Between Conquest and Independence: Real Wages and Demographic Change in Spanish America, 1530-1820

Arroyo Abad, L., Davies, L. and van Zanden, J.L.

On the basis of a newly constructed dataset, this paper presents long-term series of the price levels, nominal wages, and real wages in Spanish Latin America – more specifically in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina – between ca. 1530 and ca. 1820. It synthesizes the work of scholars who have collected and published data on individual cities and periods, and presents comparable indices of real wages and prices in the colonial period that give a reasonable guide to trends in the long run. We show that wages and prices were on average much higher than in Western Europe or in Asia, a reflection of the low value of silver that must have had consequences for competitiveness of the Latin American economies. Labour scarcity was the second salient feature of Spanish Latin America and resulted in real wages much above subsistence and in some cases (Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina) comparable to levels in Northwestern Europe. For Mexico, this was caused by the dramatic decline of the population after the Conquest. For Bolivia, the driving force was the boom in silver mining in Potosi that created a huge demand for labour. In the case of Argentina, low population density was a pre-colonial feature. Perhaps due to a different pattern of depopulation, the real wages of other regions (Peru, Colombia, Chile) were much lower, and only increased above subsistence during the first half of the 18th century. These results are consistent with independent evidence on biological standards of living and with estimates of GDP per capita at the beginning of the 19th century.