Council of the Indies

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Council of the Indies

Council of the Indies, central administrative and judicial institution for the Spanish Empire. In 1524 Charles I created the Council of the Indies as a judicial, legislative, and executive body responsible for the administration of Spain's New World empire. Located in Spain, and ultimately based in Madrid, it had jurisdiction over the Spanish colonies analogous to that of the Council of Castile over much of Spain. Thus the Council of the Indies initially had jurisdiction in legislative, financial, judicial, military, ecclesiastical, and commercial matters in the New World.

The council prepared all legislation related to administration, taxation, and, initially, defense of the New World; no major project could be undertaken without its approval. It corresponded directly with both civil and ecclesiastical officials in the New World and exercised patronage, except during the existence of the Cámara of the Indies, over both lay and clerical positions.

The Council of the Indies also had judicial responsibilities and sat as the final court of appeals for civil cases tried by the colonial audiencias and for civil and criminal cases tried by the House of Trade. In addition, it held first-instance jurisdiction in cases concerning encomiendas and those initiated in Spain which dealt with matters in the Indies. The council also arranged judicial reviews (residencias) of high-ranking colonial officials and special inspections (visitas) of colonial officials and districts. Finally, the council exercised censorship over all books dealing with the Indies and had to approve any papal decree prior to its transmission to the New World.

During the sixteenth century, the Council of the Indies was at the peak of its power. In the seventeenth century, however, favoritism and corruption led to a reduction of its authority in favor of both other tribunals and royal favorites. From 1600 to 1609 and 1644 to 1701, a subcommittee of the council known as the Cámara of the Indies handled its patronage responsibilities. In 1717 and from 1721 to 1808, the cámara again was charged with fulfilling the council's patronage responsibilities.

In its early years, the council had a president, four or five councillors, a crown attorney (fiscal), and various subalterns. Initially, the councillors were men trained in law (ministros togados). However, in 1626, Philip IV began naming some councillors without any training in law. These were called ministros de capa y espada to distinguish them from the ministros togados. The rights and responsibilities of the two groups were identical, with the important exception that ministros de capa y espada could not vote on judicial matters. By the end of the seventeenth century, the quality of the ministros de capa y espada had eroded significantly as the Crown sold appointments and even named a nine-year-old boy as a reward for the services of his father. The dubious quality of the minister and the acknowledged inefficiency of the Council of the Indies at the close of the seventeenth century stimulated its reform and reduction of authority by Philip V in 1717.

When Philip V, the first Bourbon monarch in Spain, organized his government, he named a minister of the Indies (secretary of state for the Indies) with responsibility for American affairs in administration, war, finance, and commerce. A clarification in September 1717 left judicial matters, patronage (including making recommendations for high-ranking judicial and ecclesiastical appointments), and matters related to municipal government to the council. Although overshadowed by the minister, the council slowly increased its influence in the latter eighteenth century as its size increased in response to the growing population, wealth, and importance of the empire and as its ranks were increasingly filled with men who had personal experience in the New World. Declared equal in rank and prerogatives to the Council of Castile in 1773, the Council of the Indies enjoyed a renaissance of prestige and authority. From the 1773 decree to 1808, thirty-one of thirty-nine new ministros togados had American experience. When responsibility for both peninsular and American affairs was united in five ministerial portfolios organized by function rather than by territory in 1790, and the House of Trade was abolished in the same year, the Council of the Indies remained the only body in Spain devoted solely to American affairs.

The Cortes of Cádiz suppressed the council in 1812, but Ferdinand VII reestablished it in 1814, naming an unprecedented number of American-born ministers to its ranks in a modest effort to win favor in the New World. Belatedly, after the loss of Spain's colonies in the American mainlands, the council was finally abolished in 1834.

See alsoCharles I of Spain; Spanish Empire.


Barrios, Feliciano. El gobierno de un mundo: Virreinatos y audiencias en la América hispánica. Cuenca, Ecuador: Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha: Fundación Rafael del Pino, 2004.

Burkholder, Mark A. Biographical Dictionary of Councilors of the Indies, 1717–1808 (1986).

Domínguez Ortiz, Antoni. La sociedad americana y la corona española en el siglo XVII. Spain: M. Pons, 1996.

Haring, Clarence H. The Spanish Empire in America (1947), pp. 102-118.

Schäfer, Ernesto. El consejo real y supremo de las Indias, vol. 1 (1935).

                                      Mark A. Burkholder

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Council of the Indies