Research into the economic structures established by Spain in the Indies, based on sources which allow at least an approximate reconstruction of reality, dates only from the last thirty or forty years. The advances made, despite the uncertainty still surrounding certain aspects of the processes of production, appropriation and distribution, enable us to abandon traditional conceptions of this economy as isolated, closed, rustic in its technology, archaic or ‘feudal’.
The dominant profile of the economic structures imposed on New Spain and Peru, especially during a fifty-year cycle the nature and timing of which will be discussed below, was shaped by the transfer of the European system of mercantile production, in terms of both its technological bases and the legal structure and methods of calculation which governed its reproduction. Thus, we retain the adjective ‘colonial’ for this modern economy, in as much as its development was conditioned by the need to maximise shipments of silver to the metropolis and, in pursuit of this aim, the indigenous population was subjected to severe oppression. Likewise, the metropolis maintained a high level of control over the internal economic dynamic of these regions and a monopoly of their foreign trade.
Towards the mid-sixteenth century the expression ‘conquista y población’ was frequently invoked to characterise Spain's dominion in the New World. ‘Conquista’ referred to the initial feat of arms, by which the papal right to grant lands to the Catholic monarchs (hitherto only valid within the order of European nations) was imposed on the indigenous kingdoms and domains of the Indies.
p1 Translated from the Spanish by Nicola Miller.