Food Scarcities, North American Flour, US Merchants’ Monopolies, and Rebellion in Late-Colonial Caracas 1797-1810

I’ve just returned from a very successful, targeted research trip to Caracas, Venezuela, to consult the city’s Municipal Archive thanks to my Student Research Grant through the Charles Center and the Reves Center for International Studies.  Last year as  a Fulbright Fellow from 2010-2011, I had a unique and special opportunity to spend nine months conducting the final phase of my dissertation research– investigating the foreign trade of late-colonial Venezuela at the Archivo General de la Nación and the Academía Nacional de la Historia.

The Charles Center grant made it possible for me to return to Caracas for three weeks in order to consult a very important documentary collection in the city’s archive.  The “Libro de Abastos,” “Libro de Harinas,” and “Libro de Agricultura,” comprise three volumes of documents which detail the Caracas town and city council’s (the cabildo and ayuntamiento) attempts to regulate the importation, sale, and distribution of grain from 1790 to 1810.  Feeding the growing city of Caracas had become a problem fraught with conflict during the Napoleonic Wars.  Provisioning the inhabitants of Caracas with sufficient and affordable grain was a problem deeply affected by international events and alterations in U.S. foreign policy as these documents demonstrate and as my dissertation argues.

My dissertation  explores the changing contours of the U.S. grain trade in the Spanish Province of Venezuela from 1797 to 1815.  In it, I argue that the grain trade played an important role in the destabilization of colonial rule and the struggle for independence, and that those involved in this branch of neutral commerce (comercio neutral or comercio neutro) greatly influenced the foreign relations and diplomacy between the United States and Latin America’s first independent republics in Venezuela between 1811 and 1815.

Having reconstructed this commerce last year from port and customs records at the Venezuelan National Archive, I wanted to understand how fluctuations in the trade might have affected the Spanish American colonists who were the consumers of imported wheat flour milled in Philadelphia and Baltimore.  I had lots of questions to pursue.  For example, what happened to the grain supply in the city of Caracas as U.S. traders disappeared from Venezuela following the Embargo of 1808? What happened to the price of bread and other basic foodstuff of prime necessity as a result of fluctuations in supply and alterations in demand?  Did a food crisis or food instability play a role in the political crisis that led to the formation of an independent government in April 1810 and the declaration of Venezuelan independence in 1811?  What role did food sovereignty play in the foreign policy of the colonial province and the revolutionary governments that struggled to maintain political independence?

Food sovereignty can be defined as the demand of a people through their assertion of a natural right to be free of dependency on imported food sources and foreign food producers, and to self-determine what kind of food to produce and how it is to be grown, processed, regulated, and distributed.  Proponents of food sovereignty often point to the inequalities of the global food supply, and demand that some measure of justice be restored to the regulation of international trade and food production.  This issue gained international attention and notoriety following the global food crisis of 2007 -2008 and the political protests and instability that rising food prices caused in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Southern Europe.  For a definition and more information on this idea and its current manifestations in international affairs, I found it useful to consult the website of the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty, which can be found here: http://www.foodsovereignty.org/Aboutus/WhatisIPC.aspx

From January 12 to February 2, I was in Caracas to explore food crisis and food sovereignty as a historical phenomenon and to try and answer my many questions about the role it might or might not have played in the rebellions and independence movement of Venezuela after 1808.  Due to the short duration of my trip, I spent my days in the archives snapping digital photographs of the critical documents so that I could review as much of the archival record as possible.  Now that I’m back, I’m going to read the documents as digital images, begin analyzing them, and add this material to the dissertation chapter I’m currently working on that focuses on these issues.  At the end of June and July, I will be presenting this research in the form of two conference papers at the annual meetings of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

In my next post I’ll provide a summary of my analysis and how I’ve incorporated this rich archival material into my project.