Santo Domingo, Audiencia of

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Santo Domingo, Audiencia of

Audiencia of Santo Domingo, the first appeals court in the New World, it heard civil and criminal appeals from Spain's Caribbean colonies and had original jurisdiction over matters involving the royal treasury (including auditing the accounts). From its creation in 1511 until 1799 it was convened in the city of Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, and from 1799 to 1861 in Puerto Príncipe, Cuba. The audencia returned to Santo Domingo in 1861 when the Dominican Republic was again made part of the Spanish Empire. That episode, and the audiencia's existence, ended in 1865.

A royal decree of 5 October 1511 created this three-judge appeals court, ostensibly to save litigants the delay and expense of appeals to courts in Spain. The unstated purpose was to limit the judicial and administrative powers that Diego Colón, son and heir of Christopher Columbus, had won in his lawsuit against the crown over the validity of the privileges granted to his father in the Capitulation of Santa Fe (1492) and later reaffirmed by royal decrees of 1493 and 1497. According to the judgment, Colón had the right as governor to appoint the judges of first instance (justicias) and the district judges (justicias mayores, so named to distinguish them from royally appointed Alcaldes Mayores, even though their duties were the same) on Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. As viceroy and governor of Hispaniola, he had extensive administrative powers there and in Puerto Rico.

The audiencia's area of jurisdiction included all of the Spanish conquests until 1527, when New Spain was given its own audiencia with a district that ran from the Cape of Honduras to Cape Sable, Florida. In subsequent decades, the on-going conquest temporarily added parts of Central America, New Granada (Colombia), and Venezuela and (in theory) Peru, Ecuador, and even Chile to the Santo Domingo district. Central America, Colombia, Peru, and all Spanish territories along the Pacific coast were transferred to the new Audiencia of Panama (created in 1538) when it began operation in 1540 and then to other audiencias as they were created. This left the Audiencia of Santo Domingo with jurisdiction over Maracaibo, Venezuela, Cumaná, Margarita, Guiana, and the Caribbean islands. The conquest of Florida in 1565 added that area to the district. The district remained stable except for the addition of Trinidad and the loss of the Lesser Antilles, Haiti, and Jamaica during the seventeenth century.

In the eighteenth century, the audiencia's district underwent many changes. Florida was transferred to the British for a time (1763–1783) and Louisiana was added (1763), although most of Louisiana's appeals went to a special court at Havana. The provinces of the northern coast of South America from Maracaibo east were withdrawn from the district in 1717–1723 and again in 1739–1777 and assigned to the Audiencia of Santa Fe de Bogotá as part of the creation of the Viceroyalty of New Granada. The province of Venezuela was returned to Santo Domingo's jurisdiction in 1742 and the others in 1777. These territories were again withdrawn in 1786 when the Audiencia of Caracas was founded. Finally, the Spanish part of Hispaniola was ceded to France in 1795, and the audiencia moved to Puerto Príncipe, Cuba, in 1799. Thereafter, its jurisdiction was confined to Cuba, Hispaniola (until the Haitian conquest of 1821), Puerto Rico, Florida (to 1821), and Louisiana (to 1803).

The Audiencia of Santo Domingo played its greatest historical role during the first thirty or so years of its existence. Not only did it help reduce Colón's power, it also attempted to mediate the early conquistadores' conflicts over territory, for example, those between Hernán Cortés and Diego de Velázquez over New Spain (1520) and among the various claimers of Honduras. The court also helped formulate and implement policies of various kinds because its original mandate included instructions to meet with Colón and the royal treasury officials for a meeting called the real acuerdo to open royal letters and formulate policies for implementing orders. This function grew during the 1520s, becoming the characteristic political advisory role later exercised by other audiencias, especially those in the viceregal capitals. The audiencia was not active in the protection of the Indians. The private interests of its early judges in the trade in Indian slaves and in encomiendas caused them to make common cause with other Spaniards in the Caribbean, at least until the 1540s, when the disappearance of Indians on the islands and the New Laws changed attitudes.

After Colón's final return to Spain in 1523, the Audiencia of Santo Domingo assumed the additional duties of governor of the island. The arrival of the first president of the tribunal, Bishop Sebastián Ramírez de Fuenleal, in 1529 began a pattern of conflict between the judges and the president, each claiming the right to govern as well as administer justice. In theory, they were to govern the island jointly. This conflict was never fully resolved, although in 1583 the crown borrowed from the practice in other audiencias and added the title of governor to those held by the president and spelled out his duties as chief administrative officer. During the 1530s the president began to exercise the military functions of a captain-general, an office formerly added to his titles in 1577.

During the second half of the sixteenth century, the audiencia judges became notorious for their inspection tours of the northern and western districts of Hispaniola. The public purposes were to gather current information about the districts and to see that royal laws were being enforced. The latter especially meant arresting smugglers and confiscating their goods. However, many contemporaries charged that the judges used the tours to enrich themselves and the staff that accompanied them by claiming shares of the confiscated goods and by charging high per-diem fees, which the residents of the visited areas had to pay. In 1605 the crown ordered the northern and western coasts depopulated because of smuggling and evidence that Protestants had given Spanish Bibles to the residents. Baltasar López de Castro, an official from Santo Domingo, was a key figure in lobbying for this action. Judicial visits continued to the remaining districts of the island.

With the reduction of the audiencia's district as other audiencias were created, and the gradual decline of the economy of Hispaniola, the audiencia's prestige and influence also declined. By 1600 it serviced mostly Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and the Venezuelan settlements. As often as not, Cuban appeals went to Spain because that journey was no more difficult than the one to Santo Domingo. This declining area of effective jurisdiction and the general decline of Santo Domingo meant that by the last quarter of the sixteenth century the Audiencia of Santo Domingo was considered the lowest ranking of the audiencias, the normal point of entrance for jurists hoping to work their way up the ladder of appointments to the more prestigious audiencias of Lima and, especially, Mexico City. The rank and prestige of the court were further diminished in 1786 when it lost jurisdiction over the northern coast of South America and was reduced from four judges to three, and again in 1861, when it returned to Santo Domingo, where it became a territorial audiencia like all those in Spain's other provinces.

See alsoAudiencia .


There is no comprehensive study of this audiencia, but parts of its history can be found in Clarence H. Haring, The Spanish Empire in America (1947), esp. pp. 84-86; Fernando Muro Romero, Las presidencias-gobernaciones en Indias (siglo XVI) (1975), pp. 73-84; Javier Malagón Barcelo, El distrito de la Audiencia de Santo Domingo en los siglos XV a XIX, 2d ed. (1977). Information on the judges and fiscales who served on the court from 1687 to 1808 is in Mark A. Burkholder and D. S. Chandler, From Impotence to Authority: The Spanish Crown and the American Audiencias, 1687–1808 (1977). Frank Moya Pons, Historia colonial de Santo Domingo (1974), provides general context. Details of particular periods are in Américo Lugo, Historia de Santo Domingo desde el 1556 hasta el 1608 (1952); María Rosario Sevilla Soler, Santo Domingo: Tierra de frontera, 1750–1800 (1980); and Juana Gilbermejo García, La española: Anotaciones históricas, 1600–1650 (1983).

Additional Bibliography

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

                                       Paul E. Hoffman