|Paper Prepared for CLADHE-I – MV 5-7/xii2007
From Colonial Capital to Global Entrepôt:
Buenos Aires during the early national period1
María Alejandra Irigoin & Colin M. Lewis
According to a contemporary account, as late as 1856 the Argentine Confederation was ‘ … bound together … by no very stringent ties …’2. The lack of a nation-wide state , endowed with the full attributes of statehood, led historians (including economic historians) to assume that the modern development of the republic started in 1880. This starting date is selected by political historians as it marked the federalisation of the city of Buenos Aires, which became the national capital, rather than the centre of administration of both the federal government and Buenos Aires provincial authorities. Yet even at this point, other elements of statehood were lacking – for example a national currency. Two inter-related assumptions permeate the conventional literature on market consolidation in the period before c.1850. First, the potential of the River Plate region was subverted, and growth delayed, by political turmoil. Secondly, rapid growth succeeded ‘national consolidation’ during and after the 1870s when market-friendly institutional reforms triggered the Golden Era of export-led growth. This interpretation, driven by a pre-occupation with the history of state formation, is now being challenged. In a very recent survey of the literature, Salvatore and Newland argue that new research and modes of analysis are filling lacunæ, stimulating a re-evaluation of the early national period3. The picture of the pattern and scope of economic activity is being transformed by data on population, production, trade, commodities, and money and finance. This evidence permits a reassessment of the extent of market production, the behaviour of agents, the organisation of economic activity, and changes in factor allocation in response to regional and international demand. This paper contributes to that reassessment by assembling and evaluating evidence which suggests that a system of exchange and market production, which originated in the colonial economy, survived through the revolutionary and early national periods, and even flourished after the 1820s. The principal focus of this essay is on the domestic market and internal commercial and monetary networks during the transition from the colonial to the post-Independence economy. It is argued that these institutions functioned despite the absence of a nation-wide state. In short, the paper explores the ‘state of the market’ in a (national) state-less economy. As such, the paper re-evaluates the economic consequences of Independence, and explores the changing position of the port of Buenos Aires in a regional and global context.
The paper opens with a review of the principal interpretations that have dominated the literature. The second section seeks to ‘locate the market’, assembling available information on population size, distribution and welfare, in order to evaluate the extent and nature of economic activity. Production, trade, and circuits of money and credit are explored in the third section, which also examines intra- and inter-regional commerce, and related development of systems of transport. It will be argued that the expansion and diversification of trade and production confirms the persistence of markets in place since the late colonial period, and the endurance of market-responsive agents. Nevertheless, it is acknowledged that market integration was checked by fiscal and monetary strategies, which distorted the distribution of the gains from trade. In sum, this paper demonstrates that market-orientated activities can be observed in the interior during the early national period and that there is evidence of increasing integration amongst interior markets in the ‘political space’ that became the Argentine.
The Literature: assessing the impact of Independence
This essay takes issue with four broad approaches in the traditional economic historiography. First, an over-dependence on a chronology framed by political events. As a result, economic historians have misunderstood the timing of growth, and the nature of economic conditions in the interior during the interval between the collapse of the colonial order and the consolidation of the national state4. Secondly, too narrow a focus on commercial and financial processes in the province of Buenos Aires, and corresponding neglect of production and trade in the interior. An over-emphasis on Buenos Aires produced a dichotomised view of economic activity: namely, stagnation in the interior; boom in Buenos Aires5. Thirdly, and in part deriving from this image of regional dichotomy, studies of trade were largely preoccupied with export production, and the adverse balance of trade. This literature has assumed that imports of luxuries and textiles from Europe could not be covered by pampean pastoral export earnings – and that imports derived from overseas6. Fourthly, that due to the commercial imbalance, there was a drain of specie and bullion from the interior. This explained both the stagnation of the interior and a resistance to free trade policies espoused in Buenos Aires. Lacking potential exports, the interior was wedded to backward-looking, mercantilist strategies associated with the colony, unable to respond to opportunities available in the international economy that were being seized by merchants and producers in Buenos Aires.
There is a further point. The traditional literature conflates ‘state’ with a nation-wide state: interior stagnation is attributed to political chaos deriving from the lack of a (national) state7. These interpretations fail to acknowledge the economic consequences that flowed from the monetary and fiscal stance of politically autonomous provincial regimes.8 As will be shown below, various provincial administrations pursued active commercial and fiscal strategies. In part, these were driven by the exigencies of administrative fragmentation in aftermath of Independence and, partly, in response to local monetary needs. Because of an over-concern with the ideology of state formation, historians have until recently neglected fiscal, financial and monetary aspects of the process of state-building. Although the monetary ‘sovereignty’ of the interior provinces was noted, and reference made to the monopoly enjoyed by the Buenos Aires Customs House, very little attention was given to the implications of these situations for the development of economic activities and, ultimately, growth.9 Even less consideration was devoted to the mechanics of the manufacture of money and credit, or the political economy of finance and taxation. The convertibility of the Buenos Aires paper peso was ‘suspended’ in 1826 and not restored until 1866. During this period, the paper peso was the principal means of domestic payment in the province, but its circulation was limited. In the interior, regional currencies ‘zones’ emerged as silver coinage of various provenance and different degrees of fineness circulated. Yet, given the unfavourably balance of trade with the littoral, and porteño control of the Customs House, bullion inevitably flowed to the coast10.
There is a similar myopia in the general approach to trade. First, studies of trade have been over-conditioned by trends observed for the province of Buenos Aires, and overwhelmingly focused on foreign trade. This has deflected attention from internal, or inter-provincial, trade balances, and fostered the assumption that all imports originated from overseas and were responsible for the demise of local production during the early national period11. Secondly, the lack of consolidated commercial accounts for the whole the country, results in the perpetuation of the view that the balance of trade remained unfavourable in the early national period. The traditional literature gave little recognition to the fact that the overseas balance of trade tended to move towards equilibrium in the 1840s, or acknowledge weight of re-exports to neighbouring countries. Thirdly, most scholars have specialised in the study of only one branch of trade (imports or exports to/from the North Atlantic economy), or a single commodity like hides and tallow and, later, wool. Fourthly, on the export side, much of the trade literature has associated increased commerce with frontier expansion – an extensive model of growth based on the export of pastoral produce. Finally, due to this fragmented approach, to date there has been no systematic analyses of trade amongst the provinces, distinguishing overseas exports by place of production, or imports by final point of consumption (nor of trade in regionally produced goods and commodities). This has led to little consideration of commerce amongst the provinces and with neighbouring countries.
The crisis of Independence shattered the administrative cohesion of the viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. The French invasion of the peninsula, the British invasions of Buenos Aires, and vacillation by the restored Bourbons in Madrid, triggered a loss of legitimacy that permitted barely contained centrifugal forces to surface. The economic outcome of the disappearance of the colonial state was definitive. Shortly after 1810, Upper Peru/Bolivia broke with Buenos Aires. A rich mining area, silver transfers from Bolivia had funded the vice-regal administration based in Buenos Aires. Subsequently, in 1811, the separation of Paraguay made trade with a densely populated internal market more difficult. Chile gained its independence in 1818, liberated by the Army of the Andes that was largely financed by Buenos Aires. Later, following a decade of civil war, the independence of Uruguay in 1825 entailed the loss of a productive region particularly suited to ranching, and increasingly important as a source of exports. The independence of the Banda Oriental compounded the loss of revenue triggered by the separation Upper Peru/Bolivia, exacerbating fiscal crisis in Buenos Aires12. Indeed, the attention given to political aspects of territorial fragmentation has overshadowed another economically important aspect, that is, the fiscal and monetary fragmentation of the former colonial economy as a result of Independence. The collapse of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate, arguably the largest custom and monetary union that the world had know up to that point, had severe repercussions for successor states.
In the absence of a single, legitimate authority, competition for revenues and resources provoked armed conflict. Conventionally, historians have viewed political turmoil as the main legacy of Independence, reducing the scope for market activities, and jeopardising the economic development of the former Spanish American colonies. Given the prevalence of disorder, it was assumed that the bulk of the population existed in a narrowly bounded world, engaged in activities with very low productivity. That is, subsistence agriculture, low capital- and labour-intensive production of pastoral commodities for Atlantic markets, and an archaic artisan ‘manufacturing’ constituted the economy. Economic retreat was a function of the disintegration of a complex, well-connected system of colonial trade based on monopolies and mercantilist practices. Economic decline and stagnation in the interior and littoral underwrote antagonism between the city of Buenos Aires and the rest of the Confederation13. The combination of freer trade policies, and an unequal balance of trade with industrialised Britain, aggravated by the lack of bullion transfers from Upper Peru, had a devastating impact on the former colonial economy. Or, so it is argued.
The state of the market: size matters
More than twenty years ago, in a seminal study of the colonial economy, Assadourian challenged accepted notions about the foundations of the colonial order in South America. He calculated that approximately 40 percent of silver production of Potosí remained in the area, oiling the wheels of domestic production and trade in the viceroyalties of the Río de la Plata and Peru. The research of Assadourian, and subsequently Mitre’s work on nineteenth century Bolivia, have recently stimulated more systematic research in the field of money, finance and credit networks, not least solutions to the growing scarcity of coinage associated with the separation of Upper Peru/Bolivia, and the fiscal and monetary autonomy claimed and enjoyed by the new provinces/states14. These finding provoke several questions: how much of the vibrant colonial commercial and productive structure noted by Assadourian survived the shock of Independence; how much of the accumulated stock of ‘money’ and ‘capital’ was retained for internal use; what, if any, were the connections amongst the different currency ‘zones’ created by the fiscal needs of post-Revolutionary states; what were the consequences of the existence of diverse, metallic, debased and inconvertible, means of payments; and how did credit networks function in the face of monetary instability and overall uncertainty? Acknowledging that there was considerable regional variation, new scholarship suggests that market activities in the early national decades may have been considerably larger than previously supposed and that, by the 1830s and 1840s, inter-regional circuits of commerce and finance were strengthening, sometimes benefiting from overseas linkages, occasionally responding to local opportunities15. Speculation about the strength of regional circuits of production, exchange, and credit before the mid-nineteenth century, hints that the stance of various monetary and fiscal authorities was critical to the scope of local production and exchange.
Evidence on the size, spatial distribution, and welfare of population in the former Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata is fragmented. Nevertheless, the data that exists serves as a proxy for the location of production and consumption – and sheds light on the distribution of gains resulting from market participation. It is generally accepted that the bulk of the population was located in the interior at the end of the colonial period, and that a shift in distribution towards the littoral occurred during the middle third of the nineteenth century16. This change is of some significance when addressing the extent of the market and the location of economic activity. Given the extensive, ‘land-rich’ model of production of cattle-rearing in Buenos Aires, labour and working capital were the key factors. Hence the distribution of population, as well as the availability and cost of credit, is critical when assessing the scale and location of market and production.
TABLE ABOUT HERE
Data presented in the Table indicates that there was substantial population growth in the interior during the early nineteenth century and that, even as late as the 1850s, around two-thirds of total population was still located in the interior. Most demographic historians accept a direct, relationship between economic opportunity and population growth. Hence, if the distribution and expansion of population in the interior are related to economic growth, the provinces of the interior hardly stagnated. Halperín Donghi confirms that the interior was decidedly the most populous region in the 1770s, accounting for around four-fifth of a total population of not more than 250,000 for the whole of the Viceroyalty. In 1810, around two-thirds of an Argentinean ‘national’ population of approximately 450,000 resided in the interior17. Parish and Burgin maintain that this regional distribution changed little between the 1810s and mid-century18. Yet, when the first national census was taken in 1869, the interior accounted for a little over half the total population of 1.8 millions. The other half was settled in the littoral - the areas favoured by newly arrived European immigrants. Migration was already having a significant impact on the demography of the Buenos Aires countryside by the mid 1850s. The 1854 provincial census shows that 58 percent of residents in rural districts were provincianos; 12 percent had been born in other provinces; and 30 percent were foreigners19. Conventionally, the ‘redistribution’ of national population to the littoral, and the concentration there of immigrants from overseas, has been viewed as confirming the stagnation of the interior and the expansion of Buenos Aires. Another interpretation is possible. If European immigration is discounted, the distribution would have continued to favour the interior – which demonstrated a remarkable capacity to retain population. Although overseas and national migrants contributed to the faster growth of population in the littoral, the Table confirms that numbers registered substantial absolute increases in the interior.
Burgin estimates that the population of the province of Buenos Aires doubled during the first generation following Independence, rising from 92,000 in 1809 to 180,000 in 183920. Over the next 30 years, the population of the province more than doubled again to reach 495,000 in 186921. The Entre Ríos population appears to have grown rapidly after the 1820s. In 1820, the population of the province was about 20,000, more than doubling to 48,000 by mid-century. By 1857, there were almost 80,000 inhabitants. Twelve years later, the first national census registered the entrerriano provincial population at 134,000. As this data seems to indicate, the highest rates of population growth occurred in the 1850s22. While few sources agree on absolute numbers, the population of Corrientes appears to have grown considerably in the 1810s and 1820s and again after the late 1840s. The correntino population was around 20,000 in 1810. In 1820 the figure may have been near 37,000. By the late 1820 and early 1830s, several estimates place the population of Corrientes above 50,000. At mid-century, Table 1 records the population as 45,000, but other sources suggest a figure between 75,000 and 82,000, and give 85,000 for 1857, with the 1869 census return showing 129,00023. Estimates for Corrientes in the 1850s show the greatest variance. As most sources accept that correntino demographic growth was overwhelmingly natural, and assuming the accuracy of the 1869 census figure, the higher estimates for the 1850s appear more plausible. A natural increase from 45,000 to 129,000 in 13 years is impossible: even in 1869, intra-provincial and foreign immigration accounted for less that eight percent of total population24. The demographic histories of Entre Ríos and Corrientes during the period indicate that Mesopotamian rates of population growth were probably the highest in the Confederation. Elsewhere in the littoral, the population of Santa Fé registered more modest increases, particularly before mid-century. Total population grew from 15,000 to 41,000 between 1817 and 1858, though more than doubled between 1858 and 1869, to reach 89,000 as colonisation attracted overseas immigrants25. Data for the remaining provinces shows that the population of the provinces of Santiago del Estero, Salta, and Tucumán, which averaged around 50,000 each in 1819, had grown to 133,000, 89,000 and 109,000 respectively by 1869. The population of Cuyo (provinces of Mendoza, San Juan and San Luis) increased from 88,000 in 1819 to 190,000 in 1869. A pivotal province, lying between the littoral and the interior, the population of Córdoba tripled from 75,000 to 210,000 between 1819 and 186926.
Table 1 also confirms that the coastal and riverine areas of present day Argentina (the Littoral) remained one of the least populous parts of southern South American until well into the nineteenth century. At the end of the eighteenth century, the relatively compact region of the central valley of Chile counted a larger population than the territory lying to the east of the Andes between Buenos Aires and Salta, namely 400,000 to 311,000. Indeed, with an estimate of 200,000 c.1800, present day Paraguay was probably the single most densely settled area of the Viceroyalty. Even in 1819, the population of Upper Peru/Bolivia was double that of the Argentine Confederation. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, estimates for Bolivia and Chile continue to point to populations considerably above the Argentine figure, notwithstanding demographic increase registered in the littoral provinces of Entre Ríos, Santa Fé and Buenos Aires. In sum, before the 1860s the demographic centre of the River Plate region laid in the interior, the area today represented by the Argentinean northwest, southern Bolivia and central Chile. This is corroborated by the prevailing pattern of communications and trade routes chartered in the map below.
MAP ABOUT HERE
The figure shows the pattern of settlement, and the main trade routes, as charted in early nineteenth-century maps. As can be seen, during the 1830s settlements were clustered around two main production and communications axes. One, originating in the mining areas around Potosí to the oceans, ran via Salta, where the routes separated. South of Salta, the western branch roughly paralleled the Pacific coast, linking towns and villages down to the ports of Coquimbo, Valparaiso and Concepción as it went through fertile valleys of the central region of Chile. The eastern route stretched over 1,617 miles all the way to the River Plate. By the late colonial period, this was the principal connexion between Potosí and the Atlantic world. Although it was longer than the route via Lima, which was only 1,215 miles from Potosí, the preference for the eastern route is explained by three factors. First, the terrain was easier. Secondly, the persistence of contraband trade through the port of Buenos Aires in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries contributed to its popularity, attracting imports that were exchanged for silver. Thirdly, the establishment of imperial authorities and revenues collection in the River Plate (creation of the new Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata) in 1776 reinforced the importance of eastern route. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that both branches of the communications axes had been shaped by mining and the shipment of New World silver overseas.
The map also shows secondary populations clusters and communications networks centred on the mines of Upper Peru mines. Long-established, though intermittent contacts between settlements in the highlands and those in the lowlands towards the east, where indigenous population under the control of the Jesuits missions had developed a sizeable agricultural economy in colonial times, gave rise to expectations about trade with the navigability of rivers like the Pilcomayo and Bermejo. Although, by the early nineteenth century, the Paraguayan region was languishing economically and population growth had lost its vigour, the survival of small settlements along these rivers maintained these expectations well into the 1820s. The other axis extended in an east/west direction, linking both oceans through settlements located in the flat and more fertile lands of Córdoba and Mendoza, and San Luis. At the eastern end of this route lay the new colonial capital, and an area of increasing urbanisation, around the city and port of Buenos Aires.
In addition, the map demonstrates a considerable agglomeration of settlements in the Littoral, as far as the southern frontier on the Salado river. In this region, surrounding the capital, with the growth of pastoral activities new settlements like San Nicólas and Ranchos were established in the post-Independence period. Similar expansion on the eastern banks of the Parana accounts for the foundation of towns like Gualeguay and Gualeguaychú.27 During colonial times, the Uruguayan countryside had been the principal cattle-rising area. This area, which today includes Argentine Mesopotamia, Uruguay and the south of Brazil, was another region of intense commercial exchange across political borders, centred on the common livestock economy.28
This dense cluster of settlements in the southern and eastern regions of the River Plate reflects contemporary changes in the demographic and economic pattern: the economy was moving away from the production of silver and was becoming a substantial exporter of hides and wool to overseas markets. Similarly, the autarkic economy of the interior, mainly oriented to producing foodstuff and ‘manufactures’ for the Upper Peru mining sector, was declining. With greater openness to trade, and the transformation of the pampean-cum-riverine region into the most dynamic region, population from the stagnating interior regions started moving south. Indeed, the labour force of the dynamic pastoral economy was overwhelmingly formed by provincianos. This internal migration anticipated a trend that would be reinforced half a century later with the flow of immigrants from Europe. The expansion of the livestock economy also explains a similar population growth and type of settlement in the Littoral, along the Uruguay river northward to Asuncion, and eastward towards Rio Grande and Porto Alegre, in Brazil.
There are a few “empty” spaces apparent on the map. The two most notable correspond to interior regions where indigenous resistance was still significant in the 1830s. At the bottom of the map, the line of small forts, from Melinque to the southwest, shows the actual frontier of settlement. This was the border with bellicose tribes of Pampas Indians. Raids across the frontier would only end with the military expedition of 1879 led by General Roca that finally brought this territory and Patagonia under the economic and political control of Buenos Aires. Another “blank” space in the north east of present day Argentina, located between the dense network of villages clustered around Oran, Salta and Santiago, in the west, and Asunción, Corrientes and Santa Fé, in the east, can be explained by similar reasons. The Tobas, Mocovies, Abipones, Pilagas and Mbayaes inhabited these dense subtropical forests. Some fierce Indians were subdued after 1880, it took even longer to bring these territories under effective Argentine jurisdiction.
If the greater part of the population lived in the interior, it can be assumed that that was where the potential market for consumer goods was located - irrespective of whether those goods were locally produced or imported. According to some scholars, the poverty of up-country districts was apparent to European travellers before the middle of the nineteenth century. From a European standpoint, this may have been the case, but were condition in the interior so different from the littoral?29 Many historians have taken this ‘poverty’ as confirming that the interior was ‘drained’ of specie, lapsing into subsistence with the political fragmentation and the extended warfare that characterised the early national period. This interpretation, as indicated above, fails to take account of the potentially dynamic affects of bullion-financed imports – of exchange in place of colonial fiscal exaction. Constructions placed on movements in the terms of trade can be similarly challenged. It is argued that the terms of trade had favoured the River Plate at Independence, but deteriorated after the 1820s. Nevertheless, the decline in price was partly off-set by export volume growth as ranching expanded in the littoral30. As Halperí Donghi shows, demand from overseas and access to North Atlantic markets, coupled with the availability of empty fertile land in the south of the province of Buenos Aires, rather than price, were the factors influencing expansion or contraction in production31. In addition, inflationary policies of the period distorted relative prices, promoting export growth and configuring the extensive pattern of production. In effect, large-scale cattle producers and exporters of pastoral commodities, who earned gold or foreign currency, where subsidised by wage earners, tenant farmers, small proprietors and others who were unable to hedge again inflation, and were subject to ‘indexed’ duties on imported items of basic consumption32. A vent-for-surplus model appears to have been at work: export production was driven by demand for imports, and resources were allocated in order to satisfy that demand, almost irrespective of export price. The critical issue is thus the location of import consumption – and the production of exports: who consumed/produced what, and where? Was the mass of the population ‘poor’, subsisting outside the market? What groups and which regions gained from production and trade? The growth of population presented above, and the likely under-representation of the interior at mid-nineteenth century, supports the proposition that the interior provinces of what was to become the Argentine was an area of considerable human settlement and economic activity.
Demographic data for neighbouring regions in the former viceroyalty is even patchier. What there is, points to quite different patterns for Paraguay and, possibly, Upper Peru/Bolivia, on the one hand, and Uruguay and Chile, on the other. According to Humphreys, the population of Paraguay stagnated at around 200,000 during the early national period33. In 1831, the population of Bolivia stood at a little above one million, almost equally divided between indigenous communities (540,000), and creoles and mestizos (521,000)34. At this point, as during the late colonial period, the total population of Upper Peru/Bolivia was considerably greater than that of the provinces that would form the Argentine Confederation. At mid-century the population of Bolivia stood at about 1.5 million, a 50 percent increase in less than a generation, though there appears to have been a marked decline in the urban population and, possibly, a retreat to subsistence in some parts of the republic35. Chile exhibited considerable population growth after the end of the eighteenth century, registering an increase from around 400,000 to almost 1.1 million in the 50 years before the mid 1840s. By the mid-1870s, population totalled 2 million. Chilean demographic expansion appears to have been particularly rapid after the 1820s, associated with the expansion of cereal production in the central valleys and the development of mining in the norte chico36. Information on the population of Uruguay is even more fragmentary. Total population was 69,000 in 1820, a figure that compares favourably in terms of size and density of settlement with that of many Argentinian interior and littoral provinces37. Following the 1820s, it seems that the population of Uruguay and bordering areas of Brazil exhibited substantial population growth38.
Notwithstanding the debate about a re-alignment in the overall balance of population between the interior and littoral regions of the Confederation, divergent demographic trends in outlying regions of the former viceroyalty are important. The provinces of Cuyo and the Argentinian north-west continued to enjoy strong commercial links with Chile and Bolivia. Trade networks between Argentinian Mesopotamia and the east bank of the River Plate and southern Brazil also remained strong. Equally important, most of the population located between Bolivia and Uruguay acquired imported manufactures via Buenos Aires, providing an important source of rent for the Buenos Aires Customs House. Given prevailing transport technology, Buenos Aires enjoyed substantial advantages in transportation costs in overseas trade - advantages that were reinforced by falling freight rates on north Atlantic shipping routes. Despite the high cost of overland transport, the route from Buenos Aires to the interior was still competitive, and preferable to alternatives such as via the Chilean port of Valparaiso. Communications between Chile and Bolivia and the north-west of the Confederation were more expensive than the overland route across the pampas. And, long distance freights between Buenos Aires and the North Atlantic were two-thirds those to Valparaiso around Cape Horn39.
Newland has made imaginative use of scarce data on the distribution and growth of population to evaluate Argentinian national and regional economic performance for the 1810-1870 period40. Taking population as an indicator of economic expansion, he shows that the Argentine experienced a rate of demographic growth second only to that of the USA amongst a sample of industrialising Western European economies and Latin American countries, hinting that Argentinian economic performance enjoyed a similar ranking. Argentinian population growth averaged 2.6 percent per annum compared with 2.9 percent for the USA41. Although Newland is primarily concerned to demonstrate the increasing primacy of the littoral, several finding emerge from the research. First, throughout the period there was a substantial amount of seasonal mobility of labour - from the interior to the littoral, and within the interior, a view corroborated by Salvatore42. Secondly, that although the rate of global urbanisation increased from 25.3 percent in 1819 to 30.4 percent in 1869, the share of total urban population represented by the city Buenos Aires fell considerably (from 46.1 percent to 33.4 percent) while the rate of urbanisation rose in Entre Ríos and Santa Fé. A substantial part of urban growth was accounted for by flourishing established centres and the appearance of ‘new’ river towns and cities like San Nicólas, Paraná, Santa Fé, Gualeguaychú, and Corrientes. Thirdly, that there was little change in the overall sectoral distribution of labour during the period, despite a modest shift from primary to secondary activities. There were, however, increasingly profound regional variations in the intra-sectoral distribution of the agrarian labour force. Throughout the period, two-thirds of rural workers were engaged in farming in the interior. In the littoral, there was a steady drift to ranching so that, by 1869, almost equal proportions of rural labour were engaged in pastoral and arable production. Nevertheless, even in the province of Buenos Aires, at the peak of the pastoral boom during the period, about one-third of the rural labour forces continued to be engaged in cereal production43. Finally, as indicated above, despite the relative shift in population towards the littoral, the absolute population of the interior remained remarkably resilient. Urbanisation and labour mobility imply the existence of an embryonic national labour market and suggest that political turmoil did not prevent seasonal movements of labour. The continuing dominance of farming in the interior, coupled with peasant seasonal wage employment in other parts of the republic during the rural ‘dead’ season, is also compatible with a dynamic interior economy and society.
Urbanisation related to trade and the financial intermediation of exports and imports, in addition to ‘manufacture’, may be taken as further evidence of specialisation and market integration. Indeed, the pace of urbanisation offers further qualitative evidence of the expansion of the market, not least in parts of the littoral and interior around mid-century. With a population of 35,000 by 1810, Buenos Aires was one of the largest cities in South America. Its population had grown substantially since the creation of the viceroyalty in 1776, and continued to grow at a much faster rate than those of Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City during the period . However, the population of a number of interior cities like Córdoba, Mendoza and Tucumán also grew significantly over the period, though from a much smaller base, and notwithstanding that the population of most interior provinces remained overwhelmingly rural44. The principal difference between Buenos Aires and the interior, as with other provinces of the littoral, was the balance between urban and rural. Before 1850, at least half the population of the province was urban. This said, and as demonstrated by Newland, rates of urban growth in the middle third of the nineteenth century were higher outside the province of Buenos Aires. For example, while the rate of urbanisation of Buenos Aires rose by only three points between 1819 and 1869, the rate of urbanisation of the provinces of Corrientes, Entre Ríos and San Luis increased by between 12 and 16 points, and that of Córdoba, and Tucumán by around four points45. Other provinces, however, registered a decline in the urban proportion of total population, though not necessarily a fall in absolute numbers.
A recent anthropometric study by Salvatore also points to welfare gains among inhabitants of the interior. Admittedly employing a small sample of data, information about height and nutrition points to substantial improvements in well-being. The height of recruits, born in the late eighteenth century, and inducted into the revolutionary armies at the time of Independence, displayed a remarkable degree of similarity, irrespective of region. The tallest soldiers had been born in Cuyo and the Northwest, with average heights of 161.60 and 161.58 centimetres, respectively. That is, an average of 0.35 centimetres taller than soldiers born in Buenos Aires, recorded at 161.24 centimetres. Approximately a couple of generations later, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the average height of soldiers entering the army had increased, irrespective of region of birth. There was, however, considerable variation in average regional height gains. The tallest soldiers had now been born in the Centre of the country: the second and third tallest cohorts in the Littoral and Northwest, respectively. Recruits born in Cuyo were now the shortest. Nevertheless, recruits from the Centre, the Littoral and the Northwest all registered larger, average absolute height gains than those born in Buenos Aires. Relative gains in the Centre, Littoral and Northwest were also greater than those observed for Buenos Aires. The differential between Northwest- and Buenos Aires-born soldiers had increased from 0.34 to 1.55 centimetres46. Generalised welfare gains in the interior implicit in the Salvatore data would have been inconceivable in stagnant or declining regional economies.
Quantitative and qualitative evidence of demographic expansion and urban growth in the interior, and anthropometric gains, have implications for assessing the location and scope of the market, and the affects of regional and international trade. The map shows that, as late as the 1840s, settlements were still predominantly clustered along the colonial trade route between Upper Peru and Buenos Aires, with the greatest number to be found in the interior of what would become the Argentine. This clustering and concentration cautions against arguments about greater population ‘density’ around Buenos Aires repeated in the traditional literature. There is little logic calculating population density for the pre-1870 period based on territorial jurisdictions that only came into existence much later. Although provincial administrations assumed the attributes of statehood and sovereignty, effective control over the territory was incomplete. Moreover, while some notional interior boundaries at mid-century approximately equated with those recognised in the 1880s, other did not. The map neatly captures the economic and political geography at mid-century: boundaries were not yet precisely defined, the agglomeration of settlements still followed the colonial pattern, and autonomous polities were separated by the tyranny of distance.
Population distribution influenced production and consumption. The concentration of settlements in the interior, in addition to demographic growth there, points to a geographical bias in markets for local products as well as imports. The retention of population by interior provinces, notwithstanding a gradual shift in overall distribution towards the littoral, suggests the survival and adaptation of regional market networks, despite disorder and the absence of a national state. The emphases on relative changes in the regional distribution of population, and on immigration from overseas, deflected attention from the absolute increase in population in the interior. Similarly, the presence of provincianos in the littoral provinces, captured in population censuses, has been used uncritically to support the thesis of economic crisis in the interior, without acknowledging the seasonal nature of much internal migration – or the capacity of the interior to retain labour.