Neither so low nor so short! Wages and heights in eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries colonial Hispanic America
Based on substantial empirical work, our paper contributes to the ongoing debate on the historical causes of contemporary Latin America problems of development (slow growth and high inequality). It shows solid quantitative evidence on wages and heights for Bourbon Hispanic America that, in our opinion, challenges mainstream assumptions about the –allegedly negative- effects of Spanish colonialism on the welfare of common people. Purchasing capacity of miners and labourers in terms of grain and, especially, of meat was generally equal to -or higher than- that in most parts of Europe and Asia. Heights of some 5000 recruits in the colonial army and militias show a significant inter-regional variance. In South-eastern New Spain they turn out to be slightly below Western standards whereas in Northern Mexico and Venezuela (Maracaibo) they are comparable to those of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. Thus, wages of ordinary Hispanic Americans in eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were not low by international standards. Neither were their physical statures always shorter than the European norm in the middle of the eighteenth century. Our results might carry other far-reaching implications. On the one hand, an increasing and influent scholarship characterizes colonial Hispanic America as an extreme case of economy based on extractive institutions and inequality [Engerman and Sokoloff (1994, 2002, 2005); Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (2002)]. Was it really the case? Our response is somewhat sceptical. On the other hand, calculating ratios of heights and real wages to GDP per capita estimates [Maddison (2009)] for 1820 converts Hispanic America into a clear outlier within a wide sample of countries. This finding suggests that available estimations on Bourbon Hispanic America GDP per capita should be revised upwards.
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