It is a commercial firm, such as Black & Decker, Cuervo y Sobrinos, Hijos de Antonio Barceló, Dolce & Gabbana, Smith & Wesson.
Juan Barrio and Tomás Sordo came from Spain to the New Kingdom of Granada — present-day Colombia — very at the end of the 18th century, on the eve of our independence revolutions, each on their own and with the intention of winning the way of poverty.
Entrepreneurs, today’s speech would say about them. They were also impoverished hidalgos, two boar types, as they say in Colombia, with their batteries well placed. Here in the Indies they met and hit it off enough to risk a modest capital in a commercial venture. They were fortunate enough to have made, as soon as they arrived, advantageous marriages with women from the patio.
From the beginning, and once the business environment had been studied, they dedicated themselves to supplying the province of Antioquia, which was then going through a mining bonanza and whose population required textiles, both imported and from the kingdom. Also iron, steel, household goods, farm tools, foodstuffs. All this occurs on the eve of the great upheavals brought about by the wars of Independence.
In one of his most beautiful stories, Count De Lampedusa makes extravagant vows that, from a certain age, every man will keep a diary or write his autobiography as a duty imposed by the State.
“In the course of three or four generations,” suggests the count, “the material thus collected would be of inestimable value: many psychological and historical problems that plague Humanity could be solved.” It is possible, dear earl, but only on condition that you have the time required to read profitably these copious, highly personal annals and, furthermore, you have the power to act in the public sphere.
This program seems impracticable, because it is ambitious and inhuman, but to be able to count on the long memory of unknown individuals, with all presumptuous notes, not like those of Héctor Berlioz, the Duke of Saint-Simon or Madame de Staël, but as they usually do. be those of ordinary people, people like Barrio and Sordo, for example.
Two peninsulars team up to get ahead in a Spanish colony only to find themselves caught up in the cycle of Spanish-American revolutions. It is impossible to assess fairly what the seat of his works represents for today’s historians.
Memoirs and epistolary of illustrious people, in many cases written by people already imbued with their own posterity, have at all times nourished the studies of Literature, of military and political history, and also of what is known as the history of mentalities.
Barrio and Sordo, merchants, left behind them a treasure of few commercial obituaries, detailed accounting entries, loyal advice, detailed judgments on the changing military situation, representations before commercial courts, customs manifests, invoices and drafts that give sight to much of what we were and, certainly, much of what we are today in Spanish-speaking America.
All this – almost 400 private documents – rested in the General Archive of the Nation, in Bogotá, where Daniel Gutiérrez, Colombian historian, specialist in our independence, and James Vladimir Torres, student of the mining and monetary history of New Granada, made the find.
It is conjectured that, shortly after the battle of Boyacá, the kidnapping commission seized the correspondence of the company, found in a warehouse abandoned by its manager, a royalist put on the run by Bolívar’s surprise entry into Bogotá in 1819. Later, Perhaps not finding what to do with it, they deposited it in the then brand new offices of the Republic of Colombia.
What Álvarez and Gutiérrez have done with the Barrio and Sordo letters can be read both as a case study of business history in times of revolutionary crisis – an achievement of its own rare – and as an exciting chronicle of ordinary people in times hard.
The reading of The Barrio y Sordo Company: Business and Politics in the New Kingdom of Granada and Venezuela, 1796-1820 (Universidad Externado de Colombia, 2021) has brought me closer to two characters whose relationships and cares prefigure the cares and adventures of Bouvard y Pécuchet.
Barrio is cerebral and dry, unimaginative and although he tries to stick strictly to his affairs, he commits major errors of judgment that take him to court and earn him life-long enmity. Deaf is sanguine, flatter than his partner and not at all a desk man: his thing is the long trips along the back roads or rowing in the great rivers. The company’s activities cover a good part of the kingdom and insurgent Venezuela.
Both partners are staunch royalists — technically speaking, they are the very peninsular ones referred to in the War to Death Decree, signed by Bolívar in 1813 — but neither of them is obfuscated by the changing circumstances of the war. A surprising adaptability, and especially the plasticity of Sordo’s commercial brain, unfailingly assists them in their process of assimilation of the new political reality.
The company adopted the model of a cartographic compass for its operations. Sometimes the compass rests on Santa Fe and its circumference covers an area that today is served by domestic airline flights.
When, after 1819, both partners had to emigrate to Venezuela, still dominated by Spain, however, they did not change the company: the compass now settled in Maracaibo and the scope of its ex-import operation reaches, in Venezuelan territory, as far as Puerto Cabello and Valencia del Rey. So Barco came up with the idea of buying a brig – one of the most successful naval designs in centuries of human navigation. With him, Barrio and Sordo extend the collection and supply routes: Jamaica, Veracruz, Havana, London …
I will not incur in being spoiler. I will only say that Barrio and Sordo saw them green, they saw them ripe and again green. Their efforts did not lead them to the top of the social pyramid. Nor did they make Spain rich. His trail is lost to us sometime between Boyacá and Carabobo.
In more ways than one, it is fair to say that they ended up being Colombians. His letters testify to this.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.