Gálvez, José de (1720–1787)

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Gálvez, José de (1720–1787)

José de Gálvez (b. 2 January 1720; d. 17 June 1787), a leading Spanish bureaucrat and statesman instrumental in the reform of eighteenth-century colonial administration. Born a poor hidalgo in Macharaviaya, an Andalusian hill village, Gálvez earned a law degree at the University of Salamanca. Later, he conducted a successful practice in Madrid, in which he handled many cases involving parties in the Americas. He attracted the attention of Abbé Béliardi, a French agent, and through him, gained the patronage of the marqués de Esquilache and the marqués de Grimaldi, enlightened ministers of King Charles III of Spain. Their favor secured him the risky opportunity to conduct a visita, that is, a thorough inspection and overhaul of the administration of Mexico, where he arrived in July 1765.

Gálvez carried out a speedy and ruthless reorganization of tax collection and accounting procedures. He jailed corrupt officials, changed the tax structure, instituted a highly profitable tobacco monopoly, and shifted the control of trade with Spain from Mexican to Spanish merchants. In so doing, he forced capital into mining, which he aided with tax reductions, cheap mercury, and technical assistance. In this way, he decisively redirected the Mexican economy.

The visitador proposed the introduction of the intendancy system (provincial governors) and the establishment of the Provincias Internas, which created a separate government for the northern region of the country. In addition, Gálvez dealt with the expulsion of the Jesuits, Indian revolts in Sonora, raids in Chihuahua, and orders to colonize Alta California all at the same time. He brutally suppressed the uprisings occasioned by the ban, reorganized government in the north, and got the colonization effort under way by 1769.

Then, the strain of work, the responsibility, and the exhausting and indecisive struggle with the Sonoran Indians broke Gálvez's health, and in late 1769 he suffered a physical and mental collapse. He recovered and returned to Spain in 1771, but the end of the visita was clouded.

In Spain Gálvez assumed his place on the Council of the Indies, to which he was appointed in 1767. He was gradually given more important assignments, and when Julián de Arriaga y Rivera died, Charles III made Gálvez minister of the Indies (February 1776).

As minister, Gálvez tried to institute the reforms he had instituted in Mexico throughout the whole Empire. Visitadores cast in Gálvez's mold were sent to Peru, New Granada, Venezuela, and Ecuador to increase revenue, establish intendancies, and invigorate government. The situation in Buenos Aires was complicated by the opportunity, offered by Great Britain's preoccupation with the American Revolution, to settle long-pending disputes with the Portuguese regarding boundaries and smuggling. Eventually Spain declared war and sent a military expedition to the area. The result was the establishment of a viceroyalty of Buenos Aires, organized according to Gálvez's program.

When Spain followed France into an alliance with the Americans against Britain in 1779, Gálvez's reforms were again shouldered aside. Moreover, the need for money and the errors and misfortunes of two visitadores produced the Túpac Amaru rebellion (1780–1781) in Peru and the Comunero Revolt (1781) in New Granada. Gálvez reacted to them with the same fierce repression he had unleashed in Mexico against those who questioned royal authority.

Nevertheless, when Gálvez became marqués de Sonora in 1785, he could claim an important role in winning back Florida and ejecting the British from the Mosquito Coast and Darién. Unfortunately, just as Gálvez sought to bring his full authority to bear on the completion of the internal reforms, he died.

The consequent reorganization of the ministry redirected the course of policy, but Sonora's reforms had been too extensive to be abandoned totally. Gálvez was a hard-working and hard-edged administrator, efficient but not noted for accommodation or suppleness. His legacy of a more rational administration and higher revenues was purchased with the political alienation of many Americans and not a few Spaniards, whom he pushed from their traditional places and powers.

See alsoCouncil of the Indies; Intendancy System; Túpac Amaru; Visita, Visitador.


There is no comprehensive biography of Gálvez. However, the Mexican visita is well covered in Herbert Ingram Priestly, José de Gá lvez: Visitor-General of New Spain, 1765–1771 (1916; repr. 1980). The Provincias Internas scheme and the intendant system are thoroughly considered by Luis Navarro García in Don José de Gálvez y la comandancia general de las provincias internas del norte de Nueva España (1964), and Intendencias en Indias (1959). Mario Hernández Sánchez-barba provides an Annales approach in La última expansión española en America (1957). Gálvez's impact on trade and government is analyzed in D. A. Brading, Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico, 1762–1810 (1971). Brading's "Bourbon Spain and Its American Empire," in Vol. 1, The Cambridge History of Latin America, edited by Leslie Bethell, vol. 1 (1984), pp. 389-439, provides a comprehensive view of the whole period. In most works dealing with the so-called Bourbon reforms there is some treatment of Gálvez and his policies. For example see J. R. Fisher, Government and Society in Colonial Peru: The Intendant System, 1784–1814 (1970), and John Leddy Phelan, The People and the King: The Comunero Revolution in Colombia, 1781 (1978).

Additional Bibliography

Rodríguez O, Jaime E., ed. Mexico in the Age of Democratic Revolutions, 1750–1850. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1994.

                                   George M. Addy