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the geographical review

BUILDING A COLONIAL RESOURCE MONOPOLY:


THE EXPANSION OF SULPHUR MINING
IN NEW SPAIN, 16001820*
MATTHEW C. LAFEVOR
abstract. The discovery, extraction, and monopolistic control of key natural resources was
a priority of New Spains colonial administration. Managing the regions abundant resources,
however, often proved dicult for the Spanish Crown. Human and environmental challenges
impeded protoindustrial growth and development, and monopolistic control of resources
often met resistance. In this article I examine these processes in the context of New Spains
little-known monopoly on sulphura yellow, powdery mineral the Crown jealously guarded
as its own. Sulphur was critical for gunpowder and explosives production, yet the Crown
often failed to produce enough of it to meet the growing demand by its military and the
silver blast-mining industry. Colonial documents reveal administrators attempts to improve
sulphur production through reform measures, which included advising sulphur miners on
how to discover sulphur deposits and, eventually, how to develop their mines. Eorts to improve sulphur production were moderately successful, although the process was messy and
inecient. Keywords: Bourbon Reforms, Mexico, monopoly, natural resources, New Spain, sulphur.

he eighteenth-century Bourbon Reform period is critical to historical research


on New Spains resource monopolies. In New Spain (colonial Mexico), the Bourbon Reforms were a series of economic and political measures, laws, regulations,
and reorganizations the Crown issued in an eort to improve economic development, eciency, and ultimately, the protability of its overseas empire (Florescano
and Gil Snchez ). Although the long-term social and political consequences of
the reforms and their impact on the movement for independence continue to be
explored (Stein and Stein ; Dobado and Marrero ); in the short to medium term the reforms appear to have positively aected economic growth (Garner
and Stefanou ).1 Macroeconomic indicators, such as industrial yields before
and after the legislation and the increase in total royal tax revenues, point to their
net eectiveness in generating wealth for the Crown (Humboldt ). Yet beyond
the colonial accounting books, comparative tables of yearly revenues, and the broad
economic and political reorganizations, the Bourbon Reforms also sought individual, resource-specic solutions for unique management problems (agn a).
The current study investigates the impact of the Bourbon Reforms on New Spains
sulphur monopoly, which focused on two main areas: increasing production, which
meant improving both the quality and quantity of sulphur the azufreros (sulphur
miners) produced, and preventing contraband sulphur mining. To accomplish these
* I thank the stas of the Archivo General de la Nacin in Mexico City and the Rare Books Room of the Benson
Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin.

 Mr. LaFevor is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of TexasAustin, Austin,


Texas ; [mattlafevor@yahoo.com].
The Geographical Review (): , April
Copyright by the American Geographical Society of New York

sulphur mining in new spain

goals, the Crown published a set of formal rules, regulations, incentives, suggestions, and mining advice for the azufreros: the Sulphur Ordinances of . In this
article I argue that the ordinances, as an arm of the Bourbon Reforms, successfully
drove the expansion of sulphur mining during the late eighteenth century by increasing the number and size of the mines. I explore the geographical expansion of
the industry, specically detailing the mechanisms that inspired sulphur prospecting and mining development, and thus, overall production.
As for the second goal, contraband sulphur mining continued to pose problems
for the monopoly even after the Sulphur Ordinances outlined harsh penalties for
illegal possession and/or mining of sulphur. My analysis reveals why contraband
sulphur mining continued to proliferate after the ordinances were issued and how
royal administrators confronted this black-market industry. Although legal sulphur
mining oered some institutional advantages over contraband trade (Ebert ),
the incentives oered by the Sulphur Ordinances favored large landowning azufreros
over small-scale prospectors. The imbalance encouraged small-scale, illegal sulphur
mining. Although historical research on colonial contraband continues to be an
extremely elusive issue (Baskes , ), this article oers insight into why clandestine mining occurred and how colonial administrators responded to the challenges
of controlling it.
Finally, I investigate whether commodity producers, in this case the azufreros,
were passive victims of colonial domination and a repressive monopoly system. In
the case of the tobacco monopoly, for example, the complex relationships between
royal administrators and producers demonstrate a mixture of deance and resistance, as well as accommodation (Deans-Smith ). In addition, other studies
propose that Latin American producers were much more than simple marionettes
set to dance by overseas commands and demands and that producers often played
enterprising, dening, and even controlling roles (Topick, Marichal, and Frank
, ).
Although I found little evidence to support a controlling role by producers,
the azufreros did develop and exercise codependent relationships with royal administrators that were critical to the functioning of the monopoly. Fully aware the
Crown was in desperate need of sulphur and gunpowder for its military and silver
blast-mining industries, azufreros exercised considerable leverage during contract
negotiations over mining quotas and sales prices for the mineral. Although the Crown
and its colonial administration were the nal word on mining-contract details, the
azufreros indeed played enterprising and dening roles, often receiving important
concessions from the Crown.
Over the almost three-hundred-year-long colonial periodadministrators sought to control the discovery, extraction, and redistribution of New Spains
natural resources through a system of royal monopolies. Historical studies of these
resource monopolies focus on economic, administrative, and bureaucratic aspects
of key revenue-generating commodities, especially those with export potential, such
as silver (Topick, Marichal, and Frank ). The extraction and minting of New

the geographical review

World silver was by far the largest source of wealth for the Spanish Empire, for it
largely nanced the expansion and settlement of New Spain (Marichal and Mantecn
; Jones ). Early geographical studies of individual silver-mining districts
document the settlement and northward expansion of mining communities (Wagner
; West ); more recent research considers the impacts of silver smelting and
rening on environmental degradation (Studnicki-Gizbert and Schecter ). Silver mining in New Spain was indeed an important colonial industry that demanded
both the principal attention of the Spanish government and much of the subsequent historical and geographical research on colonial resource extraction (Brading
; Stein and Stein ).
The Crown also monopolized other protable or useful mineral and nonmineral resources, either as nished products or as complementary goods. Mercury mining was essential for the processing of silver and gold (Heredia Herrera
; Gonzlez ); copper and tin mining proved critical to Spains European
war eorts (Barrett ). The tobacco monopoly was second only to silver tithes in
generating royal revenue and was one of the largest organized industries in late
colonial Mexico (Deans-Smith ; Nater ). The Crown monopolized New
World dyes, including cochineal and indigo, and found exuberant European markets ready to pay a premium for them (Lee ; Marichal ; McCreery ).
Domestically, in New Spain the Crown monopolized the sale of alcoholic drinks
from agave, issuing lucrative sales contracts to only a few prominent families (Kicza
). Even snow and ice from mountaintops were the providence of the Crown, as
luxury items whose distribution rights colonial administrators auctioned o to only
a select few (Gonzlez de la Vara ). The breadth and diversity of naturalresource monopolies in New Spain demonstrate wide-ranging royal appetites for
New World commodities.
Within this diverse range of natural resource monopolies were smaller, less conspicuous colonial industries; namely, those without sucient economic importance,
large bureaucracies, or historic transatlantic ties to have generated a wealth of archival materials and, perhaps consequentially, interest among researchers. Many of
these resource monopolies are absent from the oft-cited tables and charts compiled
by Fabian de Fonseca and Carlos de Urrutia ([] ), Alexander von Humboldt (), and more recently, John TePaske and Herbert Klein (). The original primary sources these studies consultedroyal accounting books and yearly
sales chartsdo not include all resource monopolies in their revenue tables. Thus
many of the lesser colonial resource monopolies are absent from modern historical-economic or geographical studies.
Analysis of human and environmental aspects of the lesser resource monopolies therefore requires research in primary sources beyond the original revenue tables
and sales charts. The written correspondences between producers and colonial administrators related to the identication and development of resource deposits, applications for royal business contracts, contraband investigations, and legal
proceedings, for example, provide valuable data on the origins and development of

sulphur mining in new spain

these lesser industries. In this article I demonstrate that, although these resource
monopolies provided little revenue for the Crown and were absent from the Royal
Treasurys books, many were far from unimportant industries.
Two notable examples of lesser resource industries that, to date, have escaped
in-depth historical or geographical inquiry are the Crowns monopolies on sulphur
and saltpeter (potassium nitrate)the two critical ingredients in gunpowder production, which, incidentally, was also a colonial monopoly (Lewis ; Villar Ortiz
; Nez ). Gunpowder was essential for New Spains military and silver
blast-mining industries, and although the Crown often included gunpowder sales
in its revenue tables (TePaske and Klein ), its component ingredients provided
little direct revenue and were therefore absent. As part of a larger project on the
human and biophysical ecology of New Spains explosives industry, I investigated
the archival record for evidence of one of these lesser industriessulphur
miningand how the Crown dealt with consistent problems of sulphur supply.
I begin by reviewing one of the few published works, colonial or otherwise,
that mentions the subject of sulphur mining in New SpainAlexander von
Humboldts Political Essay on New Spain (). After analyzing Humboldts brief
work on sulphur, I explore the archival record for additional evidence of the six
colonial sulphur mines, examining their ecological origins, their relative importance, and the challenges the Crown faced in developing them. Through these
case studies, which represent the complete available archival record, I trace the
origins and development of the monopoly. I conclude that, although the Sulphur
Ordinances of resulted in improved production, the harsh regulations and
strict mining protocols that the Crown mandated were incompatible with New
Spains geographical realities.
Humboldts Observations
Having an acute interest in New Spains mineral resources, the Prussian polymath
Alexander von Humboldt made a passing note about colonial sulphur mining on
his journey through the region. The few sentences he wrote represent the
most complete published record of the industry to date. Humboldt noted that sulphur abounded in the volcanoes of Orizaba [Citlaltpetl] and Puebla [Popocatpetl], in the province of San Luis near Colima, and especially in the intendency
of Guadalajara, where rivers bring down considerable masses of it, and that it came
quite puried from the town of San Luis Potos (, ).
The only one of these locations I veried is San Luis Potos, which is probably a
reference to the Guascam mines of Guadalcazar. Humboldts observations that
sulphur abounded in Citlaltpetl and Popocatpetl are odd, given that the rst successful scientic exploration of Popocatpetls crater occurred in , a monumental event recorded in both Mexican and international literature (smge [] ;
Garca Cubas , ; Farrington , ). Archival documents also state,
denitively, that postconquest sulphur mining in Popocatpetl did not begin until
, after a thorough investigative period (smge , ). Furthermore, ap-

the geographical review

plications for establishing sulphur mines in the crater of Citlaltpetl rst begin to
appear in , more than eighty years after Humboldts brief visit (ascjn , ).
Although in he certainly was privy to information not present today
in the archival record, it is equally likely that, given his expertise as a mineralogist
and his interest in volcanic environments, he simply assumed that sulphur was located at some of these places (Humboldt ). He believed that no one had successfully ascended to the summit of Popocatpetl since the time of the
conquistadores, a belief that, at least supercially, conicts with his certainty that
sulphur abounded in the volcano (, ). Furthermore, it is doubtful that
Humboldt came across information on sulphur in the historical record because he
does not mention the mines of Taximaroa, Atlixco, Tlalpopoca, Zacatln, or
Huamantla, which I investigated thoroughly. Although Humboldts greater work is
indispensable, the extant archival record oers a more complete understanding of
New Spains sulphur-mining industry.
Early Colonial Sulphur Mining and Gunpowder Production
Archival documents do, however, support Humboldts observations that most sulphur mined in New Spain was of volcanic origin, often found within the craters of
volcanoes, condensed around geothermal vents, or in deposits of porous rock. When
sulphur was commingled with other debris, azufreros mined the materials with
picks and shovels, ground and mixed them in water, and then distilled the solution
through a series of ovens and containers. Azufreros then transported the rened
mineral to Mexico City and sold it to the Royal Gunpowder Factory (agn b).
The following analysis reveals this process was labor intensive, relatively unprotable,
and often contentious.
Geographical challenges aected the development of New Spains sulphurmining industry from the time of the earliest available records. Formal organization of the industry appears to have been scant until , when workers built the
rst explosives factory adjacent to Chapultepec Hill near Mexico City (Fonseca and
Urrutia [] , ). Before that time, administrators manufactured gunpowder on the roofs of royal buildings until repeated res and explosions prompted
ocials to move the production and storage sites to the outskirts of the city. There,
the forests of Chapultepec could supply the charcoal necessary for gunpowder production, and the rebuilt aqueduct could provide water to run the powder mill (Villar
Ortiz , ). From this strategic location, the Royal Gunpowder Factory collected sulphur along with the other essential ingredients of gunpowder and shipped
both sulphur and gunpowder across its empire to controlled points of distribution
(agn c). By this number had risen, domestically, to at least distribution
points, which the Crown managed through centralized administrative oces (Figure ).
Upon receiving sulphur and gunpowder from Chapultepec, this network of administrative oces and distribution points provided both Spains military and the
growing silver-mining industry with explosives.2 In eect, azufreros transported sul-

Fig. New Spains sulphur mines and sulphur-distribution network in . In addition to the Royal Gunpowder Factory in
Mexico City and sulphur mines, administrative oces, independent administrators, and distribution points are shown. The
links between Mexico City and the administrative oces are omitted for clarity. Source: . (Cartography by the author)

sulphur mining in new spain

the geographical review

phur from their mines to Mexico City at their own expense, only to have the same
sulphur, along with nished gunpowder, transported back to areas often much closer
to the original sulphur mines than to the Royal Gunpowder Factory, but this time
with a signicant increase in price to cover the Crowns added transportation costs
(agn d). Partly as a result of this ineciency, contraband sulphur proliferated.
Sulphur abounded in New Spain (Fonseca y Urrutia [] , ), but the legal
framework designed to deal with this geographical reality produced a generally
inecient system of control. In spite of itself, and the thriving contraband trade,
the royal monopoly was able to meet the Crowns basic needs.
zacatln, puebla
Although documents in Mexicos Archivo General de la Nacin mention the importance of sulphur shipments for New Spains gunpowder industry as early as
, the exact origins of these shipments remain obscure. Not until the s do
sources reveal the specic locations of the earliest sulphur mines in New Spain and
oer some glimpses into how colonial administrators utilized them. These rst accounts mention a mining operation in , just north of the Tlaxcala region in
Zacatln, Puebla. Here, the indigenous workers who mined sulphur from nearby
mountains demanded that they be paid more equitable wages for their labor in the
mines. Juan de Ortega Baldivia, administrator of the Royal Gunpowder Factory,
appears to have heeded the requests, for he ordered that the miners be paid a new
wage of three reales per day (agn ).3
Twenty-two years later, in , another dispute arose in Zacatln between the
owner of a sulphur minewhether it is the same mine is unclearGregorio de vila,
and a lessee, Pedro Garca de Sotomayor, over mining rights and payments. A royal
order resolved the dispute, mandating that Sotomayor pay pesos to vila as compensation for his management of the mines (agn ). Additional sources detail a
lengthy trial involving witnesses and interrogations regarding vilas business dealings (agn ), but they give few relevant details about sulphur mining, except that
the mines were about kilometers from Zacatln in some mountains with high
sulphur content (agn ).
Because these are the only available clues to sulphur mining in seventeenthcentury New Spain, judging the importance of the Zacatln site(s) alone is dicult.
Sotomayors payment to vila of pesos was a signicant amount for that
timeworth approximately pounds of nished gunpowder or days of Indian laborand this suggests that mining operations in Zacatln may have been
signicant. Other documents point to the growing importance of New Spains sulphur trade during the seventeenth century and the increasing shipments from the
Royal Gunpowder Factory (agn ; Villar Ortiz , ), but they do not
specify the sulphurs provenance. Not until the early s does the archival record
provide additional information on sulphur mines. Given their apparent stages of
development at that point, however, some of these mines likely yielded sulphur to
the Crown much earlier.

sulphur mining in new spain

maravatotaximaroa, michoacn
As part of the Purpechan (Tarascan) Empire, the Maravato-Taximaroa region
now eastern Michoacnplayed a key role in early Spanish exploration and silver
and copper mining (Wagner ; Gerhard , ; Craig and West ). However, evidence of sulphur mining there is elusive until (Prez Escutia , ).
Archival accounts reveal an extensive regional operation.
With picks and shovels, azufreros mined sulphur around sulphuric geysers and
the lake known as Los Azufres, near the towns of Agua Fra, Jaripeo, Zitcuaro, and
Ucareo (agn ). Miners also extracted sulphur from the craters of Las Humaredas (the smoker) and El Chillador (the screamer) volcanoes, the latter named for
the sound made by sulphuric fumes escaping from between volcanic rocks. Upon
rising and cooling from the geysers and volcanoes, vapors condensed and yellow
sulphur crystals fell to the ground, where miners collected them or dug for older
deposits in other extinct volcanoes of the region (Figures and ) (Guadalupe
Romero , ; Bancroft , ; Cardona , ). By the middle of
the eighteenth century the Taximaroa mines provided the bulk of New Spains sulphur for gunpowder production. Yet, despite the importance of the Taximaroa mines,
the Crown was dissatised with the amount and quality of sulphur they produced
for the Royal Gunpowder Factory (agn e).
The Search for More Sulphur and the Ordinances of
Throughout the colonial period New Spain produced an insucient amount and
quality of sulphur to meet the growing demands of the Spanish Empire (agn f).
Sulphur was an essential ingredient in gunpowder explosives, whose strategic importance had been increasing from two main sectors. First, Spains military was
demanding more of the mineral to produce high-quality gunpowder for its armaments. Second, the burgeoning silver-mining industry demanded more and more
inexpensive gunpowder for blasting through rock. Accordingly, Jos de Glvez, inspector general of New Spains colonial monopolies, wrote and distributed the Sulphur Ordinances of . The ordinances were one small part of a comprehensive
legislative plan to modernize the Spanish Empire. Collectively, historians refer to
these legislative measures as the Bourbon Reforms (Florescano and Gil Snchez
). As the Bourbon Reforms pertain to sulphur mining, regulatory measures
appear to have driven the geographical expansion of sulphur mining, both improving the Crowns resources and enabling a reduction in the price of sulphur (agn
a). In turn, the expanded gunpowder industry helped improve royal solvency in
the short term by contributing to the eighteenth-century silver bonanza through
price incentives on gunpowder sales to silver miners, who used the explosive to
increase yields (Fonseca and Urrutia [] , ; West , , ; LaFevor
). But because of chronically insucient gunpowder supplies for the military,
royal gunpowder production was barely enough to avoid military defeat against
Great Britain in the Caribbean region during the s and early s (Lewis ,
). The Crown blamed the poor quality of gunpowder on insucient sulphur

the geographical review

Fig. An active sulphuric geyser, approximately meters wide, in Los Azufres National Park,
Michoacn, Mexico. (Photograph by the author, June )

Fig. The mouth of a ooded colonial sulphur mine, approximately meters wide, near
Taximaroa, in Los Azufres National Park. (Photograph by the author, June )

sulphur mining in new spain

production and looked to the administrative and organizational changes brought


about by the Bourbon Reforms to alleviate the deciency (agn f).
The Sulphur Ordinances included new mining regulations designed to curb
contraband mining and increase sulphur prospecting and production for the Crown.
Glvez focused on prospecting for new sources because, until , the Crown had
consistently mined sulphur from only one main location in New Spain: Taximaroa,
Michoacn (agn e).4
In an attempt to encourage mining, the Sulphur Ordinances explained to prospective sulphur miners how to nd and extract the mineral. The ordinances required that miners transport all sulphur, once extracted and rened, from the mines
to the Royal Gunpowder Factory in Mexico City, where administrators paid them
between six and seven pesos per hundredweight. Factory workers processed sulphur and then transported it to the distribution points. The distribution points, in
turn, provided sulphur and gunpowder to military installations and silver-mining
districts throughout New Spain (see Figure ).
Glvez had blamed the poor quality of royal gunpowder on the insucient quantities and low-grade sulphur mined by the azufreros of Taximaroa. Sulphur-mining
deciencies, he wrote, were due to the lack of skill of those who mine it and their
lack of instruction and rules on how to nd and extract it (agn f).5 Glvezs
statements, in part, suggest that he either ignored or misunderstood the socioeconomic complexitiesthe lack of wage incentives, for exampleinvolved in mining
sulphur (agn a).
Nevertheless, Glvezs ordinances sought to improve the Crowns sulphur supplies by implementing both incentive and punitive measures in mining. Ordinance
, for instance, outlined environments where azufreros might discover sulphurthe
preferred locations being in volcanoes and in the riverbeds that originate from them.
Ordinances and described complicated rening and distilling procedures and
prescribed sulphur purity tests ranging from tasting the mineral on the tongue to
applying a whale oil mixture, which supposedly measured the quality and in part
determined the expected sales price in Mexico City. The Crown also lifted the
preordinance taxes on sulphur to encourage its sale to the Royal Gunpowder Factory instead of as contraband and wrote liberal usufruct rules for sulphur prospecting and mine ownership designed to maximize sulphur discovery and extraction
(agn f).
The Sulphur Ordinances also specied punitive measures for those caught in
possession of sulphur without a license. Ordinance , for example, stated that all
sulphur be sent to the Royal Gunpowder Factory at Chapultepec and required carriers to possess, at all times, a physical copy of Glvezs Sulphur Ordinances as well
as a written gure of the quantity being transported and a description of the caravan members and their origins. Without this documentation, customs could arrest
the convoy as smugglers and could conscate all cargo and any beasts of burden
used in the transport. Ordinance specied that the rst infraction merited losing
all production facilities, materials and instruments, in addition to paying a ,-

the geographical review

peso ne, at that time worth approximately tons of rened sulphur. Azufreros
who could not pay the ne were to receive a four-year jail term, followed by an
eight-year sentence for a second infraction (agn f). These punitive measures
illustrate how intently, at least rhetorically, the Crown sought to prohibit contraband sulphur mining.
At the Chapultepec factory an administrator measured the quantity and grade
of the sulphur, and azufreros received payment in the form of a coupon, redeemable at the Royal Treasury (agn f). Glvez wrote that, despite better earnings
for sulphur in the past, the price would henceforth be xed without harm to the
Royal Treasury or detriment to the azufreros (Fonseca and Urrutia [] ,
). Later administrators appear to have prioritized the former, for after the reforms archival sources detail tough negotiations between azufreros and Chapultepec administrators over sulphur-mining contracts, prices, and quotas. The sales
price for sulphur dropped from ten pesos per hundredweight to between six and
seven per hundredweight after the reforms, depending on the contract details
and the yearly quotas assigned to dierent mines (agn a). The shrewdness of
the Crown in these matters, combined with the increase in sulphur supplies and
the resulting downward push in pricing, probably detracted from the appeal of
sulphur prospecting, a fact intimated in several pieces of correspondence between
mine owners and Chapultepec ocials (agn ). But despite the declining protability of sulphur mining for the azufreros, the net eect of the ordinances appears to have been a modest expansion of available sulphur resources for the
Crown.
Geographical Expansion of Sulphur Mining
atlixco, puebla
In Glvez wrote that azufreros had recently discovered a promising new mine
near Atlixco, Puebla, at the eastern foot of Popocatpetl. The sulphur from this site
was purportedly of a higher quality than any from Taximaroa (agn e). In
Juan de Echeveste, administrator of the Royal Gunpowder Factory, wrote to Agustn
Ortiz, owner of the Atlixco mine, stating that the factory faced an acute shortage of
sulphur that year and that administrators greatly desired his high-quality sulphur.
Echeveste called for the immediate increase in provision of sulphur from Atlixco,
noting that the mine had been able to produce a better quality and a greater abundance than in the recent past and that a new delay in shipments was unacceptable.
Ortiz responded that the production problems had been due to the illness of his
entire family (agn ).
Despite all of this, by , during correspondence concerning an application
for another mine, Echeveste mentioned that the sulphur of the Atlixco mine had
been exhausted (agn b). Because no additional accounts of sulphur mining in
Atlixco are available, the mine so eagerly prospected during the s and s was
probably short-lived.

sulphur mining in new spain

huamantla, tlaxcala
Correspondence concerning a newly discovered mine in Huamantla, Tlaxcala, demonstrates the lengths to which a landowner might go to bargain with the Royal
Gunpowder Factory over a mining contract. In , a two-year-long process of
applying for legal mining status and bargaining over the sales price of sulphur began between Miguel Bernardo Yllescas, owner of the hacienda at Santa Mara
Magdalena Xonecuila, near Huamantla, Tlaxcala, and Juan de Echeveste.
Yllescas had sent a Chapultepec ocial named Salvador Dampierre a sample of
sulphur from a mountain approximately kilometers from the formers hacienda.
Given the location of the hacienda, which is now a tourist destination, Yllescas was
probably referring to Malintzn (Malinche) volcano as the source. Dampierre quoted
Yllescas a sales price of between seven and eight pesos per hundredweight for the
sample he provided along with his licensing application. Echeveste spent the next
two years trying to reduce Dampierres imprudent oer to six pesos per hundredweight. Yllescas, however, let it be known in his letters to Echeveste that he knew the
Crown was in dire need of sulphur and that before the Sulphur Ordinances the
miners of Taximaroa had generously received ten pesos per hundredweight. He
also reasoned, strangely, that because the owner of some mines in San Luis Potos,
who was receiving seven pesos per hundredweight, had recently died, a price of six
and one-half pesos would be a fair compromise (agn a).
As a result of this bargaining attempt, Echeveste sent an angry letter to Yllescas
stating the Crown still was able to obtain large quantities of high-quality sulphur
from the San Luis Potos mines. He doubted that Yllescas could provide the quantity of sulphur he promised, and furthermore, that because of Yllescass insolence
during the bargaining process, the license would be denied. Yllescass mine was to
be closed immediately in order to prevent him from selling sulphur as contraband
(agn c).
The mine was apparently not closed, however. A nal letter from an Echeveste
subordinate from the scal division of the Royal Treasury granted the license to Yllescas
with the repeated condition that all sulphur be sent to the Royal Gunpowder Factory,
again expressing the dire need for sulphur. In February , two years after the application process had begun, administrators nally granted Yllescas a contract to sell
sulphur at six and one-half pesos per hundredweight to the factory, provided that its
quality was as good as the sample he had originally provided (agn d).
The Huamantla case oers a glimpse into the interactions between private
landowners and the factorys administration, demonstrating the relatively strong
hand of the former in light of the Crowns desperation for sulphur, paralleling a
similar desperation for saltpeter and gunpowder during the postreform period
(Lewis ). Echeveste did not easily dissuade Yllescas from Dampierres original oer; only after a noticeably hostile letter and the threat of closing the mine
did the parties nally agree on a contractand for an amount greater than what
Echeveste wished. During the correspondence Echeveste based his principal ar-

the geographical review

gument on the large amount of sulphur that was beginning to be supplied by a


network of new mines at San Antonio Guascam, near San Luis Potos. Despite
the failure of the Atlixco mine and the contentious bargaining process with Yllescas,
the Crowns options for purchasing sulphur were expanding, only a decade after
issuing the ordinances.
guascam, san luis potos
Sulphur deposits from mountain peaks near the hacienda of San Antonio Guascam, about kilometers east of the town of San Luis Potos, provided sulphur
comparable in quality and quantity to that from Taximaroa from the middle s
to at least through the War for Independence (). The owner sent the original application for legal mining status to the Royal Gunpowder Factory in ,
listing eight locations in and around the hacienda: Cerro Colorado, Cerro del Sombrero, Cerro de Posada, Cerro de las Saladitas, Cerro de la Escalera, and several
others with illegible names. Echeveste granted a sulphur-mining contract to the
owner of the hacienda in June after a year of correspondence, sample testing,
and repeated warnings about contraband and the need to adhere to the ordinances.
The mining operations of Guascam dwarfed those of Yllescas in Huamantla, even
though Francisco Xavier de Miera, the owner, received a contract for only six pesos
per hundredweight (agn ).
By , however, Miera had successfully bargained with Echeveste for seven
pesos per hundredweight after complaining that the costs of the rening equipment and of employing almost miners was too high. Later that year Miera died,
and the sulphur mines passed to his youngest daughter, Josepha Miera (agn e).
The executor of the estate and Josephas guardian, Cipriano Gonzlez, then ran the
sulphur mines, although Josepha remained the owner until , when Don
Ciprianos son married her and began to manage the mines after a new licensing
process (agn , ). By , during the War for Independence, Josephas husband had died, and she once again became the sole owner of the mines. Communications between a factory manager and the wartime Viceroy Flix Mara Calleja
expressed relief that her sulphur mines, which apparently had ooded, were operational again and were providing sulphur to the Royal Gunpowder Factory (agn
, ).
These examples of correspondence outline the expansion of sulphur mining
after the issuance of the Sulphur Ordinances. During the late eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries data are piecemeal, but the few records that do exist reveal
large annual shipments made from both Guascam and Taximaroa, while the other
mines remained much less signicant. The factory awarded yearly contracts of ,
pesos to the Guascam and Taximaroa mines but issued contracts for only pesos over a series of months to the Zacatln, Tlalpopoca, and Huamantla mines (Figures and ). Although the Crown enjoyed increased sulphur production from the
ve legal mines, archival sources reveal that other mines continued to produce sulphur clandestinely.

sulphur mining in new spain

Contraband Sulphur Mining


From the issuance of the Sulphur Ordinances of until the War for Independence, the Crown attempted to tighten control over contraband sulphur mining, at
least rhetorically. Decreasing smuggling was a general goal of the Bourbon Reforms
(Deans-Smith , xiii), and the Crown also emphasized the goal in its management of the sulphur-mining and gunpowder industries (Fonseca and Urrutia []
, , , , ).
Despite the tough rhetoric of the Sulphur Ordinances and subsequent proclamations, administrators seem to have done little to enforce the punitive measures
that Glvez had laid out. Instead, they allowed some degree of leniency, especially
during the transition period immediately after . In Carlos Francisco de
Croix, viceroy of New Spain, issued another royal proclamation stating that henceforth none could plead ignorance of the sulphur laws as a defense for contraband
mining (agn ).
Shortly thereafter, authorities discovered a contraband sulphur mine in Tlalpopoca, Puebla (agn ). Viceroy de Croix ordered operators to close the mine
because the owner, Antonio de Aguilar, had not bothered to obtain a license, adding
that the mine produced poor-quality sulphur anyway. That the viceroy recognized
the Tlalpopoca mine was already producing sulphur hints that administrators had
been ignoring or tolerating its unlicenced status. Administrators ned Aguilar
pesos, instead of the , pesos that the Sulphur Ordinances mandated, and ordered no jail time. Instead, authorities suggested he le the proper paperwork in
order to avoid future prosecution (agn ). Aguilar appears to have heeded this
request, because by the s the Tlalpopoca mine was again producing sulphur,
this time legally (agn ).
More than thirty years after the Tlalpopoca incident, in , Viceroy Jos de
Iturrigaray wrote explicitly about the thriving trade in contraband sulphur. He cited
experience as evidence that silver miners commonly utilized sulphur for blast
mining not sold by the royal distribution points, and this fact obliged him to repeat
the penalties described in the Sulphur Ordinances, once again emphasizing that
ignorance could not be used as a defense (agn ). Shortly after this proclamation, the most highly publicized case of contraband sulphur mining occurred near
Taximaroa.
In , local government ocials charged Joaquin Santos Corts, an Indian
woodcutter from the town of Ucareo, Michoacn, with tracking pounds of
contraband sulphur. Ocials also identied three accomplices who either facilitated the act or planned to purchase the goods. According to the charges, Santos
Corts masterminded the illegal operation and upon capture admitted his guilt.
Over the next year Jos Mariano Lazo de la Vega, Santos Cortss attorney, contested
the accusation and mounted an eective defense (agn a).
De la Vega argued that Santos Corts only began to trac sulphur because he
had injured his arm while cutting wood, that he was only trying to support his wife

the geographical review

Fig. A rare example of a nancing contract for sulphur mining in Taximaroa, Michoacn.
Source: [] . (Reproduced with permission from the Archivo General de la Nacin,
Mexico City)

sulphur mining in new spain

Fig. An unusually large payment to the Guascam, San Luis Potos, mines during the nal days
of the Spanish colony. Source: [] . (Reproduced with permission from the Archivo General
de la Nacin, Mexico City)

the geographical review

and three children, that he did not fully understand the charges against him, and
that putting him in prison would leave his family destitute. The attorney also argued that the infraction was relatively minor because Santos Corts was a rst-time
oender who had mined only a small amount of sulphur. Moreover, the twentyve-year-old did not deserve the penalty of ve years in an African jail, a curious
idea that a local ocial had proposed (agn b). Through this defense and the
fact that Santos Corts had already been in prison for six months while awaiting
trial, de la Vega appears to have had the sentence commuted after authorities credited Santos Corts for time served. Authorities sentenced two of the accomplices to
one year of unspecied public service and warned Santos Corts that they would
apply the full penalties specied in the ordinances if he again mined sulphur without a license (agn c).
The Tlalpopoca case contrasts with the Ucareo example, in which the authorities applied the ordinances more strictly: Santos Corts and his associates did in
fact receive punishment that included jail time and public service. Although this
may indicate that landowners received preferential treatment when compared with
the landless Indian Santos Corts, de la Vega nonetheless used ethnicity as a defense tool, referring to Santos Cortss minority status, to the fact that Spanish was
his second language, and to several of the Laws for Indians which mandated that
they not be as harshly punished, especially nancially, as non-Indians (agn b).
Several previous studies of New Spains judicial system also reect this general fairness toward Indians (Borah ; Kanter ; Owensby ). In any case, and
despite the spurious distinctions that can be drawn between the two, both cases
demonstrate that the Crown allowed some degree of leniency with regard to the
strict implementation of the Sulphur Ordinances.
Geographical Eects of the Sulphur Ordinances
My research revealed two distinct stages of development in New Spains sulphurmining industry. Before the Sulphur Ordinances of the Crown consistently
utilized only one network of sulphur mines, those of Taximaroa, Michoacn. Inspector General Jos de Glvez declared production from these sites to be insucient and sought to expand sulphur-mining operations to other regions. After the
ordinances were issued the number and size of mines increased. This expansion
improved the Crowns resources and enabled a reduction in the purchase price of
sulphur. During the postordinance period large landowners who survived the strict
new licensing process continued to prot from legal sulphur mining. A negative
side eect of the ordinances, however, was that they eectively forced landless, smallscale miners to mine sulphur clandestinely, which resulted in a thriving contraband
sulphur industry.
Geographical factors, including long distances between the Royal Gunpowder
Factory and the widely dispersed sulphur markets, chronic problems with colonial
transportation (Surez Arguello ), and the plentiful volcanic sulphur deposits
in distant regions made centralized control of the industry from Mexico City dicult

sulphur mining in new spain

from a logistical perspective (Fonseca and Urrutia [] , ). Administrators


and viceroys in Mexico City repeatedly lamented prots lost to the thriving contraband sulphur markets in the periphery. But instead of opening the market, as
Humboldt suggested for the gunpowder industry (, ), the Crown simply
issued more proclamations against contraband production, usually by simply repeating the substantive points of Glvezs original ordinances. These proclamations
had both positive and negative results.
First, the harsh penalties described in the Sulphur Ordinances and the new, cumbersome licensing process created a dilemma for all azufreros: either apply for a
royal license or continue to sell sulphur illegally. Because the Crowns purchase prices
for sulphur fell dramatically after the ordinances were issued, those miners who
were able to produce larger quantities had an economic advantage in the legal market. And because documents reveal that only large landowners received royal contracts, this imbalance convinced some small-scale miners, like Joaquin Santos Corts,
to continue to work clandestinely.
Second, although the Sulphur Ordinances of appear to have made legal
sulphur mining unappealing to small-scale miners, the reforms encouraged prospecting by larger landowners. The incentive measures that the ordinances oered,
including instruction on where to nd sulphur and how to rene it, encouraged
new mining applications and correspondence concerning the licensing process. The
proliferation of documentation on sulphur mining in the archival record during
the postordinance period reects this trend (Figure ), as does the increase in the
number of legal mines. The net eect of the ordinances was an increase in available
sulphur for the Crown.
Third, although contraband sulphur mining was widespread, administrators
appear to have limited its prosecution, for the Tlalpopoca and Ucareo cases are the
only two for which written records are available. The paucity of evidence is probably due less to poor documentary preservation than to lack of attention to the
contraband sulphur trade. Contraband gunpowder, not sulphur, represented a more
immediate threat to the Crowns nances and to perceived public order than did
contraband sulphur. The archival record reects this trendat least seventeen documents on contraband gunpowder are available, compared with only two documents
on contraband sulphur. Because colonial administrators were aware of the widespread illegal sulphur mining, the Crown appears to have tolerated what was to
some extent probably inevitable, especially given the wide distribution of sulphur
deposits and the unrealistic restrictions on sulphur mining outlined in the ordinances (Fonseca and Urrutia [] ; agn ).6
Unintended Consequences of the Sulphur Ordinances
My research supports the notion that, during Mexicos colonial period, commodity
producers were often far from passive victims of domination, that they were much
more than simple marionettes set to dance by overseas commands and demands
(Topick, Marichal, and Frank , ). Individual azufreros dared to bargain with

the geographical review

Fig. References to sulphur and numbers of pages containing data on sulphur mines, shipments,
and contraband found in archival records for New Spain, . (Graph by the author)

royal administrators over sulphur-mining contracts, prices, and mining quotas,


openly revealing to administrators they knew the Crown was in desperate need of
the mineral they mined, rened, and transported to Mexico City. As a result, sulphur miners exercised considerable leverage by successfully negotiating mining contracts in their favor. This process reects similar negotiations between tobacco
growers and workers and the colonial state, for example, and reects the tempered
absolutism of the monopoly system (Deans-Smith , xiv). Sulphur miners indeed played enterprising and dening roles in the development of the industry
(Topick, Marichal, and Frank ).
Colonial documents reveal that, until the late eighteenth century, New Spain
suered from insucient sulphur production, despite both the Spanish Crowns
desperate need for the mineral and the regions abundant sulphur deposits. Not
until the issuance of the Sulphur Ordinances of did royal administrators and
sulphur miners combine eorts to expand sulphur prospecting and mining development. These Bourbon Reform measures drove the growth and development of
the monopoly during the late eighteenth century.
At its core, however, strict monopolistic control of sulphur from Mexico City
was incompatible with the geographical realities of New Spain. Transporting sulphur from distant mines to a centralized production center and then shipping it
back to distant markets near where it had originated was expensive, was inecient,
and facilitated the contraband trade (Deans-Smith , ). Releasing the sulphur
trade from monopoly control, as Humboldt suggested for the gunpowder industry
(, ), would have better served the Crowns network of administrative oces

sulphur mining in new spain

and distribution points and would have mitigated contraband trade. Although the
ordinances did improve overall sulphur production, the unintended consequences
of the legislation included a thriving contraband industry and, ultimately, a messy
and inecient management of the monopoly.
Notes
. This economic growth does not appear to have translated into economic development, however (Garner and Stefanou , ).
. The Crown also sold sulphur to hospitals and gunpowder to reworks manufacturers, although
documents reveal less about these transactions than they do about sales to the mining districts (agn
).
. In colonial Mexico, eight reales was equivalent to one peso, or piece of eight. The peso was
roughly equivalent in value to the thaler (dollar) in Europe and the English colonies of North America
at the time.
. Fonseca and Urrutia also mentioned a mine near San Luis Potos at this time, but I could not
conrm this claim in the archives ([] ). The reference appears only in their later compilation
of materials on the Royal Treasury, and not in Glvezs original ordinances. According to what I found,
licensing applications for sulphur mining near San Luis Potos began in , almost ten years after
Glvez wrote the Sulphur Ordinances (agn ).
. This and all other translations in this article are mine.
. Humboldt estimated the amount of contraband gunpowder consumed in the silver mines compared with that legally sold by the Crown was about four to one (Humboldt , ). If Humboldts
comparison were remotely accurate and this ratio extended to account for the sulphur involved in
gunpowder production, it is further evidence that a secondary market for contraband sulphur ourished.

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