Bourbon Reforms

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Bourbon Reforms

Bourbon Reforms, commonly defined as the reorganization of the military, commercial, and administrative structures that the Bourbon dynasty inherited in 1700 from its Hapsburg predecessors. Accomplished by ambitious innovations in the collection and generation of royal revenues, this reorganization aimed to modernize the mercantile system, strengthen the royal government administratively and financially, and improve the military position of the Spanish Empire in the face of fierce international competition. The reforms began in the reigns of Philip V (1700–1724, 1724–1746) and Ferdinand VI (1746–1759), but the colonial reorganization reached its fullest expression through the ambitious measures advanced under Charles III (1759–1788) and sustained by Charles IV (1788–1808). Although introduced piecemeal and unevenly in the several colonies, these reforms altered profoundly the character of colonial governance and, by the final decade of the eighteenth century, approximated a unified program.

Innovations in each category of reform occurred under the early Bourbons. For the administration, Philip in 1721 definitively transferred the primary responsibility for governing the empire from the Council of the Indies to the newly created Ministry of the Navy and the Indies, which in 1754 was divided into separate units. In America, he reestablished the Viceroyalty of New Granada in 1739. At mid-century, Ferdinand halted the sale of audiencia offices. And overall, in a multitude of minor steps, the reforms increasingly extended royal authority through centralization.

In the sphere of commercial policy, a series of actions dating from the late 1730s and extending into the early 1750s—highlighted by the work of ministers José del Campillo y Cossío and the Marqués de la Ensenada—curbed the vast privileges of the powerful Consulado (Merchant Guild) of Cádiz, which held a legal monopoly over the American trade. To break the lingering power of Seville, from which the consulado had been transferred in 1717, the crown reformed the method of electing officers and liberalized the regulations governing membership. It also developed plans to deregulate radically the colonial trade, opening America to all the ports of Spain. Although this step was thwarted during the reaction following the fall of Ensenada in 1754, the fleet system to South America was nevertheless abolished in favor of register ships. Other measures designed to broaden commercial access to the American marketplace entailed the establishment of privileged trading companies, including those of Caracas (1728), Havana (1740), and Barcelona (1755).

Additional innovations also pointed toward the future. In the regular army, fixed battalions with modernized command structures replaced garrisons comprised of separate companies, beginning with Havana (1719), continuing with Cartagena (1736), Santo Domingo (1738), New Spain (1740), and Panama (1741), and eventually including the other strongpoints of America.

The Crown also experimented with new royal monopolies to enhance its income. In 1717 it established a tobacco monopoly in Cuba, primarily to supply the royal factory in Seville. Tobacco monopolies were also organized in Peru (1745), Chile (1753), and Upper Peru (1755). In New Granada the Crown installed an aguardiente (brandy) monopoly in 1736 and a decade later extended it to the presidency of Quito.

Soon after Charles III became king, the 1762 British capture of Havana exposed the vulnerability of imperial defense, imposing urgency on the reformist agenda and elevating military concerns to unparalleled primacy. In 1763, when he regained Havana at the price of Florida in the Treaty of Paris, Charles dispatched to Cuba a reform commission led by the Conde de Ricla as governor and Alejandro O'Reilly as sub-inspector general of the army, and at court he established an interministerial commission, the Junta de Ministros, to coordinate the colonial reorganization. O'Reilly expanded Havana's regular army, but more importantly he involved Cubans directly in the task of defense through the establishment of a disciplined militia. This system provided for the systematic arming and training of the colonial population and granted militiamen the fuero militar (military privilege).

Minister of War and Finance Marqués de Esquilache, who dominated the Junta de Ministros at court, worked closely with Ricla to find the means to help support the expanded military. The alcabala was increased from 2 to 6 percent, and excise taxes were placed on the sale of colonial liquors. A military intendant was installed with supreme authority over the treasury. Finally, the royal decree of 1765 conceded to Cuba and the other Caribbean islands free trade with the major ports of Spain, thus encouraging legal commerce, stimulating economic growth, and enhancing royal revenues. Meanwhile, a modernization of the royal mail service improved communications with the colonies.

In 1764 the Crown extended the military reform to New Spain through the mission of Lieutenant General Juan de Villalba, which both reorganized the regular army and established a disciplined militia, and in 1765, O'Reilly also reformed the Puerto Rican military. Royal orders to raise disciplined militias were sent to the governors of Caracas and Buenos Aires and the viceroy of Peru. To improve royal finance, Esquilache established a program to make the tobacco monopoly virtually universal in the colonies. In 1765 he commissioned José de Gálvez as visitor-general to New Spain, which was financially responsible for both its own military costs and enormous subsidies to the Caribbean islands. Gálvez improved the collection and administration of royal revenues and placed the new tobacco monopoly on a workable footing. In naming officials, Gálvez angered colonists through his blatant favoritism of Spaniards over what he believed were less reliable Americans. Although the pace of reform slowed following the fall of Esquilache in 1766, Alejandro O'Reilly, now inspector-general of the American army, brought Santo Domingo, Cartagena, and Panama into the new defense system immediately following the Falkland Islands crisis of 1770–1771.

The colonial reorganization resumed its vigor when Gálvez became minister of the Indies in January 1776, on the eve of the American Revolution. Gálvez commissioned José Antonio de Areche and Juan Francisco Gutiérrez De Piñeres to lead reform missions—similar to his own in New Spain—to Peru and New Granada as well as sub-visits to Chile and Quito by Tomas Álvarez de Acevedo and José García-Pizarro. Massive resistance led by Túpac Amaru of Peru and the Comuneros of New Granada swept the upland interiors, blunting the successes of these undertakings and leaving enduring scars. Meanwhile, military reform continued to progress. Miners' guilds with broad powers to promote production were installed in New Spain (1777) and Peru (1787), and to improve mining practices, the crown sent technical missions to both of these viceroyalties and to New Granada during the 1780s.

The Intendancy System of provincial governance provided the administrative underpinning for fiscal reform. In 1776 an intendancy was established in Caracas on the same basis as that in Cuba. Six years later, when Gálvez introduced this institution into Río de la Plata, the office was broadened to include government and justice, thereby effecting a rationalization and centralization of the instruments of provincial administration. On this basis, the intendant system was extended to Peru in 1784 and New Spain, Guatemala, and Chile in 1786, but not to volatile New Granada. Other innovations included the establishment in 1776 of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata and the Commandancy General of the Interior Province of New Spain, and, in 1777, the captaincy General of Caracas.

Commercial deregulation constituted the capstone of the colonial reorganization. Following the concession of imperial free trade to the Caribbean islands in 1765, the crown cautiously pursued liberalization, a process highlighted by the incorporation of Yucatán into the Caribbean system in 1770 and, four years later, the legalization of intercolonial trade on the Pacific coast. As minister, Gálvez quickened the tempo of deregulation through a series of measures culminating in the Regulation of Free Trade of October 1778, which definitively broke the Cádiz monopoly, although certain restrictions lingered on the commerce of New Spain and Caracas.

Charles IV sustained this reformist agenda, although his government set a moderate tone in the enforcement of revenue regulations and attempted to limit conflicts with the colonial elites. Caracas and New Spain were incorporated fully into the system of free trade during 1788–1789; the slave trade of Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, and Caracas was opened to all Spanish subjects; and, beginning with Havana in 1794, a host of new colonial merchant guilds were organized, breaking the grip of Lima and Mexico City on the colonial marketplaces. Following the death of Gálvez in 1787, the Ministry of the Indies was split into two portfolios, and in 1790 their functions were assigned to the corresponding Spanish ministries, a step toward standardizing metropolitan and colonial governance.

The Bourbon Reforms produced mixed results. Spain reconquered Florida during the American Revolution and the empire stood well defended as the century advanced, but by arming Americans effectively and granting them military privileges, the crown risked losing political control, a danger destined to become reality during the independence movement of the early nineteenth century. Commercial deregulation undoubtedly stimulated legal commerce. The tariffs collected on this trade, when combined with record royal income from other sources—especially from mining taxes, the alcabala, and the tobacco monopoly—brought unparalleled wealth to the royal treasury, but much of this revenue was squandered on the military, while, on another level, tensions between Spain and its colonies lingered. Although the intendancies made provincial governance more efficient, their powers produced stress within the administrative hierarchy, and their subdelegates, operating at the local level, came to resemble the Corregidores they had replaced.

The wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon I interrupted the reformist process, placing burdens on the imperial system that could not have been anticipated. The program of Charles III never had a long-term opportunity to be fully tested.

See alsoCharles III of Spain .


John Lynch, Spanish Colonial Administration, 1782–1810: The Intendant System in the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (1958).

John R. Fisher, Government and Society in Colonial Peru: The Intendant System, 1784–1814 (1970).

D. A. Brading, Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico, 1763–1810 (1971).

Christon I. Archer, The Army in Bourbon Mexico, 1760–1810 (1977).

Jacques A. Barbier, "The Culmination of the Bourbon Reforms," in Hispanic American Historical Review 57 (1977): 51-68.

Mark A. Burkholder and D. S. Chandler, From Impotence to Authority: The Spanish Crown and the American Audiencias, 1687–1808 (1977).

John R. Fisher, Commercial Relations Between Spain and Spanish America in the Era of Free Trade, 1778–1796 (1985).

Allan J. Kuethe, "Towards a Periodization of the Reforms of Charles III," in Iberian Colonies, New World Societies: Essays in Memory of Charles Gibson, edited by Richard L. Garner and William B. Taylor (1985), and Cuba, 1753–1815: Crown, Military, and Society (1986).

Allan J. Kuethe and Lowell Blaisdell, "French Influence and the Origins of the Bourbon Colonial Reorganization," in Hispanic American Historical Review 71 (1991): 579-607.

Additional Bibliography

Dym, Irene, and Christophe Belaubre, eds. Politics, Economy, and Society in Bourbon Central America, 1759–1821. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2007.

Katzew, Ilona. Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-century Mexico. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

Río, Ignacio del. La aplicación regional de las reformas borbónicas en Nueva España: Sonora y Sinaloa, 1768–1787. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, 1994.

Taylor, William B. Magistrates of the Sacred: Priests and Parishioners in Eighteenth-century Mexico. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Walker, Charles. Smoldering Ashes: Cuzco and the Creation of Republican Peru, 1780–1840. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

                                         Allan J. Kuethe