Intendancy System

views updated

Intendancy System

Intendancy system, administrative and territorial subdivisions of viceroyalties, headed by an intendant or superintendent, and implemented in Latin America in the last half of the eighteenth century. The Bourbon dynasty assumed the Spanish throne in 1700 and began a series of reforms to centralize its power, reduce creole influence, increase its revenues, and eliminate corruption both on the Peninsula and throughout the empire. Philip V ordered intendancies created in Spain in 1718 but full implementation of the decree was delayed until 1749. A study of the economic conditions of the empire written by José del Campillo y Cossío in 1743 recommended that a series of investigations be conducted throughout the empire to identify the problems of each region and suggested utilization of the intendancy system to correct them. With the return of Havana to Spanish control in 1762, Charles III adopted Campillo's recommendations and sent José de Gálvez to examine New Spain and Alejandro O'Reilly to study the Caribbean colonies. Cuba, changed by its exposure to international trade during the British occupation, received first attention, and in 1764 Charles created an intendancy for the island. José de Gálvez submitted the reports of his investigation in New Spain to the crown in 1768, recommending solutions to the problems of that colony and calling for implementation of the intendancy system throughout the empire. Resistance from New Spain's viceroy, Antonio María de Bucareli, delayed application of this recommendation until 1782.

In that year, the king issued the Ordinance for Intendants, creating a position in Buenos Aires for a superintendent with nominal control over the remaining seven intendancies in the viceroyalty of Río de la Plata, including Upper Peru. The following year, the plan was applied to Venezuela and in 1784 to Peru and the Philippines. By 1786, a revision of the initial ordinance appeared called the New Code for Intendants, issuing instructions to create twelve intendancies for New Spain, and its provisions were applied to the remainder of the empire. In 1812 the intendancy of Cuba was divided into three jurisdictions, with a superintendent in Havana and separate intendancies in Santiago and Puerto Principe. In some cases, as in Spain, the governor of a region also served as intendant, although Gálvez recognized this as a source of corruption and inefficiency. The last intendancy filled in 1814 separated the positions on the island of Puerto Rico.

Older studies of the intendancies tended to suggest that all were alike, created for the same reasons, and existing under the same rules and regulations. There were, however, functional and territorial distinctions that made them different. The theoretical role of all intendants, nevertheless, was the same. Their instructions asked them to streamline the bureaucracy, promote efficiency, eliminate corruption and contraband, increase the tax yields, develop new raw materials for export to Spain, widen the colonial markets for Spanish goods, improve colonial facilities, promote education and technology, foster immigration to colonize agricultural areas, stimulate activities of the cabildos, and reorganize the militia. In order to achieve these ends, they took powers from all officials from the top down. In the viceregal centers of New Spain and Peru, and in Central America, they replaced the alcaldes mayores and corregidores in Indian regions, jurisdictions long plagued by low salaries and massive corruption. For example, the twelve intendancies created in New Spain replaced 200 of these officials. However, the provinces created in that colony were so large that the intendancies were divided into districts (partidos) and the intendants appointed subdelegates in each to serve in their stead. Because of continuing low salaries and a lack of qualified individuals, many of the former officials became subdelegates and continued the corruption and exploitation of Indian populations.

In practice, all intendants had jurisdiction over taxation and financial aspects of the military. The Caribbean colonies, limited to these two areas, suffered constant jurisdictional disputes with the captains-general and other officials. Their situation was different from that on the mainland since the Caribbean colonies had no major Indian populations and had a disproportionate concern with trade and international interests because of their locations. Caribbean intendants had limited jurisdictions until the end of the system in 1853. The intendants on the mainland colonies enjoyed expanded powers that included administrative and judicial functions and stronger control over the military. They were given powers to examine and correct deficiencies in administration, and they became the first court of appeal in matters regarding trade and commerce, controlling function, composition, and movement of the military.

To further wrest colonial power and control from the creole elites, the crown generally appointed peninsular Spaniards to these positions. The intendants generally had good educations and approached their positions with the zeal evident in the late Bourbon period. They often received the appointment based on experience. For example, those named in Nicaragua and Honduras required prowess in martial skills to counter contraband and foreign colonization efforts. Those in Chiapas and El Salvador, regions with serious economic and legal problems, required men with fiscal and judicial expertise.

In general, the intendants increased revenues appreciably through commercial and agricultural diversification and a more efficient tax collection system, though they seem to have been more successful in peripheral areas than in the viceregal centers. Abuses of Indian populations did not cease because of the subdelegados, and in fact Indian tribute declined in New Spain because of the greater subdivision of territory. The bureaucracy created by the system increased the costs of administration, but the increased revenues, channeled into development of each region, did tend to benefit its residents. Immigration programs brought Spaniards into commercial centers and they, not the creole merchants, derived the benefits of the reforms. The appointment of peninsular Spaniards to most of the positions and the effects of their reforms further exacerbated creole frustration and animosity against Spain. In some areas, like Chile, the immigration program changed the face of the colony by whitening the population. The geographic divisions created regional autonomy and its creoles developed a regional loyalty rather than the hoped-for loyalty to Spain. During the wars for independence, the emerging states took on physical boundaries similar to those created under the system.

Differences in regions governed and in individual personalities determined the success or failure of a particular intendant. Early historians praised the system for achieving Bourbon goals. Some condemn the system altogether and say it caused more problems than it solved. Others believe some were successful while others were not. Studies of the careers of individual intendants are few, so an accurate conclusion on the effectiveness of the system is impossible. The available evidence shows that the force of the intendant and the cooperation of creoles in the Caribbean and Central America allowed progress, but that an entrenched system of creole elite power and uncooperative officials thwarted chances of success in Chile.

See alsoViceroyalty, Viceroy .


The basic study is Lillian Fisher, The Intendant System in Spanish America (1929). Various regions are discussed in John R. Fisher, Government and Society in Colonial Peru: The Intendant System 1784–1814 (1970).

John Lynch, Spanish Colonial Administration, 1782–1818: The Intendant System in the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (1958).

Hector Humberto Samayoa Guevara, El régimen de inten-dencias en el Reino de Guatemala (1978). Most individual studies are doctoral dissertations, but two are published, M. Isidro Méndez, El Intendente Ramírez (1944), and Jacques Barbier, Reform and Politics in Bourbon Chile, 1755–1796 (1980).

Altagracia Ortiz, Eighteenth Century Reforms in the Caribbean (1983).

Additional Bibliography

Franco Cáceres, Iván. La intendencia de Valladolid de Michoacán, 1786–1809: Reforma administrativa y exacción fiscal en una región de la Nueva España. México: Instituto Michoacano de Cultura, 2001.

Pietschmann, Horst. Las reformas borbónicas y el sistema de intendencias en Nueva España: Un estudio político administrativo. México, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1996.

                                   Jacquelyn Briggs Kent

About this article

Intendancy System

Updated About content Print Article


Intendancy System