New Spain, the Viceroyalty of

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New Spain, the Viceroyalty of

After a decade of conquest, exploration, and administrative turmoil, Spain created the viceroyalty of New Spain in 1530 in order to centralize its control over the territories of the Aztecs, Mayas, and other indigenous groups of Mesoamerica, while curbing the evolution of powerful local fiefdoms among the conquistador class. This move coincided with efforts by the nascent Spanish monarchy to unite the Iberian kingdoms and counter the power of the nobility and municipal government in the metropolis. Bureaucratic control from Spain evolved in fits and starts throughout the Habsburg period (until 1700) as the viceroyalty expanded to include all of today's Mexico, the Caribbean, most of Central America, the Philippines, and the western, southwestern, and southeastern United States.

In theory, the elaborate bureaucratic hierarchy radiated power downward from the king to the Council of the Indies, the viceroy, the audiencias (judicial and administrative tribunals), provincial administrators called governors, corregidores or alcaldes mayors, and municipal councils. In practice, however, this chain was often broken or circumvented under the Habsburgs, the ruling dynasty in Spain that began with Charles V in 1518 and continued through 1701. The Harsburgs' continental entanglements, distant from America in an era of slow sailing ships, and lack of capital and coercive power forced them to impart a good deal of latitude to colonial officials and elites who were in turn expected to maintain social control and remit a modicum of revenue to the crown.

In essence, a weak colonial state governed informally through mechanisms that rewarded New Spain's elites by allowing them to exploit indigenous peoples and maximize profit. Tribute, paid by Indians in commodities and labor through the institution of encomienda, became partly monetized in silver coinage and eventually passed from the control of conquistadors to the crown through middle-level officials called corregidores who took a share of the tribute they collected and extracted other resources from native communities.

Officially, however, the viceroy and other colonial officials were charged with ensuring fairness to the natives; in many cases, they executed this responsibility through an evolving body of protective legislation for these "wards" of the state. Laws were more easily disregarded by lower officials whose livelihood depended upon extracting resources from the natives, particularly in areas distant from the seat of government in Mexico City. For example, Spain never exercised much control in the northern regions of the viceroyalty; even the establishment in 1776 of a special administrative jurisdiction, the Provincias Internas, did little to bring the area under effective domination.

The civil bureaucracy had a counterpart in the Catholic Church, where spiritual conquest by Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Jesuits played a key role in justifying conquest and incorporating Indians into the Spanish orbit. The only Spaniards theoretically permitted to live in native communities, these missionaries performed the work of conversion while they imposed Spanish practices in economic activities and daily routines. This major acculturation effort was carried out in villages, either in Mesoamerican communities that predated the conquest or in pueblos created by relocating more dispersed or demographically low populations.

The humanistic efforts of the early church to provide education and social services gradually gave way to less zealous, more avaricious priests who, along with corregidores, conspired to extract resources from the natives. Some clerics played a broker role, defending their flocks either out of common interests or altruism. Scholars debate the nature and extent of conversion, as well as the degree of blending of religious traditions, but by the end of the colonial period, native practices and beliefs were greatly transformed by Catholicism.

Even the most benevolent activities of the clergy could do nothing to stem the steep population decline of the Indians that resulted from epidemic diseases brought by the invaders. The rates of demographic decline varied somewhat by region and ecology, but they ranged as high as 90 percent over the first hundred years of Spanish rule. This demographic fact coincided with imperial humanitarian efforts to check extreme exploitation of Indians. In addition to outlawing Indian slavery, the crown legislated an end to the encomienda by the mid-sixteenth century.

Facing new extractive pressures, Indian villages used or modified Spanish institutions—cofradías (confraternities) and cabildos (town councils)—to keep resources in their communities. And through these institutions, preconquest indigenous nobility (in the cases of the Nahuas in central Mexico, Mixtecs and other groups in Oaxaca, and Mayas in southern Mexico) continued to exercise power in the Indian sphere, at least for a while. Indigenous leaders or caciques served as another broker between their communities and Spaniards, walking a fine line between satisfying Spanish demands and mitigating abuses to their people. Although New Spain experienced no large-scale indigenous rebellions against colonial rule, opposition played out on multiple levels throughout three centuries of Spanish rule, as illustrated by occasional uprisings in peripheral areas populated by semisedentary groups, village riots against abusive officials, and everyday forms of resistance, such as pilfering and work slowdowns.

No longer able to squeeze labor and tribute from encomienda, Spaniards turned first to agriculture and from the 1540s to silver mining in Zacatecas and other areas north of Mexico City. Agriculture remained the chief economic activity throughout the colonial period, although silver dominated exports. Agricultural estates (haciendas) came to dominate the production of wheat, cattle, sheep, and sugar, while Indian villages produced corn for the market, along with other mainly subsistence crops. The Spanish landlord class devised new means of acquiring labor, coerced and free, from Indians, and they imported African slaves. Haciendas and villages (albeit with considerable regional differences) coexisted in a kind synergy that allowed Spaniards to profit modestly in a chronically weak domestic market and Indian villages to preserve some autonomy and land.

Strict mercantilist policies governed silver mining and transatlantic trade; although Spain never achieved monopoly control, New Spain's silver was the motor that sustained the Habsburgs' ill-fated imperial ventures. In the seventeenth century, however, silver exports from New Spain declined. Scholars still debate the nature of this seventeenth-century "depression," but most agree that silver production did not decline significantly, leaving open the question of what happened to the retained bullion. Did it fuel domestic, intercolonial, or Pacific trade, or did it go into conspicuous consumption? Regardless, it did not promote any profound transformation in New Spain's agrarian-based economy, and the triad of hacendados (proprietors of haciendas), miners, and merchants continued to monopolize wealth and power in the colony.

Over time, the Spanish, Indian, and African worlds commingled to produce biological and cultural mestizaje. This mixing, however, took place within an increasingly stratified patriarchal society based on race, class, and gender divisions, in which Spaniards born on the Iberian Peninsula (peninsulares) or in New Spain (criollos) lived in urban (thus civilized) spaces, and dominated politics, economic activity, and society. At the same time, a rich baroque culture developed, blending artistic and musical traditions of the various ethnic groups.

Habsburg rule in seventeenth-century New Spain was characterized by (1) local oligarchic control of limited markets in an agrarian economy that functioned largely in the tributary mode described by Eric Wolf (1959); (2) declining silver remittances to the metropolis; and (3) forms of social control flexible enough to keep Indians, mixed groups, and blacks in their place without excessive force.

The Bourbons, a French royal family who claimed the Spanish crown in the eighteenth century, focused their sights on a more lucrative prize. They became determined to extract more wealth from New Spain by stimulating mining production, creating a more efficient bureaucracy to collect taxes, and appropriating a share of the Catholic Church's immense assets in money and rural and urban properties. These measures resulted in some success in channeling capital to the metropolis, but they were limited by persistent mercantilist structures in trade and manufacturing. In fact, metropolitan Spain never moved beyond its primarily agrarian economy and narrow tax base.

Nor did a profound capitalist transformation unfold in New Spain's agrarian economy, where domestic relations of production did not change. Market demand grew along with demographic recuperation as the Indian population doubled in the eighteenth century while non-Indian numbers tripled. Rising land values and a fall in real wages accompanied these processes. Landowners in the most dynamic regions moved aggressively to appropriate village lands, provoking protests, lawsuits, and even peasant riots. Social tensions escalated throughout the colony, exacerbated by epidemics and subsistence crises, as the Bourbons sought to limit Creole political participation, local autonomy, and popular forms of cultural and religious expression.

The crown responded with militarization and more repressive responses to opposition, upsetting the balance or "moral economy" often achieved in the give-and-take of Habsburg rule. Even elites became alienated by progressive royal usurpation of assets they had controlled, and by the imposition of peninsular bureaucrats to replace Creoles. Spain's increasing involvement and expenditures in European warfare at the end of the eighteenth century further strained Bourbon legitimacy in the eyes of the colony. Creole patriots celebrated their distinctive natural history and mixed heritage in writings that extolled the Aztec past and the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's own saint.

Napoléon Bonaparte's (1769–1821) temporary removal of the Bourbon king in 1808 provoked a complex chain of events in New Spain. A popular uprising that began in 1810, directed against peninsulares and advocating the abolition of tribute, attracted thousands of lower-class peasants and workers. The uprising was put down by elites—not only peninsulares but also Creoles shocked by the prospect of a genuine social revolution. Only when Creoles decided that they could retain their power and property without provoking social upheaval did they opt for an independent Mexico in 1821. Their dominance, however, did not end the cultural resistance of rural ethnic and peasant communities to the state at the local level.

Spain had the great fortune to be one of the pioneering European empires, but its misfortune was that it acquired this empire before the emergence of the modern centralized state. Slow and difficult communication, lack of central military and bureaucratic control, and no modern coercive or persuasive means of establishing legitimacy and nationalistic beliefs hampered imperial rule. The Habsburg government had to adapt to these circumstances and, often reluctantly, did so. The crown issued voluminous laws, but these were more like exhortations, expressing what the crown would ideally want, than prescriptions. The two Habsburg centuries saw the durability of a shifting unwritten contract between the crown and colonial elites in which the latter had the tacit freedom to extract as much as they could, while honoring the legitimacy of church and state, and acknowledging that both deserved a share of the surplus produced.

The Bourbons, great error was a premature desire to create a modern, central, and dominant nation-state based on closer ties between peninsular Spain and its American colonies. They meddled constantly in previous understandings and introduced technological improvements, but never had the courage or the means to change basic social relations or modes of production. This paradox alienated sectors of the elite, and the Bourbons gradually sowed the seeds of a loss of legitimacy and the movements for independence.

see also Empire in the Americas, Spanish; Encomienda; Government, Colonial, in Spanish America; Haciendas in Spanish America.


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