to a little more in terms of both material well-being and political respect. When times are tough and they feel like their socioeconomic status and political voice is slipping, they are apt to have both the motive and the means to do something about it.

These issues are not of mere academic interest. The rising prices of staple grains, particularly wheat and rice, have recently led to much concern over social stability in many poor and middle-income countries such as Egypt and India. This is a very difficult problem for governments to solve, and the experience of the Mexican authorities in 1692 is instructive in this respect. The viceroy’s decision not to set a price ceiling was unusual in his time, when the more common response of authorities was to try to control the economy as much as possible. These days, the viceroy’s decision is what most economists would recommend, since price ceilings generally just lead to runs on supplies and resulting shortages and black markets with even higher prices. Since this isn’t what happened in Mexico, the viceroy’s judgment could, in some sense, be lauded. The outcome, however, was not actually all that good, and it’s hard to see what the government could have done to prevent it. Economic liberalism does not always lead to universal prosperity, especially in times of crisis, but times of crisis are hard for any other economic ideology too. Sometimes bad things just happen and there’s nothing you can do.


My discussion of the riot is based primarily on the account in R. Douglas Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), supplemented by Natalia Silva Prada, La política de una rebelión: los indígenas frente al tumulto de 1692 en la Ciudad de México (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, Centro de Estudios Históricos, 2007). While Silva’s account differs from Cope’s in certain ways that I find unconvincing, on many subjects she includes more detail from the archival sources that both use than he does.

    Posted by on Monday, June 9, 2008 at 12:15 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (13)


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