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Land tenure and labour relations in the River Plate, 1760-1860

Land tenure and labour relations in the River Plate, 1760-1860

Emiliano Travieso, PhD candidate in History

Latin America has long served as a laboratory to study the interplay between inequality and economic development, often compared with the former colonies of North America. Despite all the references in this literature to the colonial origins of inequality and economic backwardness, there are surprisingly few quantitative empirical studies about that period, which has led some analysts of modern Latin America to assume the continent has always been unequal and backward in much the same way. The River Plate area (present-day Argentina and Uruguay, formerly part of a single Viceroyalty under Spanish rule) can play a crucial part in this debate because it has been the highest-income region in Latin America over the long run and had an unusual late-colonial economy in which Iberian settlers were not able to employ coerced indigenous labour on a large scale.

This dissertation explores the emergence and change of patterns of land tenure and labour relations in the late-colonial and early-independent decades (1760-1860) on the two banks of the Río de la Plata (present-day Uruguay and Argentina's Buenos Aires Province, a territory about twice the size of the UK where cattle significantly outnumbered people). In the late colonial decades, a hybrid system of labour relations (with both slaves and free workers performing similar occupations) met the increasing external demand for cattle by-products (salted beef and hides), in a context of open agricultural frontier and labour and capital scarcity. Through the period following the independence wars (the so-called 'lost decades') the economic value of land increased and slavery slowly disappeared. The project aims to map these changes using GIS techniques and characterise the occupational structure of a pre-modern economy characterised by land abundance, highly seasonal labour demand, and increasing dependence on agricultural exports.

The results will offer a new reading of population geography and occupations in the region, and encourage a renewed discussion of the 'metropolitan institutions' thesis (the idea that extreme asset inequality emerged in the colonial period as a result of the 'original sin' of being colonised by the Iberian powers), as well as the assumption that slave labour was economically irrelevant in the territories of present-day Argentina and Uruguay.

Emiliano's PhD is funded by a Cambridge International Scholarship.