Government, Colonial, in Spanish America

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Government, Colonial, in Spanish America

In the Capitulations of Santa Fe (1492), the Spanish monarchs named Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) as viceroy of the "discovered lands" and granted him extensive powers to govern in the new lands and to benefit from the wealth they created. But it was not long before the crown sought to take back control of the discovery and colonization of America, effectively suspending Columbus's authority. A decade later, the monarchs appointed Nicolás de Ovando (ca. 1451–1511) as governor of Hispaniola (the island that now comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and began to assert their authority over subjects of Spain who went to the New World and the indigenous peoples whom they found there.

As the Spanish Crown became aware of the rich potential of the Indies, it soon started to build institutions for government on both shores of the Atlantic. In 1503 the crown founded the Casa de Contratación (Chamber of Commerce) at Seville to ensure Castille's control of all aspects of trade with America. The Casa de Contratación had multiple functions. It supervised the movement of passengers and the shipments of goods from Spain to America and received products brought back from America (gold, cotton, sugar, silver, cacao, medicinal plants, etc.). It also enforced regulation of all aspects of the transatlantic trade (taxation, security in business and voyages, insurance and contracts, and the maintenance of the state's presence in all operations), and it compiled information on the trade and trade routes of the Indies.

From 1546 the Casa de Contratación was given certain legal functions. In 1524 the crown further reinforced its command over the Americas by establishing the Consejo Real y Supremo de las Indias (Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies), which served to oversee colonial affairs, to advise the king on such matters, and to act as the supreme court for legal issues arising in the Indies. Its influence was far-reaching, since it also compiled and published the laws for America, laws that were collected in 1681 under the title Recopilación de leyes de los reinos de Indias (Code of Laws of the Kingdoms of the Indies).

Early in the sixteenth century, the monarchy also began to build structures of royal government on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. When Ovando arrived in Hispaniola in 1502, he was accompanied by a number of other officials (a comptroller, a treasurer, an inspector, and others), all of whom were responsible to the crown. To ensure that its command was respected in the lands that conquistadors brought under Spanish sovereignty, the crown created a new system of government that placed a governor in charge of each new province, with administrative, legal, and, at times, military powers.

With the advance of Spanish influence in the new lands, the crown established institutions that directly represented the person and power of the king, and were staffed by high-ranking officials chosen from the nobility. The first such institutions were the audiencias—bodies responsible for administering justice—of which ten were established in the course of the sixteenth century, at Santo Domingo (1511), Mexico (1527), Panama (1538), Lima (1543), Guatemala (1543), Guadalajara (1548), Santa Fe de Bogotá (1548), Charcas (1559), Quito (1563), and Chile (1565); others were added in the eighteenth century at Buenos Aires (1776), Caracas (1786), and Cuzco (1787).

During the first half of the sixteenth century, the crown also introduced another, maximum authority into its new territories: the viceroys. Appointed from among members of the nobility or the clergy, the viceroy was the chief representative of the king and held political, military, administrative, and minor legal powers. The first viceroyalties were those of New Spain (1535) and Peru (1543); two new viceroyalties were added in the eighteenth century at New Granada (1717) and Río de la Plata (1776).

In addition to these institutions, the crown created another tier of government for dealing with revenues raised by royal taxes. Treasury officials were appointed to supervise the collection of all kinds of taxation, from the tributes paid by Indians to the sales taxes and customs duties derived from trade, and the quintos, or royal fifth, that was levied on all products of mining.

At the local level, the viceroyalties and audiencias were subdivided into smaller units that were in closer contact with the king's subjects. These were the gobernaciones (provincial governorships); the corregimientos (known as alcaldías mayores or mayoralties in New Spain), and the corregimientos de indios who, as their name suggests, were responsible for supervising Indian governance outside the Spanish towns. In the towns and cities where the white population was grouped together, the cabildos provided municipal government. Their magistrates and councilors enforced law and order, and supervised matters of common interest, such as food distribution, cleanliness, craft statutes, prices and salaries, and the handling of public goods.

This framework of government was largely in place by about 1570, although it continued to expand as new territories were brought under Spanish rule, as the business of government grew, and, with the growth of revenues from mining and trade, as the crown was able to pay an increasing number of salaried officials. One special feature of the system of government was the overlapping jurisdictions of institutions, a system designed to prevent the concentration of power in a single office and to ensure that officials such as the viceroy and the audiencia judges acted as a check on the authority of the other. If this structure aimed to prevent institutions distant from Spain from becoming too independent, it also allowed royal officials some space for autonomous action, so that they could ensure that the application of laws was appropriate to local circumstances. Another special feature of the system of colonial government introduced by the Habsburg kings of Spain was the use of special commissioners who undertook investigations into colonial officials through the residencia (legal investigation of civil servants) and the visita (inspection of bodies or authorities).

Over the course of the seventeenth century, royal power began to be replaced by local power as a consequence of the loosening of relations with the metropolis and of the growing influence of Creoles in the colonial bureaucracy. This situation was brought on by changes in the economy and the administration of the empire. With the fall in transatlantic traffic after about 1620, due to the wars in Europe, piracy, and contraband, many regions became more self-sufficient and depended less on Spain for their economic prosperity. The chronic fiscal problems of the state further contributed to the loss of power for two reasons: (1) because official posts were increasingly acquired through the exercise of personal influence, a situation in which even the viceroys took part, practicing nepotism and clientelism; and (2) because the financial needs of the crown led to the sale of public offices on an increasingly large scale.

Creoles gradually took over the governing posts in their cities and came to dominate the cabildos. These posts generated benefits that were both economic (bribes and access to public revenue) and social (honor, influence, and local power). After around 1630, governmental, military, and treasury offices were also sold off, so that Creoles penetrated areas of the royal bureaucracy that had previously been reserved for Spaniards. At the end of the century, the Peruvian viceroyalty was virtually up for sale. The result was that large sectors of administration were placed in the hands of the rich Creole elites, and colonial government had become "Americanized."

The eighteenth century began with the inauguration of a new dynasty—that of the Bourbons—on the Spanish throne, and successive kings sought to reverse the trend toward decentralization that had marked the rule of their Habsburg predecessors. The new dynasty opted for an administrative continuity during the first part of the century, while making some changes aimed at tightening control over the administration of the colonies. By mid-century, however, the need for reform was increasingly accepted, and, after Spain's humiliating defeat by the British in the Seven Years War (1756–1763), the ministers of King Carlos III (1716–1788) introduced reforms designed to reassert royal authority and harness colonial resources for the benefit of Spain and its monarchy. The reform program started in Cuba in 1764, and was then extended to Mexico by José Gálvez (1720–1787), who acted as inspector-general of New Spain from 1766. Gálvez pursued reform with such vigor that he was promoted to the powerful post of minister of the Indies in 1776.

At the same time, the crown sought to exert its authority over the Catholic Church, ordering the expulsion of the Jesuits from all Spanish territories, including the American colonies, in 1767. As minister of the Indies, Gálvez unleashed a wave of reforms that affected the whole range of political, economic, and military relations between Spain and its colonies. His aim was to ensure that the colonies contributed more to the Spanish treasury and economy, while reducing Creole participation in American government. To these ends, a new viceroyalty was established in the River Plate region in 1776 with its capital at Buenos Aires, and general inspectors were sent to Peru, New Granada, and Chile to overhaul their governments.

Gálvez then introduced the system of intendancies throughout America (1782–1790; Cuba in 1764), and thus implanted a new body of government officials, the intendants, who were responsible directly to the crown and exercised a wide range of political, military, fiscal, and economic powers. Trade between the Spanish ports and America was also liberalized by the 1778 decree of comercio libre (free trade) within the empire, designed to increase colonial commerce with the metropolis.

While these reforms brought the growth of colonial commerce and increases in the yields of taxation, they also provoked colonial antagonism and triggered major rebellions. The most formidable rebellions broke out in Peru and New Granada in 1780 to 1781 in opposition to fiscal and administrative reform. The greatest of these was the rebellion of Túpac Amaru, which spread throughout Southern Peru and Upper Peru as native populations seized the opportunity to protest against the various forms of exploitation to which they were subject. Another major regional revolt broke out in New Granada, where a large rebel force known as the comuneros demanded the reversal of fiscal and political reforms. In New Granada, rebellion ended peacefully through negotiation; in Peru, the outcome was considerably more violent and many lives were lost before the crown fully restored its authority.

Although Spain's colonial governments survived these challenges, new threats arose at the end of the century when Creole political adventurers inspired by the American and French revolutions sought to stir uprisings against Spain in the name of freedom and independence. They did not attract any substantial support in the colonies, but changes in the international situation gradually weakened Spain's position in the Americas and were eventually to give Creole revolutionists their chance to break away. Spain sided with France in almost continuous war with Britain from 1796 to 1808, and bonds with America were substantially weakened during this prolonged conflict.

The system of colonial government remained intact, but the foundations of the empire, strained by continuous international war, were finally undermined when in 1808 Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) invaded Spain, seized the throne, and precipitated a crisis of imperial authority. In 1810 the great edifice of colonial government, built by the Habsburgs and renovated by the Bourbons, began to fall apart.

In Spain, meanwhile, an emergency government resisted the French and sought to build a new constitutional monarchy, embodied in the Constitution of Cádiz (1812) created by the Cortes (parliament) set up at Cádiz in 1810. However, pleas for unity and concessions to the colonies were insufficient to save Spanish rule because, in leading cities throughout the Americas, Creoles asserted a right to autonomy and began to set up their own governments, beginning a secession that would eventually lead to the emancipation of most of Spain's American territories by 1824.

see also Conquests and Colonization; Túpac Amaru, Rebellion of.


Brading, David A. The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492–1867. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press: 1991.

Céspedes del Castillo, Guillermo. América Hispánica (1492–1898). Barcelona: Labor, 1984.

Domínguez Ortiz, Antonio. Descubrimiento, colonización, y emancipación de Ameérica. Barcelona: Planeta, 1990.

Lynch, John. "The Institutional Framework of Colonial Spanish America." Journal of Latin American Studies 24 (1992): 69-81.

Navarro García, Luis, ed. Historia de las Américas. 4 vols. Madrid: Alhambra-Longman, 1991.

Zaragoza, Gonzalo. América latina: Época colonial. Madrid: Anaya, 2004.

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Government, Colonial, in Spanish America

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Government, Colonial, in Spanish America