Guatemala, Audiencia of

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Guatemala, Audiencia of

Audiencia of Guatemala, an administrative unit of the Spanish colonial empire corresponding roughly to modern Central America. Properly, the term refers both to the territorial jurisdiction and to the highest royal tribunal located in it. The territorial unit was known also as the Kingdom of Guatemala, and for most of the colonial period it included what is today Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica as well as Belize and the Mexican state of Chiapas. Except for brief periods in the sixteenth century, it did not include Panama. The tribunal was known initially as the Audiencia of Los Confines (because its original seat was between the frontiers of Guatemala and Nicaragua), but it came later to be called simply the Audiencia of Guatemala.


The earliest Spanish governors in Central America were powerful, personalistic dictators whose claims to rule were rooted in the Conquest or in the defeat of rival Spaniards. These men, who included Pedro de Alvarado in Guatemala and Pedro Arias de Ávila in Nicaragua and Panama, held royal commissions, but in practice they were only nominally subject to outside authority. The discovery of gold in Honduras and continuing abuses against the Indian population pointed to the need for a stronger royal presence in Central America proper.

In the New Laws of 1542, the Spanish crown created the Audiencia de los Confines, whose jurisdiction stretched from the Yucatán peninsula south to the isthmus of Panama. The new tribunal consisted of a president, Alonso de Maldonado (1542–1548), and three oidores (judges). In 1544, it established itself at Gracias a Dios, a gold-mining center in western Honduras. Gracias a Dios was isolated and a poor location for an administrative center. When its mines began to decline, it lost its early economic importance. In 1548, the crown ordered the transfer of the audiencia to Santiago De Los Caballeros (modern Antigua), in the more populous and accessible central valley of Guatemala. Maldonado's successor, Alonso López De Cerrato (1548–1555), supervised the move in 1549 and became known for his energetic enforcement of those parts of the New Laws designed to protect the Indians and restrict the encomienda.

The sixteenth century saw many adjustments and readjustments to the audiencia's jurisdiction. In 1550, the crown separated Panama from it and attached it to the Audiencia of Lima, which had also been created by the New Laws. In 1556, Guatemala gained jurisdiction over the Pacific Coast province of Soconusco, which had previously belonged to the Audiencia of Mexico, but four years later it lost the Yucatán peninsula to the same tribunal. The most radical change came in 1563, when the crown ordered the transfer of the audiencia seat from Santiago to Panama City. Although the audiencia regained jurisdiction over Panama, it lost Guatemala and part of Honduras, which were assigned to the Audiencia of Mexico. This arrangement proved unsatisfactory, however, and the crown soon reversed it. The audiencia returned to Santiago in 1570, with its previous jurisdiction restored. Panama's own audiencia, which the New Laws had dissolved, was reestablished, and this province thereafter remained independent of Guatemalan jurisdiction.

The Audiencia of Guatemala remained at Santiago for more than 200 years, until severe earthquakes in 1773 caused its relocation to newly founded Guatemala City, which would be its home until the region gained independence from Spain in 1821.


Spanish colonial audiencias embodied powers and functions that we would today separate into the modern categories of executive, legislative, and judicial. The president and oidores sat both collectively and individually as legislators and as appellate and first-instance judges. In Guatemala, initially, they also functioned as a collegial executive, but in 1560, President Juan Núñez de Landecho (1559–1563) received a separate commission as governor general, with powers equivalent to those of the viceroy of New Spain. Although technically subordinate to the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the president-governors of Guatemala governed autonomously and reported directly to the Council of the Indies in Spain. The presidency itself evolved into a separate executive increasingly distinct from the audiencia, a development favored by the need for a centralized military command, which resulted from the growing foreign threat in the Caribbean. Early presidents were all letrados (university-trained lawyers), but in the seventeenth century the crown began to occasionally appoint military officers, with the additional title of captain-general. The first military president was the Conde de la Gómera (1611–1626). Especially after the mid-seventeenth century, most presidents came from military, rather than legal, backgrounds.

At the local level, the audiencia's jurisdiction was divided into district magistracies, governed by officials known variously as Corregidores, Alcaldes Mayores, and Gobernadores (governors, but not to be confused with the early post-Conquest governors or with the presidents in their function as governors-general). Although their titles differed, in accordance with perceived differences in the importance of their jurisdictions, these magistrates were identical in powers and responsibilities, if not in pay and prestige. They governed independently of each other and answered directly to the president and audiencia.

Salaries for all local magistrates were low, but opportunities to supplement one's income through corruption and abuse were great. Indeed, the crown expected its appointees to extract additional compensation from their Indian and mestizo charges. Such appointments provided a means of cultivating elite loyalty at minimal cost to the treasury.


Central America was a poor colony. Honduran mines continued to produce after the early boom played out, but their output was negligible. Cacao became a major export in the second half of the sixteenth century, but export peaked by the beginning of the seventeenth. Indigo gained importance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it transformed society and the landscape in what is today eastern Guatemala and El Salvador. Competition was stiff, however, and the most profitable world markets were closed to Central American producers because of mercantilist trade regulations.

Money was scarce in the colony, but Santiago, San Salvador, Granada, Cartago, and other cities and towns provided domestic markets for artisanries and foodstuffs. Much of this production was in the hands of Indian and mestizo communal and smallholders, but some prominent creole families built substantial fortunes and large landholdings based on wheat, sugar, and cattle production, especially in the central valley of Guatemala. Also, the colonial economy was able to support a small but powerful clique of peninsular merchants, who allied themselves by marriage with landed creole families, controlled strategic sectors of the economy, and dominated the influential cabildo (city council) of Santiago.


Despite the region's poverty, its strategic location between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean made its security essential to the Spanish crown. Foreign incursions, which became more frequent throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, represented a chronic threat. Pirate raids were common on the Caribbean coasts, and buccaneers sacked Granada in 1665 and 1670. English interlopers established themselves in the Bay Islands (Islas de la Bahia) in the 1640s and at Belize in the 1660s; from these beachheads, they expanded their control to much of the Mosquito Coast during the following century. The colonial wars of the eighteenth century interfered with trade and placed a large financial burden on the colony as well.

The first priority of audiencia presidents throughout the colonial period was to maintain domestic order and to mobilize sufficient resources to pay for the fortifications, garrisons, and ships necessary to defend the province against foreign enemies. To this end, they made accommodations with local elites, who generally declined to be taxed, except on their own terms. The greatest financial burden fell upon the Indian population in the form of the tribute, or head tax. Indeed, the importance of Indian labor and production in general to the economic well-being of the colony was reflected in the fact that the attempts of the crown to prohibit exploitative and abusive practices by the colonial elite generally came to little. For example, the repartimiento (labor draft) for agriculture, which was abolished in New Spain in 1633, survived in the Audiencia of Guatemala until the end of the colonial period. Presidents found it expedient to wink at smuggling activities, both out of fear of provoking creole discontent and because illegal trade provided the needed specie to convert tribute payments in kind into cash, to pay other taxes, and to service the increasingly frequent "voluntary donations," composiciones, and other payments called for by the financially strapped crown.

Collusion with the entrenched colonial elite weakened Spanish government in Central America. Military presidents, such as Martín Carlos de Mencos (1659–1668) and Jacinto de Barrios Leal (1688–1695), frequently split with their lawyer colleagues on the audiencia and sided with local interests on questions that pitted them against royal policy. By the close of the seventeenth century, the colony had become factionalized and crisis-ridden. In an effort to maintain some control, the crown, between 1670 and 1702, commissioned no fewer than four general visitas of the province, none of which produced significant results, and at least two of which nearly provoked rebellions. The royal decision during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1713) to raise funds by selling audiencia positions further weakened Spanish authority in the region.


The energetic Bourbon monarchy attempted later in the eighteenth century to tighten its control over Central America and to extract greater revenues from it. Some reform measures undertaken were long overdue. The crown created a mint in Guatemala in 1733 in an attempt to stimulate mining production and to increase the amount of money in circulation. Measures to liberalize the commercial system, especially the Free Trade Decree of 1778, opened up economic opportunities for colonial exports. In 1793, Guatemalan merchants finally received permission to organize their own guild, or Consulado, independent of that of Mexico. The Bourbons also sought to reform the complicated and corrupt system of colonial administration. Peninsulars were favored over creoles for bureaucratic appointments, and a new office (Regent of the Audiencia, introduced in 1776) was designed to counterbalance the power of the president. A major restructuring of local administration occurred with the intendancy reform of 1786, which consolidated several smaller jurisdictions into four larger ones: Chiapas, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Guatemala remained separate, but the loss of control over the indigo-rich Salvadoran jurisdiction was a blow to the power of its merchant elite and contributed significantly to the development of a separatist tradition in Central America.

Although admirable from the point of view of efficiency, honest administration, and economic development, the Bourbon Reforms undermined traditional accommodations and alienated established elites by closing them out of employment opportunities. Their economic benefits were largely undermined by the cost of ongoing warfare and by the earthquakes that devastated the capital city in 1773. Dissatisfaction with Spanish rule grew among the colonial elites, and although the strong-arm tactics of President José de Bustamante y Guerra (1811–1818) kept the colony quiet while wars of rebellion were raging elsewhere in the Americas, Central American creoles were receptive to independence when confronted with the collapse of royal authority in neighboring Mexico in 1821.

See alsoAudiencia .


Two standard general works in English on colonial Central America are Murdo J. MacLeod, Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520–1720 (1973), and Miles L. Wortman, Government and Society in Central America, 1680–1840 (1982). A useful institutional study is Carlos Molina Argüello, "Gobernaciones, alcaldías mayores y corregimientos en el Reino de Guatemala," in Anuario de estudios americanos 17 (1960): 105-132. On the impact of war and international rivalry, see Troy S. Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle for Mosquitia (1967). Studies of political issues and conflicts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries include William L. Sherman, Forced Native Labor in Sixteenth-Century Central America (1979); Murdo J. MacLeod, "The Primitive Nation State, Delegation of Functions, and Results: Some Examples from Early Colonial Central America," in Essays in the Political, Economic, and Social History of Colonial Latin America, edited by Karen Spalding (1982); and Stephen Webre, "Política y comercio en la Guatemala del siglo XVII," in Revista de historia 15 (January-June 1987): 27-41, and "El trabajo forzoso de los indígenas en la política colonial guatemalteca, siglo XVII," in Anuario de estudios centroamericanos 13, no. 2 (1987): 49-61. On the Bourbon period, see Troy S. Floyd, "The Guatemalan Merchants, the Government, and the Provincianos, 1750–1800," in Hispanic American Historical Review 41, no. 1 (1961): 90-110; and Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., "Economic and Social Origins of the Guatemalan Political Parties, 1773–1823," in Hispanic American Historical Review 45, no. 4 (1965): 544-566, and Class Privilege and Economic Development: The Consulado de Comercio of Guatemala, 1793–1871 (1966).

Additional Bibliography

Guatemala, Carlos Alfonso, Alvarez-Lobos Villatoro, and Ricardo Toledo Palomo. Libro de los pareceres de la Real Audiencia de Guatemala, 1571–1655. Guatemala: Academia de Geografía e Historia de Guatemala, 1996.

Hawkins, Timothy. José De Bustamante and Central American Independence: Colonial Administration in an Age of Imperial Crisis. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2004.

                                   Stephen Webre