The Many Meanings of Poverty: Colonialism, Social Compacts, and Assistance in Eighteenth-Century Ecuador.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Krippner, James
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: The Many Meanings of Poverty: Colonialism, Social Compacts, and Assistance in Eighteenth-Century Ecuador (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Milton, Cynthia E.
Accession Number: 209577982
Full Text: The Many Meanings of Poverty: Colonialism, Social Compacts, and Assistance in Eighteenth-Century Ecuador. By Cynthia E. Milton (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2007. xiii plus 356 pp. $65.00).

While the poor may always be with us, what it means to be poor varies widely, even in a precisely defined time and place. This is the well-argued conclusion of Cynthia E. Milton's history of poverty in late colonial Quito, Ecuador. This detailed work provides a sophisticated blend of cultural and social history revealing the multiple dimensions involved in defining and responding to "the poor" in a distinctive eighteenth century urban setting.

The book is successful on multiple levels. It provides imaginative research on elusive historical actors, including especially innovative work on the disabled, widows and destitute children. It successfully interrogates the shifting meanings of poverty over and across time, as well as demonstrating its material reality in a specific place. These factors are analyzed as they relate to long-term processes of historical change, such as the transformation of political culture during the transition from Hapsburg to Bourbon rule; the decline of the social standing of Creoles or Spanish Americans in the eighteenth century; and the blurring of ethno-racial categories as the colony matured. Milton also provides a rich synchronic dimension, as she examines the gendered and racialized inflections of terms and the specific legal strategies involved in struggles to distinguish deserving from undeserving poor in Quito during the final decades of its colonial experience.

While the harsh reality of extreme economic deprivation can be quantified with some precision, Milton pursues a far more ambitious and dynamic agenda. Her goal is to understand "poverty as culturally and historically specific, poverty compacts as legitimizing (or undermining) colonial rule, and the agency of diverse groups in defining poverty and claiming assistance." These distinct lines of argument culminate in a well-defended central thesis: "though poverty was widespread it did not affect all poor people equally nor was poor relief the same for all." (xviii). Milton's deep and nuanced archival research revealing these complex cultural processes is genuinely impressive, especially because historians have long recognized the challenges involved in uncovering the beliefs, practices and experiences of non (or, for a significant number of the examples cited by Milton, formerly) elite historical actors. The book reveals long-term historical shifts as well as contingent practices, structural constraints as well as human agency, to provide a comprehensive portrait of an under-researched topic.

The influence of Gramsci is notable in the author's emphasis on culture. Poor relief in the Spanish colonies rested on a foundation of medieval paternalism, though the social cleavages of a colonial society profoundly influenced notions of the deserving and undeserving poor. In short, impoverished Spaniards and declining Creoles had far more success in arguing for and receiving assistance from the state than did indigenous, African or mixed-racial people. Thus, "poverty" was a relative rather than precisely defined concept. Milton distinguishes between the "economic poor," suffering from material want, and the "social poor," whose deteriorating economic situation forced them to live below their expectations. When interacting with the state to receive relief--for example, the free legal representation granted to the "solemn poor" or the pensions granted to the widows of colonial officials to maintain their "honorable" lifestyles--the "social poor" tended to enjoy mote success. However, neither category was impermeable. Over the course of the eighteenth century, downwardly mobile Creoles became economically poor, while representatives of the mixed and multi-racial urban plebs successfully argued for the concessions granted to the "social poor." The Bourbon reorganization of the state, especially under Charles III (1759-88), expanded the scope of poor relief while regulating its administration. Though the Bourbon reforms did not completely remove the influence of Hapsburg paternalism and the "quid pro quos" of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Iberian colonialism, in the end the social compacts that underlay colonial rule would be eroded, leading to political dissidence and, ultimately, the emergence of a modern republic.

This is a superb book. The archival research is intensive as well as extensive, marked as much by careful attention to the shifting meanings of words as to the compilation of data and statistical patterns. The writing is engaging, and the examples chosen are humanizing as well as illustrative. It is difficult to imagine a better book on the carefully defined topic of urban poverty in eighteenth-century Quito. One can, however, pose some questions that this research stimulates. While poor relief was primarily an urban phenomenon, what types of connections if any existed between rural and urban poverty in colonial Ecuador, either as an economic reality or a discourse mediated by the state? What impact did the intensifying cycle of eighteenth-century Andean rural rebellion have on urban political culture, including arguments over poverty and poor relief? How did transformations in the world economy influence beliefs and practices concerning poverty in Quito? Milton does provide partial answers to these questions, and we would be fortunate if future research elaborates upon them further.

Milton correctly asserts that "The poor was not a social class, at least not in the Marxist sense, nor was it a term used by elites to designate the disparate social groupings below them." (9). It is to her credit that the cultural, political and human significance of this amorphous population in eighteenth-century Quito can now be recognized.

James Krippner

Haverford College
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.