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Colonial societies exhibit peculiar institutions frequently attributed to the unequal and exploitative nature of the relations between colonizer and colonized. Repartimiento has been depicted as a coercive system of production and consumption designed by Spaniards to draw reluctant Amerindians into the market. An examination of repartimiento through the lens of New Institutional Economics provides an alternative understanding of this credit system. Characteristics of the repartimiento most often identified as exploitative are better explained as institutional adaptations designed to facilitate contract enforcement and economize on transaction costs in this cross-cultural trade. Consequently, this peculiar colonial institution served to expand trade.
This article challenges the traditional depiction of the late colonial repartimiento de comercio as a system of forced production and consumption. Employing a micro-economic analysis of the repartimiento's operation in Oaxaca, it argues that peasant participation in the alcaldes mayores' repartimientos was voluntary, not coerced, and that the repartimiento should be understood instead as a system of consumer and producer credit designed to operate under colonial conditions of high risk. Repartimiento credit was expensive, but it permitted peasants to participate more extensively in markets as consumers and producers. ‘Indians are capable of requesting the cargo of a flotilla, and [so] it is a vulgarity and a misunderstanding of the repartimiento to say that they are forced.’
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