Río de la Plata, Viceroyalty of

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Río de la Plata, Viceroyalty of

Viceroyalty of Río de La Plata, the colonial political jurisdiction embracing current-day Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia until the outbreak of the Independence Wars in 1810. This was the last viceregal unit of the Spanish Empire, and was supposed to become the showcase of Bourbon Reforms. Divided into seven provinces (Buenos Aires, Tucumán, Paraguay, Potosí, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Charcas, and Cuyo), the Río de la Plata came to embody the advances and contradictions of the crumbling hold over Spanish America. Thus it became the first of the colonies effectively to secede.

Created in 1776 as part of Charles III's attempt to invigorate the fiscal and commercial machinery of empire, the new viceroyalty was split from Peru. It was so distant from Lima that contraband and fiscal evasion in Buenos Aires had become a costly drain on the empire. By making Buenos Aires the capital of the new entity, trade and taxation could be more easily monitored.

The Bourbons introduced a bureaucratic apparatus that was essentially traditional but incorporated a group of innovations. Without an entrenched aristocracy or bureaucracy, as in Mexico or Lima, Spanish authorities could experiment in the Río de la Plata. They vested conventional executive authority in the viceroy, giving him sweeping powers over taxation through the Real Hacienda (Treasury Department), the customhouse, tobacco monopoly, and communications, and made him the supreme military commander over the district. As the king's personal envoy, the viceroy also possessed religious authority. In 1783, judicial power was vested in the audiencia, in part to check the power of the viceroy and in part as a concession to local demands for more responsive administration. As in the rest of the empire, this dual power system generated more tension and conflict than balanced administration.

The Río de la Plata became the arena for halfhearted innovation. The Bourbons introduced a French model of the intendancy (despite its inability to cope with tensions that exploded in the French Revolution) in 1783. Appointed to rationalize and more closely monitor the powers of the exchequer (Tribunal De Cuentas), the superintendent openly challenged the power of the viceroy. He oversaw multiple intendancies and took control of justice, general administration, war, and most important, finance. Rather than increasing revenues, the innovation led to internal squabbling between the intendants and viceroys, the audiencias and cabildos; the experiment was rescinded in 1788. Fiscal control returned to the viceroy.

Frustrated by the region's failure to channel funds to the thirsty coffers of empire, and burdened by the costs of war in Europe, Charles IV sent Diego de la Vega as visitador general to review all the branches of the Real Hacienda. His report prompted Charles to reintroduce the intendancy system in 1804, albeit with a narrower mandate. The viceroy (Fernando Rafael de Sobremonte) remained supreme.

Buenos Aires, however, was still a marginal outpost of the empire, and thus never a favored position for officials sent from Spain. Consequently, high officers of the crown seldom remained for long, and their competency left much to be desired. From 1776 to 1810, eleven viceroys and three intendants served the crown. Much of the day-to-day work fell to middlerank bureaucrats who were underpaid and unrespected. Their upward mobility through the ranks of the imperial state was snail-paced, and the bureaucracy soon became a breeding ground for resentment of the crown. When creole merchants and artisans eventually declared their open opposition to the Spanish government in May 1810, much of the viceregal bureaucracy affiliated with the patriots.

Local representation expressed itself through municipal cabildos, where merchants and notables kept up a steady fire of demands on the viceroy and audiencia. Cabildos served as councils for local notables (vecinos) and controlled local judges. The alcaldes ordinarios (mayors) of these municipalities covered basic civil criminal laws. Disputed cases were appealed to the audiencia. The alcaldes ordinarios supervised district judges, alcaldes de barrio. There was a parallel set of courts governing military justice (fueros de guerra), taxes and public debts (fueros de hacienda), and the church (fueros eclesiásticos).

For reasons that remain unclear, the crown did not create a Consulado for merchants until 1794. Agitation for the creation of the Consulado began in the early 1780s. As a semiofficial organ, the Consulado served as the judicial body for merchants, to reconcile disputes according to the revised Ordenanzas de Bilbao. The Consulado was controlled by wholesale merchants whose power rested on their grip over Buenos Aires's import-export business.

Two years after the viceroyalty's creation, Madrid declared "free" trade in 1778, both as a concession to creole demands for greater commercial freedom and as a measure to promote more exchange with the mother country. More than any other region of the empire, the Río de la Plata flourished. Licensed ships replaced imperial fleets, and Porteño merchants could enjoy direct links with peninsular ports. Once based on the trade in contraband and specie flow, a booming merchant community in Buenos Aires turned to the trade in hides and jerked beef for slave consumption in Cuba and Brazil. These became the first staples of the emerging pampas economy. Reforms also helped integrate different regions around the port: yerba maté was produced in Paraguay, woolen textiles in Córdoba, wine and aguardiente in Cuyo. Buenos Aires increasingly became the trade hub for the region.

Potential for trade attracted merchants from Spain, France, England, and elsewhere in Europe, and brought commercial links to foreign ports and financiers. Buenos Aires was the first major Spanish American port to diversify its trade links beyond peninsular exchange. Merchants also extended their credit and sales networks through agents in the interior. From internal and foreign trade emerged a strong class of wholesale merchants based in the viceregal capital, many of whom grew from quite modest beginnings. Their wealth soon allowed them to extend their enterprises into landholding and export staple production.

Commercial wealth made merchants the financiers of colonial administration, as contributors of the largest portion of revenues to the exchequer and as the source of loans. This strength might have given them indirect control over the reins of political power, but crown authorities were not always sensitive to local commercial concerns. Frequently, as in the 1799 order to suspend all shipping of goods in neutral vessels, merchants vented their umbrage at the viceroy. Crown insen-sitivity soon led to the accumulation of grievances that spilled out in 1810, when the Spanish Cortes intensified fiscal demands. The bulk of Buenos Aires merchants stood behind the cabildos' open declaration of revolt in May 1810.

A list of Viceroys follows.

Juan José Vértiz y Salcedo, 1778–1784

Francisco Cristóbal del Campo, Marqués de Loreto, 1784–1789

Nicolás de Arredondo, 1789–1795

Pedro Melo de Portugal y Vilhena, 1795–1797

Antonio Olaguer y Feliú Heredia y Donec, 1797–1799

Gabriel de Avilés y del Fierro, Marqués de Avilés, 1799–1801

Joaquín del Pino y Rosas Romero Negrete, 1801–1804

Fernando Rafael de Sobremonte, Marqués de Sobremonte, 1804–1807

Pascual Ruíz Huidobro, 1807

Santiago Antonio María de Liniers y Bremont, 1807–1809

Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros y la Torre, 1809–1810

See alsoAlcalde; Audiencia; Bourbon Reforms; Cabildo, Cabildo Abierto; Consulado; Fueros; Intendancy System; Spanish Empire; Viceroyalty, Viceroy.


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

Ricardo Zorraquín Becú, La organización política argentina en el período hispánico (1959).

Herbert S. Klein, "Structure and Profitability of Royal Finance in the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in 1790," in Hispanic American Historical Review 53 (August 1973): 440-469.

Susan M. Socolow, The Merchants of Buenos Aires, 1778–1810: Family and Commerce (1978).

Ricardo Zorraquín Becú, La organización judicial argentina en el período hispánico (1981).

David Rock, Argentina, 1516–1982: From Spanish Colonization to the Falklands War (1985; rev. ed. 1987), esp. pp 59-66.

Samuel Amaral, "Rural Production and Labour in the Late Colonial Buenos Aires," in Journal of Latin American Studies, 19, no. 2 (1987): 235-278.

Susan M. Socolow, The Bureaucrats of Buenos Aires, 1769–1810: Amor al real servicio (1987).

Additional Bibliography

Acevedo, Edberto Oscar. Funcionamiento y quiebra del sistema virreinal: Investigaciones. Buenos Aires: Ciudad Argentina, 2004.

                                       Jeremy Adelman