Decadent, backward, feudal Spain?

Greg Schofield gschofield at
Fri May 25 20:18:29 MDT 2001

James Lang seem to have written a great little history, the Cuban trade
boost was based on a massive investment in slaves and plantations in sugar,
for which England already industralizing for the first time, had an
insatiatable appetite. The sugar market was wider than that, but the growth
in consumption of sugar in Britain was unparrelled to anywhere else.

One of the most brutal slave regimes ever evolved fed into this manufacture
of white crystals. Cuba became hell, and consumed human beings at a rate
not matched until the death camps of the Nazi's. The philosophy here was to
work slaves during the peak period to 20 hours a day. They scientificially
determined that woman in fact were productive for longer at such a pace,
but the need to refresh the stocks of slaves who died each harvest season
put an enormous strain on parts of Africa.

The problem the Spanish had is that sugar cane rots so quickly unless it is
soon pressed and the process of sugar making commenced. This is where scale
becomes an important factor, as a reasonable amount of cane can be cut and
processed and does not present a problem, however, when a lot of cane must
be cut and processed at the same time, severe bottlenecks appear, the
solution on pre-industrial Cuba, was to use excessive amounts of human life
as a  solution. Cuban historians believe that in the boom period 1760-1833,
that the rate of death may well have been over 50% per season and on some
plantations nearer 75% (I am basing this on readings of some years past so
please don't hold me to these big figures they seem to be about right for
the really big plantations [I cannot cite any references other than the
book was from Cuba and written in about 1975] - the date 1833 was picked
because of the ban on slavery imposed by Britain - it was also around this
time that Australia started its own sugar plantations).

The major surplus, the huge amounts of gems and precious metals that Spain
squandered for 200 years (16-17th centuries), left Spain in a deplorable
state by the 18th century. I am not surprised that when England was working
its first steam engine that Spain deployed but 6 ships to the Cuban trade.

Lang seems to be a very rich source of information. But in answer to the
question "Decadent, backward, feudal Spain?" I think this echoes Napoleon's
impression when he invaded it at the beginning of the 19th century, Spain
had improved a lot by then but 40 years of trade did not make up for the
previous 200 were surplus was employed in grand alliances and even grander
wars (the largest war fleet - the Spanish Armada - was built and armed by
gold from the America's but it did not last long and nearly the whole fleet
was lost without achieving a single tactical or strategic objective).

Despite all the massive surplus Spain had its disposal in the 1500s, 1600s
and most of the 1700s it only began to wake itself in the 1800s so I think
the question posed can be answered in the affirmative.

Greg Schofield
Perth Australia

At 06:15  25/05/01 -0400, you wrote:
>The result of these [Bourbon commercial] reforms was a rather remarkable
>increase in trade between Spain and her colonies. The Cuban trade with
>Spain, which in 1760 engaged only 6 ships, required over 200 ships in 1778.
>The exportation of hides from Buenos Aires rose from 150,000 in 1778 to
>800,000 per year in 1783. Between 1778 and 1788, the value of the entire
>trade with Spanish America is estimated to have multiplied by 700%. The
>revival of Spanish industry, especially the Catalan cotton industry, helped
>to support the new trade pattern. In 1792, the Catalan textile industry
>employed 80,000 workers and exported 16 million pesos worth of merchandise
>to the Indies. Catalonia ranked second only to the English midlands in the
>production of cotton cloth. The Basque hardware industry also expanded. In
>1790, 4000 tons of finished iron products were exported to the New World.
>While the British still sold merchandise to Spain to be resold in the
>Indies, the proportion of Spanish goods carried in the trade was growing.
>At the end of the seventeenth century, only about 15% of the products
>shipped to America were Spanish. By 1798, the figure was closer to 50%. The
>proportion of Spanish national goods imported into New Spain continued to
>rise. In 1804, the consulado of Veracruz recorded the value of imported
>Spanish goods at 10,412,000 pesos, while foreign products imported through
>Spanish middlemen had dropped to 4,493,000 pesos.
>James Lang, "Conquest and Commerce"
>Louis Proyect
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