The Colonial Period

views updated May 23 2018

The Colonial Period

The territory of what became Argentina in 1853 was incorporated to the Spanish Empire in the middle of the sixteenth century as a marginal area, and it remained so until the end of the eighteenth century. With neither dense indigenous populations nor coveted material resources, these lands received only scant attention from the Spaniards.


The first explorations of the Atlantic coast of the future Argentina came in the aftermath of the discovery of the Pacific in 1513, which prompted efforts to find a passageway from the Atlantic. Trying to find such passage, Juan Díaz de Solís in 1516 reached a vast water mass that he called Mar Dulce, which in time was known as Río de la Plata. In 1520 Ferdinand Magellan finally found the passage to the Pacific Ocean after exploring the whole coast of Patagonia and gathering rich ethnographic observations on the native populations. In 1526 the Spanish crown sent an experienced Italian explorer, Sebastian Cabot, to follow Magellan's route to the Pacific. When Cabot's expedition arrived at the Río de la Plata, it encountered survivors of the failed Solís expedition, who relayed stories about a wealthy king ruling over an inland territory rich in silver. Craving riches, the expedition turned into the Río de la Plata, sailed north along the Paraná River, and established the first settlement in the area, the short-lived fort of Sancti Spiritu (1527). After reaching the Paraguay River and failing to find any silver, Cabot evacuated the fort and sailed back to Spain.

In the 1530s the true conquest and settlement of Argentina began. Spanish expeditions entered the territory following three different routes. In the mid-1530s the Adelantado Don Pedro de Mendoza sailed from Spain to the Río de la Plata area with a very well equipped expedition of 1,500 men that established Buenos Aires in 1536. The city did not prosper, due mainly to indigenous resistance to the Spanish presence. Besieged and starving, Mendoza's lieutenants (the adelantado had died of syphilis on his way back to Spain) decided in 1541 to evacuate the city and transfer its residents to the town of Asunción, Paraguay, established in 1537. Thus, Asunción became the center of Spanish colonization in the Río de la Plata area. Its advantages over Buenos Aires were obvious to the settlers: It was located closer to the alleged silver hill and had a dense indigenous population, the agriculturalist Guaraní peoples, who were ready to collaborate with the Spaniards as laborers and soldiers in exchange for a military alliance against their bellicose neighbors. In the 1570s and 1580s people from Asunción—largely mestizos—moved southward to establish the towns of Santa Fe (1573) and Corrientes (1588) and to resettle Buenos Aires in 1580.

The Spanish exploration and settlement of Argentina's northern area (known as Tucumán in colonial times) came as a result of conflicts over the spoils of the conquest of Peru. From 1550 onward, many unrewarded Spaniards joined the expeditions to Tucumán to find riches. These expeditions established many cities whose survival was helped by the presence of sedentary indigenous populations (most of which had previously been incorporated to the Inca Empire) with rigid social and political hierarchies and accustomed to regular work habits. After three failed attempts at establishing a city in the area, the Spaniards managed finally to found Santiago del Estero in 1553 among Quechua-speaking Indians. Though the Spaniards tried to expand their control to the surrounding territory, they failed to establish another stable city until 1565, when they founded San Miguel de Tucumán.

In the 1570s two major competing but complementary colonizing projects were advanced. Juan de Matienzo, oidor (judge) in the Audiencia of Charcas, advocated the continuation of exploration and settlement towards the Atlantic to establish better links with Spain. Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, on the contrary, promoted the consolidation of territories already explored through the founding of new cities among the still-belligerent Indians of Tucumán. Following Toledo's instructions, the cities of Córdoba (1573), Salta (1582), La Rioja (1591), and Jujuy (1593) were established. Based on these cities the Spaniards managed to control the surrounding territories, though indigenous resistance continued in the western parts of Tucumán until the middle of the seventeenth century.

The area to the west of Argentina, known as Cuyo, was settled from Chile from the 1560s onward. The cities of Mendoza (1561), San Juan (1562), and San Luis (1594) were incorporated to the kingdom of Chile, whence their scant population originally came.

By the end of the sixteenth century, all of the colonial towns had already been established. Political and judicial organization ensued. In 1563 the crown created the gobernación (province) of Tucumán, placing it under the jurisdiction of the Audiencia of Charcas. This province consisted of the cities of Santiago del Estero, Tucumán, Córdoba, Salta, Jujuy, La Rioja, and Catamarca (the latter established in 1683) and their rural jurisdictions. The oldest city, Santiago del Estero, was made provincial capital (where the governor resided), but the seat of power was transferred to Córdoba in the seventeenth century due to its larger population and economic importance. On the Atlantic side, in 1617 the crown separated the old province of Paraguay from the province of Buenos Aires. The latter included the cities of Buenos Aires (seat of the governor), Santa Fe, and Corrientes and was also placed under the jurisdiction of the Audiencia of Charcas, except for a brief period (1661–1671) when a high court operated in Buenos Aires. The regions of Cuyo became a corregimiento (political and military jurisdiction) dependent on Chile. Its territory was thus politically and judicially separated from the other cities that would later become part of Argentina. This political and judicial organization survived until the sweeping reforms of the late eighteenth century altered it considerably.


In general, the Spaniards managed to control more quickly the sedentary, agriculturalist indigenous populations of Tucumán and Paraguay than the hunter-gatherer, nomadic ones of Chaco, the Pampas, and Patagonia. Whereas several of the sedentary groups maintained fierce resistance to Spanish occupation until the 1660s, the hunter-gatherers survived beyond the Spaniards' control throughout the colonial period. They were called bárbaros (savages) by the Spaniards who engaged in frequent confrontations with them.

Tucumán: Encomienda and Indian Labor

From the mid-1550s onwards, the crown distributed the labor of the subdued Indian groups of Tucuman in encomiendas among the Spanish conquistadors. A few of these encomiendas were very large and were located mostly in Jujuy and Salta (such as Casabindo and Cochinoca, given to the marquis of Tojo in 1605 and comprising 2,200 people as late as 1760), but the majority of them were small, encompassing only one or two dozen Indians.

The encomienda system in Tucumán had features that set it apart from other areas in Spanish America. First, the institution took the form of encomienda de servicio personal (labor encomienda) as Indians paid their emcomenderos exclusively in labor despite the efforts made by the authorities in the seventeenth century to introduce payment in money, as they had done in the rest of Spanish America. To fulfill their obligations the encomienda Indians worked in the encomenderoś haciendas or wove textiles for them. Some encomenderos even rented their Indians to other Spanish hacendados as agricultural labor or as muleteers and porters to transport goods. This last custom was very common in Salta, Jujuy, and Cuyo, where it took the name of saca de indios (extraction of Indians) to Chile.

Second, several encomiendas continued to exist in Tucumán until the end of the colonial period, long after they had been abolished in other areas. By 1700 only a handful of Indian communities holding communal lands and ruled by autonomous ethnic authorities existed, mostly located in Jujuy and Santiago del Estero. Called also pueblos de indios (indigenous towns), they survived until the first years after independence. The rest of the indigenous population lived on Spanish haciendas, where they worked as day laborers or tenants. Tenancy appeared to have been widespread in Salta and Jujuy, where Indian peasants paid rent in a combination of kind (sometimes in money) and labor. The day laborers (known locally as peones) received a low salary in kind (mostly textiles) or less frequently in money.

Indian Resistance: The Calchaquí Uprisings

Indian resistance to Spanish settlement was very strong in the Calchaquí Valley, the western mountainous districts of Catamarca, Salta, and La Rioja in Tucumán. The Spaniards had assigned the Indian groups in Calchaquí to encomiendas, but these never materialized due to indigenous resistance. Beginning in the mid-1560s the Indians rose up against Spanish attempts at setting up towns, expelling or killing Spaniards and even priests sent to the area to convert them. Coalitions of several Indian groups participated in two bouts of rebellion against Spanish control, the first in the 1630s and the second in the 1660s. The second Calchaquí uprising was led by a Spanish adventurer named Pedro Bohorques, who managed to convince the Indians that he was a descendant of the Incas. Apparently the Calchaquí groups accepted his leadership, hoping that he would guide them toward elimination of the Spanish presence in the area and possibly restore the old indigenous order. The violence of this uprising and its unified leadership persuaded the Spanish authorities to arm a strong entrada (military expedition) to quash Indian insurgence. Governor Alonso Mercado y Villacorta summoned the urban militia, asked the governor of Buenos Aires for military help, entered the Calchaquí area, and crushed the rebels. The defeated Indian groups were divided up and allocated in encomiendas or individually to Spaniards who had participated in the military campaign; some of them were even enslaved. Some groups were uprooted and relocated to distant areas, such as the residents of Quilmes, who were resettled on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Frontier Areas

With the defeat of the Calchaquí rebellion, Indian resistance within Spanish territory came to an end. But the Spaniards could not extend their control on the Chaco, east of Tucumán, and the Pampa and Patagonia areas in the south. On these frontiers Spaniards and Indians engaged in relations that involved violence but also all sorts of commercial and cultural exchanges. In the seventeenth century the cities located near both frontiers were in constant danger of Indian invasions. Local militias were called upon to patrol the border and defend the territory. Hostility was more virulent in Pampa and Patagonia as the Araucanian Indians had mastered horsemanship since the Spanish Conquest. In the eighteenth century, Spanish authorities developed a three-pronged approach to control the Indian frontiers: the establishment of forts and creation of regular military corps (called partidarios or blandengues) to keep the Indians at bay; the creation of religious missions to convert them to Catholicism and to Spanish work habits, and the organization of military expeditions to expand territorial control. In Pampa and Patagonia, Indians and Spaniards signed treaties that launched a period of stabilized ethnic relations that lasted until independence.

Jesuit Missions

A unique experiment at controlling Indian populations took place in the northeastern area of the Río de la Plata. Starting in the seventeenth century, the Jesuits established religious missions; there were thirty mission towns by the middle of the eighteenth century. The Jesuit missions attracted a good number of Guaraní Indians, to whom the Jesuits offered protection and shelter against Portuguese bandeirantes (slave traders, who enslaved them) and enemy Indian groups. Mission Indians received religious education, knowledge of Spanish literacy skills, and training in music and crafts. They were allowed to hold land in common and to have their own ethnic authorities. Still, the priests supervised most aspects of economic and cultural life in the missions, although they left the solution of daily issues to the Indian authorities. These missions were major players in the colonial economy, especially in the production of yerba mate (a very popular infusion then and now), which was commercialized throughout the region. The missions helped also control the border between the Spanish and Portuguese empires. To put an end to a long-standing conflict, in 1750 Spain decided to hand out most of the territory where the missions were located to Portugal in exchange for Colonia do Sacramento. Believing that Portugal was to dissolve the missions, the Indians rebelled against the territorial swap in the Guaraní War, but the rebellion was put down by forces of the two empires combined. After the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain and its colonies in 1767, the missions entered a period of sharp decline.


Starting in the late sixteenth century, the cities of Tucumán and Río de la Plata were rapidly integrated into the Andean economic space that revolved around the production and circulation of silver extracted in Potosí (Upper Peru). Throughout most of the colonial period, both areas specialized in the production of primary goods paid for by Potosi's silver and largely consumed by the mining and urban centers of Upper Peru and Peru.

Land, Agrarian Production, and Labor

Argentina's agrarian history has always been dominated by the image of large cattle ranches inhabited by a roaming rural population, the gauchos. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, historians replaced this image with one of a varied landholding pattern, diversified production, and a more stable population.

In the province of Tucumán, landholding was heavily concentrated in the hands of a small Spanish elite living in the cities. Its members owned large haciendas. In Jujuy and Santago del Estero they were located next to Indian towns that managed to keep control of their communal land, In Tucumán, Salta, and Córdoba they engulfed former Indian communities that had lost their rights to land ownership. Agrarian production was largely organized through encomienda, though Indians and mestizos living within haciendas also were part of the work force. Tenancy was widespread in some areas and tenants (arrendatarios, agregrados) were required to pay rent in a combination of labor and kind more than in money. Generally, large rural estates combined agriculture (wheat, corn) with cattle and mule raising and wintering. Some of the estates had lumber works and soap and candle mills.

In the pampas of Buenos Aires and Santa Fe, large ranches were not the prevailing agrarian unit. The rural landscape was dominated by small- and medium-size productive units; therefore, landholding was not fully concentrated in the hands of a landed elite. Tenancy was more general than previously thought and encompassed various arrangements between tenants and landlords that involved payment in money (much more common than in Tucumán) and kind. As encomienda Indians were very few, several labor arrangements existed: Family labor in small and medium units was supplemented with the occasional hire of day laborers (peones); larger estancias (cattle ranches) hired tenants and day laborers as temporary labor, and slave workers were common among them. Salaries paid in money were more common than those paid in kind. Some estates specialized in cattle and mule raising, others in agriculture (especially wheat); some establishments combined both.

Trade and Transportation

The economy of colonial Argentina pivoted around the Andean markets that centered on the production and circulation of silver. Apart from supplying the small urban markets of Río de la Plata and Tucumán, agriculture and pastoral production was exported to the mining centers and cities of Peru and Upper Peru, mainly to Potosí. Mules and cattle; cattle by-products such as grease, tallow, soap, and shoe leather; cheap woolen textiles; low-quality spirits; and wooden items (shafts, beams) were the main products sent to the Andes.

This market was linked by precarious routes trekked by mule caravans and carts. Even distant Buenos Aires—a port city closed to direct legal trade with Spain by its mercantilist economic policies—became dependent on Potosí's silver. In the seventeenth century the city became an important illegal trade outpost. French, Dutch, Portuguese, and English vessels called in its harbor to trade manufactured goods and slaves for the coveted Potosí silver. Around 20 percent of the silver extracted in Potosí was siphoned off to these European countries through Buenos Aires.

Within the domestic market, the circulation of goods fostered the development of the arriería, or freight, business. Trains of carts driven by oxen made the three-month trip from Buenos Aires to Jujuy in the summer. As Jujuy was a transference point for goods shipped north (from there on carts could not tread the steep, narrow paths to Upper Peru), muleteers—largely Indians and mestizos from Tucumán—gathered there to transfer the goods from carts to mules. Northward-bound mule trains started the slow and risky crossing of the high plateau towards the Andean markets.

Beginning in the early seventeenth-century, the mule trade developed into a very profitable business that became the central economic activity linking three regions: the pampas of Buenos Aires and Santa Fe; the wintering and trading posts of Tucumán; and the consuming cities of the Andes. As postmaster Alonso Carrió de la Vandera wrote in 1771, "mules are born and raised in the countryside of Buenos Aires … finished in the pasture grounds of Tucumán, and work and die in Perú" (Carrió de la Vandera, 1965, p. 64.)

Córdoba, the first hub of this trade, shipped 25,000 mules per year to the Andes by 1650. Salta, and to a lesser extent Jujuy, started to send mules to the Andes in the 1650s and seized the trade from Córdoba from the 1740s onwards. The demand for mules increased throughout the eighteenth century to reach nearly 50,000 per year between 1765 and 1780. Along with mining districts and cities, Indian corregimientos were major markets for mules forcefully distributed by corregidores (or repartimientos) at very high prices. In 1780 the Tupac Amaru rebellion and the ensuing abolition of repartimientos brought the prosperous mule trade to a standstill. The crisis lasted between 1780 and 1795; by 1800 the trade was fully recovered, only to come to a halt with the independence war.

In Tucumán the mule trade occupied people of all walks of life. The urban elites owned the land where mules were raised or spent the winter, participated actively in it as merchants, and supplied the muleteers with food and other goods from their stores. Overseers were hired to lead mule trains; they were commonly petty merchants or professional muleteers. Members of the urban plebs, or common people—mestizos, mulattoes, and Indians—were hired as journeymen for wages in cash and kind. Mestizos and Indians from the countryside also participated in the mule business by raising and selling animals in small numbers. The impact of the decline of the mule trade after 1780 was felt by all social sectors and amounted to a serious social and economic crisis.

In Río de la Plata the elite was more concerned with trade than agriculture or livestock raising. They participated actively in the few legal commercial activities allowed and in the many illegal ones. Dealing in contraband was a common practice among the Buenos Aires merchants, with or without the authorities' complicity. Only in the nineteenth century did a landed elite fully develop with the expansion of the agrarian frontier over Indian territory.


Located on the margins of the trade system that linked the Andean silver mines with Spain and politically irrelevant, the Río de la Plata area was neglected for more than one and a half centuries. By the middle of the eighteenth century this situation began to change. As a result of Spain's concern about Portugal's advances on the southern border with Brazil, the new Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata was created in 1776. Imperial reforms fostered economic growth and the development of regions hitherto considered unprofitable. Buenos Aires and its surrounding countryside was the area that benefited the most from the Bourbon reforms.

Viceroyalty and Intendencies

In the late 1760s Spain undertook major administrative and military reforms aimed at building up a better defense of its American empire. The Río de la Plata area was far away from the scene of war but still faced a major threat to its security. Across from Buenos Aires, the Portuguese had established Colonia do Sacramento in 1680. The small port city functioned mainly as an outpost for illegal trade by Portugal and Britain. To protect the city a military regiment was stationed in Buenos Aires and militias were organized in all the nearby other cities.

With this enhanced military structure in place, the governor of Buenos Aires, Pedro de Cevallos, occupied the eastern bank of the Río de la Plata, seized Colonia, and expelled the Portuguese in 1776. Immediately afterwards the crown created the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata, comprising the jurisdictions of the old governorships of Buenos Aires and Tucumán, and added to them Cuyo, which formerly depended on Chile. Buenos Aires was made its capital city and Cevallos its first viceroy. The political role of the city was thus enhanced and a sizable administration was appointed. Also an audiencia (royal high court of justice) was established in 1783, and an expanded branch of the Real Hacienda (Royal Exchequer) began to function.

In 1782 Spain introduced a sweeping reform of the colonial political organization through the Real Ordenanza de Intendentes, which was first applied to the Río de la Plata and later to other American viceroyalties. The Ordenanza created eight intendencies in the Viceroyalty of La Plata, three of which, Córdoba, Salta, and Buenos Aires, would form Argentina after independence. The Intendency of Córdoba comprised the southern part of the old province of Tucumán (to which Cuyo was added), that of Salta the northern part, and that of Buenos Aires the whole namesake province.

Each intendency was headed by an intendent. Even though theoretically subordinated to the viceroy, intendents concentrated all economic, political, military, and judicial power within their jurisdiction and communicated directly with Spain. The crown's goal of enforcing a more efficient and less corrupt administration clashed with the interests of the local urban elites who wanted to maintain their power. The elites managed to keep some of it by holding the post of subdelegado (local magistrate) for one of their own. Yet the autonomy of cabildos (town councils) was deeply affected as intendents meddled in local affairs.

Economic Reforms

By the mid-eighteenth century the old trade system, which connected Cádiz in Spain to a few ports in Spain's American colonies through convoys of ships, collapsed due to incessant wars. Starting in the 1760s, Spain applied new economic policies to its American colonies. Gradually, the crown opened many ports on both coasts of the Atlantic to trade and, beginning in 1720, authorized individual vessels (navíos de registro) to trade with America, thus phasing out the convoys. These policies reflected the shift of economic development from the Pacific to the Atlantic and benefited Río de la Plata, and especially Buenos Aires, immensely.

In 1778 the city was included in the royal decree of commercio libre, which opened many Spanish American ports to legal trade with Spain. The same year Viceroy Pedro de Cevallos order the mandatory export of silver from Upper Peru (now part of the Viceroyalty of La Plata) through Buenos Aires. With its improved links to the Atlantic, the city's economy prospered. It became a major exporter of silver and also an important supplier of hides to Europe, especially England. By 1800 the city exported goods worth five million silver pesos per year on average, four million of which were silver and the remainder in hides.

Its newly acquired prosperity and higher political status made Buenos Aires a magnet for both Spanish migrants and inhabitants of interior areas attracted by prospects of economic advancement. In 1744 the city's population totaled roughly 11,000. By 1810 this figure had increased fourfold to 45,000 people. Buenos Aires was by then the fastest-growing city in the Spanish Empire. This dramatic influx of immigrants had a strong impact on the makeup of the city's elite as the immigrants joined ranks with the recently appointed bureaucrats and military officers stationed there. This new elite had a strong commercial basis and came to dominate the import of European goods and their distribution within the viceroyalty. Testament to its importance, in 1794 the crown authorized the founding of a consulado (commercial tribunal) in Buenos Aires. The merchant elite was the foundation of Argentina's nineteenth-century ruling class.

Urban growth and exports fostered the expansion of rural production. Rural establishments of various sizes were brought into the supply of agricultural products and meat to the urban market and hides to the export economy. This economic dynamism led to agrarian expansion on new lands, mainly in Entre Ríos and Uruguay. It also fostered internal migration from Tucumán, Córdoba, and Santiago del Estero to the countryside of Buenos Aires and Santa Fe. Some of these migrants settled in the Buenos Aires countryside while others stayed only temporarily. Slaves were also imported in larger numbers than before. By 1800 roughly one-quarter of the population of Buenos Aires was black and mulatto, both slave and free. Their presence was also sizable in the countryside, where large rural estates employed them as labor.

The impact of economic reforms, namely the expansion of legal trade, was experienced differently by different regions. For Buenos Aires and the Atlantic littoral it inaugurated a period of economic growth that continued after independence. For Tucumán and Cuyo the situation varied, but by and large the impact was negative. Córdoba, for instance, managed to shift its production from textiles to cattle and hides, thus linking with the expanding Buenos Aires and international markets. Other cities suffered the loss of markets for their local products. The cheap wines and liquors manufactured in Cuyo were hit hard by European competition, as were the rough textiles from Tucumán and Santiago del Estero. Salta and Jujuy clung to the mule trade with the Andean markets. All of the cities of Tucumán depended on Buenos Aires for their import of European goods, a situation that would deepen after independence.


For about two centuries Buenos Aires had vegetated as a distant outpost located in a forgotten corner of the Spanish Empire, surviving mainly through contraband trade with the Dutch and the Portuguese. From the 1750s on, however, the city's demographic, economic, and political importance was on the rise. This newly acquired importance was taken into account when the city was made viceregal capital and became the link of interior areas of the viceroyalty with the outside world.

In the 1770s the authorities began to improve the urban facilities of the city. Sanitation, safety, and cleanliness were enhanced: A hospital and a poorhouse were established; some streets and sidewalks around the main plaza were paved; and public lighting was installed. In addition the Alameda, a public walkway where the elite promenaded every day, was opened. The first coffeehouse in town, Almacén del Rey, opened in 1764; by 1806 there were already thirteen of them in the city, places where people gathered to drink, play billiards, read, and talk. The first permanent theater opened in 1783 under the viceroy's sponsorship; plays written by local authors were performed there, along with Spanish plays. By the end of the colonial period there were two working theaters in Buenos Aires.

Viceregal authorities also improved educational facilities. In 1772 the old Jesuit school was transformed into a royal school, the Colegio Real de San Carlos. By 1800 three other educational institutions had been created: a school of medicine; an academy of drawing; and an academy of maritime sciences, which was primarily a school of mathematics. Only Córdoba had an older educational institution, the prestigious university established there in 1683.

In 1780 the city incorporated a printing press to its cultural patrimony. The machine had belonged to the Jesuits of Córdoba and was brought to Buenos Aires by viceregal order. Leased to private printers, it was mostly used for publishing official documents and religious and educational books. Argentina's first newspapers appeared in Buenos Aires: the Telégrafo Mercantil (1801–1802), Semanario de Agricultura, Industria y Comercio (1802–1807), and Correo de Comercio (1810–1811). These newspapers were major means for disseminating enlightened ideas throughout the viceroyalty. Copies of them were sold by subscription in all of the provincial towns; as a result a small but active group of men of letters was formed in the viceroyalty. Most of them were children of merchants sent to study at the universities of Charcas, Córdoba, or Salamanca. Many of them became prominent members of the revolutionary generation that took power after 1810.


The last years of Spanish administration in Argentina were tense, especially after 1805. The Napoleonic Wars immensely affected trade between Spain and its colonies. In the late 1790s the colonies were authorized to trade among themselves and with neutral nations (mainly the United States). Therefore, Buenos Aires merchants, by then the richest members of the elites of the Viceroyalty of La Plata, had a taste of real free trade. The Peace of Amiens in 1801 put an end to these liberalized commercial policies. War resumed in 1805; the following year and again in 1807, Buenos Aires was invaded by British troops. The authorities organized the defense by enlisting militias all over the viceroyalty, but especially in the city. The British were expelled but the Spanish authorities saw their power weaken at the hands of the militias under the control of the Buenos Aires merchant elite. In 1810 the militias were the key political actor in the demise of the Spanish regime.

See alsoAudiencia; Buenos Aires; Cabot, Sebastian; Captain-General: Spanish America; Consulado; Encomienda; Explorers and Exploration: Spanish America; Intendancy System; Livestock; Magellan, Ferdinand; Mestizo; Oidor; Peons; Pueblos de indios; Repartimiento; Yerba Maté.


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                                            Gustavo L. Paz

The Colonial Period

views updated May 18 2018

The Colonial Period

Indo-Mexico on the eve of European contact consisted of complex societies, established territorial entities, and an empire. The intrusion of strangers upset the political balance established by the Mexica of the central valley: Foreign contact came at a critical moment, as the region grappled with evolutionary pressures. Expansion of trade created regional interdependence on resources, bringing merchants in contact with new ideas, different gods, and an array of chiefdoms. An expanding circle of cooperation made force less effective and encouraged consolidation, and an initial amalgamation in the valley of Mexico created the triple alliance of three cities in the valley of Mexico: Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and a weaker Tacuba. This alliance (c. 1430) created an imperial core of shared interests, and that made possible a bicoastal empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Deification of the paramount chief in order to provide political stability had not been solidified by 1519. A legal code developed by Nezahualcóyotl, the philosopher-chief of Texcoco, represented an emerging universal legal philosophy. Spain arrived in the hemisphere at a moment of transition in Indo-Mexico and openness to change.

The expedition of Hernán Cortés (1519) and the subsequent fall of Tenochtitlan (1521) marked the end of indigenous sovereignty. Castile's imperialism, following the Iberian experience, did not seek to extinguish the existing organization and laws of its Indian subjects. Spain recognized two republics (in the sense of distinctly organized peoples): the Republica de los Españoles, which governed Europeans in Mexico, and the Republica de los Indios, which applied to indigenous people. Theoretically, two parallel societies existed, joined in the person of the monarch; the difficulty lay in finding an acceptable way for the two to interact within an overarching sociopolitical structure. Conflict over booty threatened to fragment a weakly consolidated indigenous empire and dash the Crown's plan to modify without destroying. The struggle to reach an acceptable balance among the interests of the indigenous population, the Spanish settlers, and the monarchy lasted for decades. The fight began almost immediately over the issue of slavery.

Slavery was the first major issue that divided the monarchy and those that toppled the Mexica. Thousands of men, women, and children became slaves as a consequence of war, presenting a moral issue for the Crown. Slavery conflicted with the papal trusteeship of the New World to introduce Christianity. The Spanish Crown considered itself to be a benevolent power introducing a unifying social template across the region, and indigenous slavery complicated that process. Nevertheless, it could be eliminated only as the monarchy established its directive authority.

The initial organization of New Spain relied upon the municipality as the basic foundation. A hierarchy of urban settlements in a descending chain placed cities at the apex with authority over towns that in turn directed villas that controlled subordinate pueblos (villages) and so on down to lugares ("small places"). Theoretically, instructions could be filtered down to the lowest levels, and responsibility for enforcement was shared. Cities, which functioned as the overarching territorial units, had recognized municipal councils, and their authority applied until the border of one municipality touched another.

A parallel indigenous structure involved a modification of the Indian political traditions rather than its replacement. It reassured indigenous leaders that they had a place and a political role in New Spain. Subdivision of regions into cabeceras under an elected Indian official, the juez-gobernador, mirrored the role of the preconquest hereditary tlatoani. Consequently, theoretically, elected officials tended to stay in office, or circulated from one position to another over a lifetime. Indians modified the structure even further, referring to their governor as the gobernadoryotl. Each cabecera had a municipal council drawn from the ranks of recognized leaders, prinicipales, and caciques. Indian officials interacted with the viceroy, audiencia (high court), and lower levels of the Spanish system. In Mexico City two indigenous municipal council governed the two former Indian cities of the vice regal capital.

Cortés assumed the initial governorship of New Spain, employing his prestige as the conqueror to influence both Indians and the Europeans. Cortés's diplomatic skills and reassurance of the indigenous population played a large part in the transition from one empire to another and accounted for his popularity among the Indians. A suspicious Crown worried that he might declare himself a New World monarch. Consequently, Madrid appointed an audiencia to curb Cortés under the ruthless Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán.

Conflict among the Spaniards over Cortés's awarding of land, encomiendas, and other favors to his supporters threatened stability. Encomiendas assigned tribute-paying Indians to a Spaniard who had the theoretical obligation to maintain armed men to be mobilized in case of an Indian rebellion. Tribute could be paid in labor, making it possible for those who acquired land to bring it to cultivation. (Land had no direct connection with the grant of an encomienda.) Cortés reserved an encomienda of 21,000 for himself, but most had only a few thousand. Cortés became a sugar planter and miner—he realized that land and labor, not booty, represented wealth. The Indians were familiar with the concept of tribute, and they adjusted to new demands, as well as to the notion that negotiated cooperation constituted the heart of the monarchy's ruling system.

The failure of the first audiencia led the Crown to dispatch professional lawyers in 1530 to establish a more respectable institution. The second audiencia proved to be a success. Cortés returned to Spain to defend himself before royal officials. A relieved monarch elevated him to the nobility as the Marques del Valle, and confirmed land grants and other actions of the conqueror. He was allowed to return to Mexico, but prohibited from entering Mexico City by a wary Crown still concerned about his ambitions. The Crown selected a high nobleman, Antonio de Mendoza, to be the first viceroy of the Kingdom of New Spain (1535), which was joined with the other kingdoms of Spain only through the monarch. Colonial Mexico became a political entity theoretically equal in status to all other kingdoms, not a colony in the modern sense. As a kingdom it could expect Emperor Carlos V (Carlos I of Spain) to pay attention to its well-being.


While security and organizational issues distracted Madrid, the religious struggle for the minds and souls of the king's new subjects proceeded with notable success. Religion set the parameters of acceptable behavior for both Europeans and the Indians. Cortés requested missionaries to begin the process of conversion to Christianity, and a small group of Franciscan friars arrived in 1524, followed by twelve Dominicans two years later. Mass conversions with almost nonexistent instruction in the faith constituted more a political act than a spiritual one. Spain could not tolerate non-Catholic subjects, and the Indians understood that they had to adopt the religion of the dominant power. Some immediate benefits accompanied conversion to Christianity: The new religion did not require human sacrifice, protected adherents from enslavement, acknowledged the humanity of the indigenous population, confirmed that they were entitled to be treated as members of the faith, and established their equality before God. Nevertheless, Spain understood that the abrupt acceptance of Catholicism required a spiritual apprenticeship, and so the Inquisition (introduced in 1571) excluded Indians, leaving guidance—and discipline—in the hands of bishops. The Indians' second-class religious status played a major role in creating social inferiority. Subsequently, in the next century, the cult of our Lady of Guadalupe (1648) provided an indigenous manifestation of an important Catholic figure.


Catastrophe played a role in shaping society. Pandemics swept away an unknown number of Indians in populated regions, and penetrated into mountain ranges and dense jungles. Smallpox, measles, plague, yellow fever, and other diseases that arrived with the Europeans attacked the indigenous population, which had no immunity. In the last days of the besieged city of Tenochtitlan, smallpox thinned the ranks of its defenders. Indigenous leaders, who were more likely to have contact with Europeans, were particularly vulnerable. Disease spared those with immunity to European and African diseases: Spaniards and their mixed-parentage offspring, the mestizos, and blacks had a biological advantage. As the population declined, land was abandoned and the encomienda became less effective as a source of Indian workers. This accelerated the movement to various forms of wage-contract labor and distribution of workers through a repartimiento system to Spanish agriculturists. Lands abandoned and confiscated from the pre-European state increased settlers' holdings as haciendas emerged.

A series of epidemics in the 1540s again swept through the Indian population. The source of these diseases is not known, but may have been a result of drought that drove rodents into close contact with human beings in rural villages. Combined with cultural shocks, epidemics created psychological turmoil in indigenous societies, and this made them conducive to both reactionary retreats and abrupt abandonment of pre-European ties to groups, customs, and traditions. Indians who abandoned traditional dress, learned Spanish, changed their diet, and adopted an approved ceremonial life became cultural mestizos detached from Indian society.

The hierarchy of races was more a theoretical than an actual fixing of status. Spaniards born in the mother country were at the top of the racial hierarchy, followed by creoles (Europeans born in the New World), mestizos, mulattoes, Indians, and blacks. A small number of Spanish women went to Mexico. In the middle of the first century, women made up only 16.5 percent of immigrants; their numbers peaked in 1600 at 28 percent. A gender ratio of one female to four males meant that population replacement and growth depended on native-born Mexican women.

Consequently, racial factors were only one element fixing an individual's place in society. Attachment to European culture, religion, occupation, wealth, and marriage alliances combined to determine status. The New World constituted a biological and social frontier where one could invent a past, become a self-declared hidalgo (petty noble), or otherwise elevate one's social position, and all of these choices could be legitimized by success and wealth. The fact that most Spaniards arrived in Mexico as servants or were poor relatives of rich merchants could be forgotten. Cultural identification transformed Indians into mestizos, and later, in several generations, perhaps into Creoles. Racial fluidity created a distinct Mexican race in the cities and towns, whereas in the countryside the population remained largely indigenous.


In 1541 the Mixton War shook the foundations of New Spain. Up until then, the relatively smooth acceptance of Spanish authority in central Mexico indicated a pragmatic adaptation to a political and religious system able to maintain peace, encourage trade, negotiate differences, and impose responsibilities. In the north, nomadic groups of less civilized Indians maintained a state of warfare, raiding and burning settlements well into the nineteenth century. If similar massive resistance had occurred in central Mexico, the survival of New Spain would have been in danger, but instead the Indians rallied to defend Spanish sovereignty.

The Mixton War was the consequence of the violent activities of European predators. Under Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, life in the weakly held western fringe of royal authority was intolerable, as marauders swept across the settlements, looting and killing. When the Indians in the vicinity of Guadalajara revolted, Viceroy Mendoza fruitlessly called on the encomenderos for help. The desperate viceroy then turned to Indian leaders, and a force of 3,000 indigenous soldiers along with 300 Spaniards suppressed the rebellion. It became obvious that the king's new Indian subjects provided a more solid sociopolitical foundation than did the Spanish conquerors, whose claims to privileges and status as a new colonial nobility eroded after 1541.

In 1542 the Crown prematurely issued the New Laws of the Indies, which directly attacked many of the privileges that encomenderos assumed had become settled custom. Moreover, the law prohibited the granting of new encomiendas. Outraged Spaniards verged on rebellion. Viceroy Mendoza quickly suspended the New Laws pending an appeal. The threat of a civil war forced the Crown to permit new grants of encomiendas, though there were some new restrictions. Royal officials, the corregidores, began the task of converting tribute-paying encomienda Indians into regular taxpayers. The institution underwent progressive modifications that rendered it harmless, ending the attempt to create a feudal elite. Nevertheless, the struggle between the monarchy and the aspirational European elite continued to be a matter of concern.

Another crisis occurred in 1563 with the arrival in Mexico of Martín Cortés, the conqueror's son and legitimate heir. The young marques, an immature aristocrat, enjoyed great respect among the indigenous population, and seemed to offer a new option to disgruntled encomenderos. Conspirators envisioned manipulating Martín Cortés, declaring him a king and legitimizing their coup with an assembly of notables, but an indecisive Cortés delayed, enabling the audiencia to lure him into their chambers and arrest him. With the arrival of a new viceroy, Cortés returned to Spain to explain his role in the affair. The two major conspirators were convicted of treason and beheaded; this served as a warning to encomenderos.


Land, and the agricultural production and livestock it supported, constituted the basic form of wealth. In 1528 Carlos V instructed Hernán Cortés to distribute land to his men based on their status. Because all claimed hidalgo status, most received grants of 44 hectares at least, with many receiving two or more grants. Cattle, sheep, pigs, and domestic fowl, which were first introduced on the islands, soon arrived in Mexico. Cattle feasted on the abundance of native grasses until European grasses inevitably replaced them. Cattlemen established estancias but grazed their herds across croplands, causing damage and giving rise to complaints, so vice-regal authorities directed them northward away from agricultural regions.

Spaniards understood that the domestic market for foodstuffs constituted their primary market: Europeans in Mexico demanded wheat, mutton, and familiar vegetables. In contrast, Europe had little need for American agricultural products, and moreover, transportation costs made low-value exports too expensive. Most crops could be grown in Europe from seed, and it took many years to develop European demand for tropical items such as cacao and tobacco. Early focus on urban markets created an internal economy that was soon affirmed by the development of mining, particularly of silver. Silver, a high-value export, could absorb transatlantic transportation costs. Silver facilitated imports of wines, olive oils, fine cloth, fashionable shoes, and more mundane items such as plows and farm implements.

Trade with Spain relied upon an annual convoy. European pirates (who were tacitly supported by European powers that believed they had been excluded unfairly from the riches of the New World) and North African coastal pirates forced Spain to convoy ships. The arrival of trade goods in large volume distorted prices: Usually they were sold at the trade fair in Jalapa to merchant distributors who were able to take advantage of overabundance to drive hard bargains, then sold at progressively higher prices before the next convoy. This had important economic consequences. Demand for reasonably priced goods and consistent supply led to contraband activity by foreign vessels. Avoidance of customs levies provided a price advantage and cut out middlemen who bought items in other countries then transshipped them on the convoy.

The merchant community had its own guild, the Consulado de Comercio, which was established in Mexico City (1592) and composed of the principal merchants (almancenros, or wholesalers). It served as a commercial court, and represented their interests to the viceroy and lobbied officials in Spain. The Casa de Contratacion, Spain's trade board (1503), set imperial trade policy and acted on appeals. The Consulado of Seville and the Casa shared many of the same responsibilities.

Merchant activity functioned on a number of levels, but combined, it constituted the commercial engine of New Spain. Large-scale distributors, the aviadores, arranged for sale of imported goods to regional merchants. Regional merchants linked to merchants in Mexico City represented only the skeletal trade structure. Peddlers at the bottom of the scale carried items into rural villages, then sold or extended on credit to small stores in minor towns. In addition, Indian porters, mule drivers who transported goods across the region, engaged in trading on their own account as well as carried the goods of others. Leperos (urban vagrants, petty criminals) recycled stolen property and sold it to small stall owners in what aptly became known as the thief's market.

Money remained in short supply, making credit important. Although the Crown established a mint in Mexico City in 1535, export demand for silver drained species out of New Spain. Financing the production of domestic food crops to supply the needs of urban centers, as well as the production of agricultural items with European demand such as cochineal (red dye), depended on credit extended under the repartimento de comercio. The repartimento distributed goods on credit against harvests. It included items such as animals, seeds, and consumer items. Credit terms could be exploitive; nevertheless, production and consumption depended on the survival of the primary producer and consumer. The church served as a basic source of credit in the absence of modern banking. Reasonable interest rates facilitated purchase of land and urban property. Debt could be rolled over from one generation to a purchaser facilitating land transfers. The church preferred a steady income to support hospitals, orphanages, convents, and other facilities and services.


New Spain had minor sources of gold, but vast silver deposits. Cortés worked silver mines in Taxco as early as 1525. The first mining boom resulted from the discovery of a huge deposit in Zacatecas in 1546. Four years later, prospectors uncovered a rich vein in Guanajuato; this was followed by a series of strikes in San Luis Potosí, Real de Monte, Pachuca, Parral, and elsewhere. The great mines of Guanajuato produced an estimated 20 to 25 percent of New Spain's silver; the Valenciana mine may have been the most profitable mining enterprise in Mexico. In the early period, miners worked silver out of croppings close to the surface. As the easy available ores ran out, mining became more expensive. Deep shafts required complex drainage, shoring, and pumps (introduced in 1609). Consequently, large enterprises displaced individual miners, except in marginal silver operations. Deep shaft mines in the eighteenth century could absorb a capital investment of a million pesos and years of work.

Usually located in high table land far from food resources, the mining industry had an insatiable demand for supplies of all types. Mining fueled the internal economy. By the eighteenth century the industry depended increasingly on deep shafts that went below the water table, requiring lumber to shore up tunnels and vast amounts of hand tools. Wool clothes; hides for ores; waterproofing material; mules, horses, and oxen for motive power and transportation; fodder for animals; and innumerable other items made mining efficient and life more bearable.

The demand for supplies and the tranport of ores by high-wheeled wagons to smelters required a road network that reached far beyond the mines. Wages for mine labor tended to be attractive, and mine workers constituted a privileged segment of the labor market. Successful investors and silver merchants (mercaderes de plata) became a plutocratic elite. Silver pesos financed trade with China by way of Manila through the annual galleon to the west coast port of Acapulco. Crown taxes on mining required one-fifth payment, a rate that could be reduced by various artful dodges or Crown concessions. New Spain absorbed most of the wealth generated by silver. Peripheral parts of the viceroyalty and financial dependencies such as Cuba and others represented a Mexican subimperial structure.


The importance of Indian women in the family and comparable Spanish notions molded the role and place of women in Mexican society. Both cultures placed the male at the head of the family and subordinated the female. A protective web isolated wives and children from all but the extended family. Lineage, whether real or imagined, conveyed status and had to be preserved; consequently, marriages had to be carefully considered to avoid loss of social standing. Moreover, a dowry negotiated too generously might strain the resources of the family. Dowries could be paid in any thing of recognized value, but they remained the property of the wives, and although they could be managed by the husbands, they could not be squandered. Incidents of wives suing husbands over dowries or failure to acknowledge dowry payments testify to its importance. In the case of catastrophe, the dowry supported the widow.

Marriage was an economic institution, but that did not necessarily preclude love and affection. A man typically had several spouses serially during his lifetime because of maternal deaths during childbirth. Marrying a deceased wife's sister would preserve wealth within the family; another common arrangement involved marriages between second cousins. The further down one stood in the social structure, the less important marriage became, until finally common-law arrangements were acceptable. Within the family, the male possessed legal authority over family members. Both male and female children remained legal minors until age twenty-five and shared the same rights to own property, to enter contracts, to serve as witnesses, and to enjoy other responsibilities. With marriage, responsibility shifted to the male head of household. A widow regained her legal rights, and depending on her personality, could become a powerful matriarch, conduct business, and protect family interests. The extended family and, at times, distant relatives, supplied the employees of family businesses. Actual and theoretical legal rights had little importance at the lower social levels.

Convents, another option for young women and the family, provided a protected, respected place for women and required a smaller dowry than what might be required by a marriage. In some cases, families anxious to avoid the marriage expenses forced young women into convents, but for others, convents were a socially acceptable way to avoid marriage. Convent life—with servants, black slaves, personal items, books, musical instruments, and comfortable quarters—could be pleasant for the nuns, though they could opt for a more rigorous regime if desired. Nuns ran schools for girls, wrote verse, and explored the life of the mind.


Education in New Spain began with the Indians. The Franciscan lay brother Pedro de Gante taught European knowledge, including Spanish and Latin. In 1536 the Franciscans established a secondary school, Santa Cruz de Tlalteloco, for the indigenous elite. Among other objectives, Franciscan missionaries sought to establish and train an Indian priesthood. The Dominicans did not share such hopes, and as preconquest religious practices persisted, the clergy in general abandoned the notion of an educated Indian priesthood. In the early period, women directed by Catalina Bustamante taught Indian women, but as attitudes changed, that ended, too.

Laws specified that municipalities maintain at least one primary school, but many avoided the expense. Individual priests taught rudimentary literacy skills to selected students regardless of race. Mestizos, whether biological or cultural, could not be excluded from education or the priesthood as their numbers grew, so there were schools for young mestizo girls and boys up to the secondary level, often endowed by benefactors. Tutors might be engaged by the wealthy.

The University of Mexico began to function in 1553 with a course of theology and Latin. It was theoretically closed to mixed-race individuals, but such restrictions could be bypassed. Women could not attend. By 1775 it had conferred 29,882 bachelor degrees and 1,162 masters degrees.


By the late seventeenth century New Spain had developed a dynamic economy and a unique society. It appeared to be self-sufficient—that is, able to manufacture what it needed or buy reasonably priced contraband goods from a competitive array of smugglers of different European nationalities. Meanwhile, Spain declined into an economic depression marked by food riots and the abandonment of rural districts. Transatlantic trade atrophied. The number of Spanish merchant ships arriving at the port of Veracruz declined drastically. In Madrid an unaffordable, bloated bureaucracy struggled to keep the government afloat. To add to the country's woes, a succession crisis occupied court politicians. Finally, Carlos II died in 1700 without an heir, setting off the War of the Spanish Succession (1700–1713).

Only after Felipe V, the grandson of Louis the XIV of France, assumed the Spanish throne was attention paid to revitalizing the empire. There were muted indications of reform even in the darkest days of the previous century, but with the new Bourbon dynasty, recovery began to be evident. The introduction of regional administrators in Spain that reported directly to the king was a model that eventually was introduced in the Latin American empire. In 1743 José Campillo, Felipe V's minister of war and finance, circulated the Nuevo Sistema de Goberieno para la America (New System of Economic Governance in America), a report that suggested cutting taxes to eliminate contraband trade, rationalizing maritime transportation, and distributing land to Indians to make them more productive and to provide a new source of tax revenues. The Enlightenment focus on economics underpinned such plans. But planners and bureaucrats failed to consider that New Spain's merchants, miners, and agriculturalists had adapted to global commerce, tax avoidance, and a host of minor, prohibited, but collectively profitable activities that negatively impacted royal revenues and Spanish trade. Conflict between a prosperous New Spain and a suddenly demanding mother country anxious to repair its fortunes seemed inevitable.

Imperial defense became an issue with the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). The fall of Manila and Havana to the British shocked Madrid and Mexico City. Concern that the 10,000 British troops in North America could capture Veracruz and then Mexico City could not be brushed aside. Even after the return of Havana under the terms of the peace treaty, future conflict had to be anticipated. New Spain had only 3,000 regular army soldiers, mostly on the northern frontier, and poorly trained militias suitable for warding off pirates perhaps, but not much else. Creating a colonial army could not be delayed. In 1764 the Regiment of the Infantry of America, along with a cadre of officers to train the newly reorganized militias, disembarked in Veracruz. To encourage recruitment, the military fuero (privileges) covered those in militia units as well as the regular units.

With the reign of Carlos III (1759–1788), another reality became evident. The former Hapsburg monarchs negotiated to establish accepted arrangements and compromises. The new Bourbon monarchy relied on administration by civil and often military bureaucrats rather than politics. Imperial administration reflected the authoritarianism inherent in the Enlightenment's scientific approach. The implication of the new approach arrived in New Spain in the form of the inspection tour of José de Gálvez (1765–1771). An impatient man intent on confirming his preconceived notions and rebalancing the imperial arrangement in favor of the mother country, Gálvez attacked the traditional vice-regal structure, including the audiencia. He hoped to eliminate symbols of independent internal sovereignty and replace them with a commandant-general and powerful regional officials, the intendants. On the local level, he anticipated substituting alcaldes (mayors) with subdelegados, allegedly to end corrupt practices and increase revenues. What Gálvez saw as long overdue reforms, Mexicans considered arbitrary acts that injured their interests. The sudden expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 from all Spanish domains seemed almost beyond comprehension to many in New Spain. The Society of Jesus had operated the most prestigious secondary schools, educating the sons of the elite.

In 1786 the division of New Spain into twelve intendancies began the implementation of Gálvez's reorganization plan. Earlier, in 1776, a regent had been appointed to assume some of the duties of the viceroy, including presiding over the audiencia. As anticipated, tax revenues increased. Nevertheless, resistance to externally imposed reforms delayed the more ambitious plan to eliminate the viceroy, and limited funds weakened the resolve of Madrid's planners. As New Spain entered its last decade, its institutions remained caught between the weakened traditional structure and partially imposed reforms. Nevertheless, the changes in trade policies benefited New Spain's cotton exports and stimulated the economy of the more entrepreneurial regions of Spain. In general, the Bourbon reforms engendered truculence but not rebellion, and in their weakened state could be adjusted to by merchants and others.

The establishment of the United States, followed by the French Revolution (1789) and the Haitian Revolution (1792), began the unraveling. Napoleon threw the European power balance into disarray, and the French blackmail of Spain drained it of money. After exhausting its resources, including church property in Spain, Madrid turned to its empire. The 1804 Law of Consolidation ordered the confiscation of church assets in America. New Spain's viceroy obeyed, in spite of the risk of an economic collapse. Gathering church funds required calling in loans and forcing owners to sell what they could to raise money. Resentment over the economic damage and fear of a French seizure of Mexico led to pressure for political autonomy.

In 1810 Father Miguel Hidalgo began a revolt, initiating a period of insurgency that lasted until 1821. The Spanish Cortes in Cadiz, in the face of the crisis caused by the Napoleonic invasion, embraced transatlantic constitutionalism, elaborating the Spanish Constitution of 1812. It might have worked, but the restoration of the monarchy in 1814 suspended the 1812 charter, then a revolt in 1820 reestablished it. Sporadic instability undermined Spain's credibility. Those who had previously favored autonomy now backed a complete break. Agustín Iturbide's Plan of Iguala (1821) proclaimed independence.

See alsoAudiencia; Bourbon Reforms; Cortés, Hernán; Cortés, Martín; Creole; Diseases; Dominicans; Encomienda; Franciscans; Gálvez, José de; Guzmán, Nuño Beltrán de; Indigenous Peoples; Jesuits; Mestizo; Mining: Colonial Spanish America; New Laws of 1542; Race and Ethnicity; Religion in Mexico, Catholic Church and Beyond; Repartimiento; Slavery: Spanish America; Tenochtitlán.


Chocano Mena, Magdalena. La Forteleza Doctra: Elite Letrada y Dominación Social en Mexico Colonial, Siglos XVI-XVII. Barcelona: Ediciones Bellaterra, 2000.

Estrada, Dororthy Trank de. Pueblos de Indios y Educación en el Mexico Colonial, 1750–1821. Mexico DF: Colegio de Mexico, 1999.

Hassig, Ross. Time, History, and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Lockhart, James. The Nahua after the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.

MacLachlan, Colin M., and Jaime E. Rodriguez O. The Forging of the Cosmic Race: A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico. Revised 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Miño Grijalva, Manuel. El Mundo Novohispano: Población, Cuidades Economía, Siglos XVII-XVIII. Mexico DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2001.

Seed, Patricia. To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico: Conflict over Marriage Choice, 1574–1821. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.

                                    Colin M. MacLachlan

The Colonial Period

views updated Jun 27 2018

The Colonial Period


The first substantial Spanish incursion into the lands now called Bolivia took place in 1535, the year Diego de Almagro led his great expedition south from Peru toward Chile. On its way, the expedition passed over the high Bolivian plateau now known as the altiplano.

A little south of Cuzco, Almagro moved from Quechua-dominated territory into Aymara lands. Over the previous several centuries, the Aymara speakers had organized themselves into more than a dozen substantial polities. Prominent among these were the Colla, around the northern and western shores of Lake Titicaca, and the Lupaqa, great raisers of llamas on the southwest fringes of the lake. Two hundred and fifty miles southeast of Titicaca were the less rich and powerful Charca, whose name became attached to the Spanish highland region that developed around and south of the lake and embraced most of the Aymara peoples. The province of Charcas was the direct ancestor of modern Bolivia. (The highland region was also known up to about 1700 as the Provincias de Arriba, or "Upper Provinces," and after that as Alto Perú, or "Upper Peru.")

The Aymara polities had been incorporated into the Inca Empire about 1460, becoming the province named Collasuyo. But loss of independence brought surprisingly little change in politics, economy, and society. Extraction of tribute and the implantation of Quechua-speaking colonies (mitmaq)—for example, in the valleys of Cochabamba—were the main exceptions.

Permanent Spanish occupation of Aymara lands did not begin until 1538, and was facilitated by native conflicts. In that year, the Lupaqa, probably prompted by the anti-Spanish rebel leader Manco Inca, attacked the Colla. The Colla had been stubbornly pro-Spanish since the Inca war of succession, in which they had supported Huascar in his struggle against his brother Atahualpa. (Huascar had been assassinated by Atahualpa; the newly arrived Spaniards then propitiously executed the latter.) At the Lupaqa attack, the Colla called for Spanish help. The ranking Spanish leader in Cuzco, Hernando Pizarro, decided to oblige. A quick Spanish victory at the Desaguadero River, at the southern tip of Titacaca, opened the way into the remaining Aymara lands. Many Aymara yielded peacefully, but not all. In the eastern Andean ranges (now known as the Cordillera Real), the Chicha polity, encouraged by Manco's agents, led other Aymara in opposition. Late in 1538, a fierce battle ensued in the Cocha-bamba Valley, in which the Spanish, now under Gonzalo Pizarro, and a number of Incas loyal to them prevailed, though barely. By 19 March 1539, Gonzalo Pizarro was back in Cuzco, bringing with him Aymara leaders who had surrendered.

At about the same time, the Spaniards accomplished two other objectives in Aymara territory that had enduring effects. The first, the work of Pedro Anzures de Campo Redondo, a subordinate of the Pizarros, was the foundation, possibly in mid-1538, of Villa de Plata in a temperate valley 140 miles south of Cochabamba. This town, which soon became the city of La Plata (renamed Sucre in 1839), was the political and administrative capital of the colonial province of Charcas from 1559 until independence and then, to 1898, of the sovereign state of Bolivia. Its name, "Silver," reputedly commemorates a 1538 event of still greater moment for Bolivian history: the Spanish location, 70 miles southwest of the town's site, of the silver deposits of Porco, worked by the Incas and doubtless by the Aymara and others before them. The Pizarros immediately seized a major interest in Porco. Henceforth, "Charcas" became synonymous with silver.

That association was vastly strengthened in 1545 with the discovery of the Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) at Potosí, between Porco and La Plata. The mines of Rich Hill and of the area around Potosí yielded about half the silver produced by Spanish America from 1550 to 1650 and continued yielding abundantly until the 1890s. Potosí itself soon attracted tens of thousands of inhabitants, becoming before 1600, despite its altitude of over 13,000 feet, one of the three largest cities of Spanish America—matched only by Lima and Mexico City in size and wealth. Its growth conjured into existence, or at least stimulated the rise of, many smaller towns in the Bolivian highlands. One such town was La Paz, founded in 1548 some 40 miles southeast of the lower end of Titicaca. The aim here was to safeguard from native attack the increasingly important road linking Spanish Peru with Potosí, Porco, and La Plata. In due course La Paz became a large trading and agricultural center in its own right, the main Spanish city in northern Charcas, and, from the 1890s on, the de facto capital of Bolivia.

Among the areas that sold goods to Potosí were the eastern interior lowlands. Here, in conquest and settlement, there was a great contrast with the highlands, since the impetus had come from the southeast in a series of expeditions across the Gran Chaco from Paraguay between 1537 and 1547. The result, in 1561, was the foundation of the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, 160 miles northeast of La Plata, by ñuflo de Chávez. The city lay at the foot of the Andes' easternmost salient into the interior and was from the start the key Spanish center in lowland Charcas. It has grown in recent decades to rival La Paz in wealth and political influence.

While the native people of the plains posed little threat to Spanish settlement, those of the montaña region, the wide foothill zone east and southeast of La Plata, were a different matter. The Spaniards called them, generically, Chiriquanos. This expansive and bellicose culture, reportedly of Guaraní origin, proved as resistant to Spanish incursions as it had been to the Incas'. The threat it posed to the main Spanish centers in Charcas was contained by the founding of defensive frontier towns such as Tarija (1574) and Tomina (1575). But from mountain retreats the Chiriguanos continued to threaten until the end of the colonial period.


The Chiriguanos were, however, only a small worm in the opulent apple of Charcas. Once the richness of Potosí became apparent, Spaniards flooded in, closely pursued by the Spanish state in the form of the Audiencia of Charcas. This blend of high court and governing council was formally created in 1558–1559, with its seat in La Plata. There it remained, the main administrative body of Charcas, until independence. Its jurisdiction embraced what is now Bolivia and large parts of present-day Chile, Peru, Paraguay, and Argentina. Within this vast territory arose several regional governorships, each to some degree independent of the audiencia. The only substantial one falling inside what is now Bolivia was that of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, created in the 1590s.

State influence in Charcas grew by another quantum leap in the 1570s with the arrival of Don Francisco de Toledo, fifth viceroy of Peru. Toledo is renowned for the five-year Visita General (general inspection) he made of the central part of his vice-royalty; half of the time (late 1572-mid-1575) was spent in Charcas. There, as in Peru itself, he directed the relocation (reducción) of native people to new communities, fewer and larger than their traditional ones. The aim here was multiple: to separate the people from their familiar surroundings, so that they could be more easily Hispanicized (in, for example, religion and civil government); to simplify organization of their labor; and to facilitate tribute collection. Many of the displaced people abandoned the new towns, but Toledo certainly achieved permanent disruption of old patterns. He reassessed tributes and generally redefined them as cash rather than kind for convenience of collection. This change forced Andeans to participate in the money economy of the Spanish world by selling either their goods or their labor for cash. Toledo also extended the reach of the state by introducing corregidores (district officers) to administer indigenous affairs in rural areas. He organized the founding of Cochabamba in 1570 or 1571, partly as a barrier against the Chiriguanos. The city then grew rapidly as the focus of a large and fertile farming region closely tied to the Potosí market.

It was in Potosí that Toledo wrought his best-remembered reforms. First he organized the notorious Mita, the system of forced labor that brought to Potosí each year, at least initially, more than 13,000 native men to work in mines and refineries. Forced labor had been sent to Potosí before Toledo's time; but he systematized and enlarged the practice (see also slavery). Many mita workers, with their families, stayed in Potosí after their year of service was over, adding to its population. Others left but did not return home. For various reasons they preferred to join the swelling number of displaced people that was one notable outcome of Spanish colonial practices throughout the central Andes in the sixteenth century.

Toledo's other major effort at Potosí was to promote the refining of ores by amalgamation with mercury. The technique, developed in Mexico about 1555, had been slow to reach the Andes, though it was poised for advance there when Toledo decided to push it forward. He first stimulated mercury production at Huancavelica, southeast of Lima. Then he encouraged experts to demonstrate the method in Potosí. The outcome of this innovation, allied with cheap and plentiful mita labor, was a phenomenal boom that reached its peak in 1592. But the gain was at great cost to the native people. Not only were they uprooted and forced into dangerous work at low pay but they were driven from the central role they had played in silver production. Expensive refining mills were needed to make amalgamation profitable, and such investment was beyond the Indians' capacity.

By 1600, the best ores at Potosí had been mined, though vast quantities of lesser material remained. This depletion led to a search for new silver deposits all over highland Charcas. The richest discovery was at a site on the altiplano 120 miles southeast of La Paz. The ores proved so good and plentiful that in 1607 a new town, Oruro, was created nearby. Production there never equaled Potosí at its peak, but it remained important. Other and lesser deposits were briefly exploited around Potosí throughout the seventeenth century. Their effect was only briefly to interrupt the downward trend of the district's output. By the early 1700s, production had returned to the levels of the 1560s (pre-mita and pre-amalgamation). It stayed there until the 1740s, when a 1736 reduction from a fifth to a tenth in the royalty taken by the Crown on silver production and a later increase in the labor impositions on the mita workers spurned a modest recovery, which lasted the rest of the century.

Whatever the fluctuations in silver output, the mining towns (above all Potosí) needed food and multitudinous other goods. This led, from about 1550 on, to the articulation of a vast economic zone to supply their requirements. The valleys around Cochabamba, and Mizque to the southeast of it, were early and lasting examples of these backward linkages from mining. Their livelihood depended on sales of maize, wheat, sugar, and livestock in Potosí. The Yungas (steep valleys) east of La Paz on the inland Andean slopes became a prime source of coca for the mines; though coca also came to Potosí from far more distant areas near Cuzco. On the lands around Lake Titicaca the ancient tradition of llama breeding continued, now directed particularly to the freighting of ores and the raw materials of silver production. What is now northwest Argentina grew in settlement before 1600 in response to the demand for its products—cotton cloth, mules, sugar, wine—in the mining zone. Possibly half or more of the silver drawn from the mines went to buying supplies through a far-flung network of interregional trade.


Most of the supplies that went to mining towns were produced on land owned by colonists, not communal holdings. By the 1560s, chacras (small farms) had appeared, for example, in the deep valleys around Potosí. And over the next century haciendas (larger estates) developed in the more fertile regions of Charcas, especially in the eastern middle-altitude valleys. Some of the lands taken for chacras and haciendas had fallen free because of native population losses, caused by newly introduced diseases and the general disruption of the Conquest and its aftermath of settlement. The population decline in some parts of highland Charcas between the 1570s and the 1680s reached almost 60 percent and had probably been severe before 1570 as well.

Some of the record loss, it is true, was the result of movement of people rather than of deaths or lack of births. Migrants (mitayos) were hard, sometimes even impossible, to count. Many left their original villages to escape tribute and mita, going to cities and towns (such as Potosí), to estates and farms owned by colonists, or to other native communities (where they would be classed as Forasteros, or outsiders, and as such, under Spanish law, exempted from forced labor and tribute). Migrants provided much of the labor needed by Spanish landowners and by miners outside Potosí, since hardly any mitayos were sent to the district mines.

Native community life survived despite all the pressures applied to it, as a visitor to highland Bolivia can see today. Nine-tenths of Charcas's people remained rural, and nearly all of them were peasants who spoke only their indigenous language. Viceroy Toledo had ordered that the reducciones into which he tried to congregate these people in the 1570s should have a Spanish style of town government, with aldermen, magistrates, constables, and the like. But these positions generally went to the same sort of men who had held authority before the Conquest: the responsible and conservative elders of the communities. Similarly, the curacas (regional nobles) of pre-Spanish times continued to exist and to exercise authority. They generally had power over several villages, with rights to use community labor and lands. From the start they were crucial to Spanish control of native society, acting as links between colonial officials and local village leaders. Their position was often hard. They might be obliged, for example, to produce a constant yield of tribute or draft laborers from a shrinking population; they would have to make up any shortfall themselves. Under such pressures, curacas might maltreat their own people or partially His-panicize themselves by engaging in profit-oriented trade or market agriculture to gain the cash they needed to meet Spanish demands. Thus, in the long term, old social and political relationships tended to change and weaken. But native institutions were resilient; and, suitably adapted to new demands, a distinct Andean culture was still in place when the colonial era ended.

Long before then, however, Charcas had taken on a clear identity of its own in several respects besides the native. The wealth and urban growth associated with mining gave it high status in Spanish America. In 1609, for instance, the see of La Plata was raised to an archbishopric, becoming junior in South America only to Lima. (No other archdiocese was created anywhere else in the Indies before 1700). Four years before, bishoprics had been created in La Paz and Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which now became suffragan, along with Tucumán and Asunción, to La Plata. In 1624 the city of La Plata added to its cathedral and audiencia the University of San Francisco Xavier, where Jesuits trained priests and, after 1681, lawyers, for much of southern South America.

Despite the decline of mining, there was much building and decoration of churches in Charcas in the seventeenth century. A growing number of Amerindian and mestizo craftsmen participated in this work, and distinctive styles took shape. For instance, in 1592 a sculptor named Tito Yupanqui made the famous image of the Virgin that has remained the object of such devotion at Copaca-bana, at the southern end of Titicaca. By 1700, clear schools of native and mestizo painting were emerging in La Plata, Potosí, and the La Paz-Titicana region (the Colla school). The painters' subjects were mainly devotional.


Broadly speaking, the eighteenth century in Upper Peru saw the reversal of trends established after 1600. Silver production at Potosí stopped falling about 1725 and began to rise again at mid-century. (Oruro's low point had in fact come in 1660–1680; after that its output gently rose for a century.) Native population stabilized, probably after a devastating epidemic of influenza or pneumonic plague that spread from Buenos Aires up into the central Andes in 1719–1720. Generally, thereafter, rural peasant populations grew, though the population of the Spanish-dominated towns languished for much of the century, reflecting the weakness of mining and hence of the demand for supplies in the mining centers. The exception was La Paz, which, thanks to its governmental and marketing role amid a relatively dense native population, continued to grow, though slowly. By 1750 it was, with 40,000 people, the largest town in Upper Peru.

Among the most notable reversals in the eighteenth century was the reimposition of state power. Charcas, like most of Spanish America, had since about 1600, been under ever less effective Spanish control. Like most of the empire, it felt a revived presence of the state once the Bourbons came to power in 1700. The first serious sign came in the late 1720s with the revisita (recount) of the population ordered by the viceroy, the marqués de Castelfuerte (1724–1736). Castelfuerte's aim was, first, to find out how much of the central Andean population had died in the epidemic of 1719–1720, and, second, with this new count, to improve the collection of Indian tribute, which, he rightly thought, had become slack and corrupt.

The full weight of reform did not fall on Upper Peru until much later in the century. The greatest change of all came in 1776, when the province was shifted from the Viceroyalty of Peru into the newly formed Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata. Now its exports and imports passed largely through Buenos Aires, and internal trade patterns also changed, reorienting southward. In 1784 the centralizing system of local government by intendants was installed, replacing the rule by corregidores put in place by Toledo. Now Upper Peru was divided into four intendancies: La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosí, and Chuquisaca (La Plata). The Spanish government also tried to stimulate mining by, for example, taking over the mining bank, the Banco De San Carlos, in Potosí, improving the supply of mercury, and sending in foreign experts to demonstrate (unsuccessfully, in the event) new refining methods.

A rash of revolts throughout the central Andes was one outcome of this growing state presence after 1700. In Upper Peru the first outbreak occurred at Cochabamba in November 1730, when mestizos, who were exempt from tribute, took exception to Castelfuerte's attempt to increase tribute income by reclassifying them as Indians. The mestizos were encouraged by creoles (American-born white settlers), who had their own grievances against Spaniards. The anti-Spanish alliance of different classes and ethnic groups was even more striking in the Oruro plot of 1739, a creole and mestizo reaction to increasing taxation. The leader, Juan Vélez de Córdoba, claimed descent from the Incas. The plotters' manifesto promised a restoration of the Inca monarchy, with equality for creoles, mestizos, and Indians, and abolition of tributes, mita (draft) labor, and reparto (the forced sale) of goods to Indians by corregidores. The Oruro plot, like the earlier disturbance at Cochabamba, was easily put down. But the Oruro manifesto, a true rebel program, may have been an inspiration for the far more widespread rebellion led by Túpac Amaru in Peru in 1780–1781.

That great and menacing movement—a reaction in the short term to a recent increase in sales tax, the creation of internal customshouses that imposed taxes and restrictions on interregional trade, and the abuses of reparto, which had been legalized in 1756—was centered just south of Cuzco. This rebellion was followed by a derivative revolt in Upper Peru, led by a native trader named Julián Apasa, who took the pseudonym Túpac Catari. Apasa laid siege to La Paz in 1781 before he was captured by Spanish forces late in that year. In the same year a creole movement, with strong links to Túpac Amaru and allied with local Indians and mestizos, took Oruro out of Spanish control. This insurrection, too, was put down by the end of 1781.


The risings of 1781 in Upper Peru, like that of Túpac Amaru farther north, were not bids for independence. However, they did demonstrate the strong aversion to the state's increasing exactions that became the fundamental motive for the pursuit of independence three and four decades later. Bolivia's advance to independence was set in motion, like the other Spanish American movements, by Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808. The Bourbon monarchy was unseated; political disarray descended on Spain and the empire. In the confusion, a group of radical creoles in La Paz, led by Pedro Domingo Murillo, decided to make a bid for autonomy. In July 1809, the group declared itself to be a governing junta ruling in the name of Ferdinand VII. The movement never had time to prove the authenticity of this allegiance; it was suppressed by the end of January 1810 by troops sent in from Peru. Still, this had been the first declaration of independence in Spanish America, and Bolivians remember Murillo proudly.

After this defeat, events proceeded much more slowly. Bolivia was the last Spanish mainland territory to become independent. The problem was twofold. First, the proximity of Peru, which was the Spanish stronghold in South America, made for easy suppression of dissidence in Upper Peru, as the Murillo episode had shown. Second, the government of the Río de la Plata (the incipient Argentina), where home rule was permanently achieved in 1810, had long sought to bring Upper Peru under its control. Buenos Aires therefore sent no fewer than four expeditionary forces into Upper Peru between 1810 and 1817. Although these found many local allies against Spanish forces from Peru, the Upper Peruvians had little enthusiasm for rule from Buenos Aires, so no lasting anti-Spanish alliance developed. The result was much fighting in and over Upper Peru for several years, and much loss of life and property, without conclusive change. Matters were not advanced by the activities of several dozen caudillos (pro-independence local leaders) who between 1810 and 1816 fought guerrilla style outside the towns.

After 1816, destruction and exhaustion greatly hindered further internal bids for freedom; and Buenos Aires finally realized that Chile would be a better assault route on Peru. Resistance to Spain therefore dwindled in the province until 1823, when a mestizo from near La Paz, Andrés de Santa Cruz, once a royalist officer and now an independence leader under Antonio José de Sucre, Bolívar's chief lieutenant, inflicted defeats on the Spanish at Zepita and elsewhere in the north. The Spanish were able to dislodge Santa Cruz, but by this time Bolívar's Venezuelan and Colombian forces were assembling in Peru, and the writing was on the wall. In 1824 Bolívar and Sucre defeated the Spanish twice in Peru, at Junín and at Ayacucho. After these victories there remained only a shadow of royalist resistance in Upper Peru. Royalist troops in fact deserted to Sucre as he entered the region in January 1825. Thus freedom came quietly and anticlimactically to the country that in August 1825 would call itself Bolivia after the man responsible for its final liberation.

See alsoAlmagro, Diego de .


Arthur F. Zimmerman, Francisco de Toledo, Fifth Victory of Peru, 1569–1581 (1938, repr. 1968).

Charles Arnade, The Emergence of the Republic of Bolivia (1957).

Eduardo Arze Quiroga, Historia de Bolivia. Fases del proceso hispanoamericano: Orígenes de la sociedad boliviana en el siglo XVI (1969).

John Hemming, The Conquest of the Incas (1970).

Josep M. Barnadas, Charcas: Orígenes históricos de una sociedad colonial, 1535–1565 (1973).

Bartolomé Arzáns De Orsúa y Vela, Tales of Potosí, edited by R. C. Padden (1975).

Orlando Capriles Villazón, Historia de la minería boliviana (1977).

Nicolás Sánchez-Albornoz, Indios y tributos en el Alto Perú (1978).

Herbert S. Klein, Bolivia: The Evolution of a Multi-Ethnic Society (1982).

Scarlett O'Phelan Godoy, Rebellions and Revolts in Eighteenth-Century Peru and Upper Peru (1985).

Thérèse Boyusse Cassagne, La identidad aymara: Aproxi-mación histórica (siglo XV, XVI) (1987).

Olivia Harris, Brooke Larson, and Enrique Tandeter, comp., La Participación indígena en los mercados surandinos: Estrategías y reproducción social, siglos XVI a XX (1987).

Brooke Larson, Colonialism and Agrarian Transformation in Bolivia: Cochabamba, 1150–1900 (1988).

Roger N. Rasnake, Domination and Cultural Resistance: Authority and Power Among an Andean People (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Escobari de Querejazu, Laura. Caciques, yanaconas y extrav-agantes: la sociedad colonial en Charcas s. XVI-XVIII. La Paz: Embajada de España en Bolivia: Plural Editores, 2001.

Gutiérrez Brockington, Lolita. Blacks, Indians, and Spaniards in the Eastern Andes: Reclaiming the Forgotten in Colonial Mizque, 1550–1782. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Mangan, Jane E. Trading Roles: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Urban Economy in Colonial Potosí. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

Serulnikov, Sergio. Subverting Colonial Authority: Challenges to Spanish Rule in Eighteenth-Century Southern Andes. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Zulawski, Ann. They Eat from their Labor: Work and Social Change in Colonial Bolivia. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.

                                        Peter Bakewell

The Colonial Period

views updated May 18 2018

The Colonial Period

The Catholic Church in colonial Latin America is often seen as a monolithic institution. In actual fact there were significant divisions within it. The church was divided internally into two basic parts: the secular clergy and the regular clergy. The regular clergy consisted of all priests, friars, and monks who were members of religious orders. Since membership in a religious order called upon the individual to pursue a special rule of life, regula in Latin, these clerics were called regulars. The secular clergy was made up of the clerics and priests involved in the day-to-day affairs of parish life. They lived out "in the world," saeculum in Latin, from which the term secular derives.

The secular clergy in the New World fell under the administrative control of the Iberian monarchs, under the Patronato Real (in Portuguese Padrado Real) as developed during and immediately following the discovery and conquest. Each order of the regular clergy, on the other hand, had its own internal organization and leadership, directly under the pope.

Both seculars and regulars existed in Iberian and indigenous societies, and both relied on the gifts, alms, and taxes of the Iberians to help subsidize their work among the Indians.


In the first phase of the Spanish and Portuguese settlement of the New World, the regulars played a very important role. In each of the major conquering armies one member of a religious order served as the spiritual director of the expedition; in addition, there were also secular clerics involved in the expeditions. Pope Adrian VI empowered the religious orders to engage in missionary activities with his bull Exponi nobis feciste, known as Omnimoda (1522), which authorized the Franciscans, in particular, to do anything necessary for the conversion of the Indians whenever they were out of the immediate jurisdiction of a bishop (defined as a two-days' ride). Other religious orders eventually received the same or similar powers.

The major effort of conversion fell rather naturally to the religious orders. Structurally they were better suited to the work because they carried with them a sense of institutional direction and oversight, usually arriving in organized groups, normally of twelve, in imitation of the Apostles.

The Iberian powers engaged in an extensive moral debate over the treatment of the natives of the New World. Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican friar, and other outspoken critics, decried the harsh treatment which the conquerors had meted out on the natives. In 1537 Pope Paul III, in his bull Sublimis deus, declared that the natives were fully human and thus were not to be deprived of their freedom or mastery of their possessions. Another camp, manifest in the work of Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, argued that the natives were naturally inferior to the Europeans, and thus force could be used against them. Legal provisions were adopted to protect the natives, although in actual application most of these failed.

In confronting the huge indigenous population, which spoke dozens of different and mutually unintelligible languages, the missionaries had to adopt certain operational rules, as there were too many converts and too few clergy. For instance, in administering the sacrament of baptism, the clergy could not engage in a long and complex catechumenate before admitting the Indians to Christianity. It was far more practical to baptize the masses and concentrate later on their spiritual preparation. Clearly it was not practical to teach all of the Indians Spanish or Portuguese in order to then instruct them in Christianity. Consequently the clergy learned the native languages and preached and indoctrinated in them; as a consequence there are scores of books, mostly catechisms and other doctrinal works, printed in native American languages. Many missionaries concentrated on amassing as much knowledge about the native cultures as possible and in the process produced such works as the Florentine Codex, a twelve-volume encyclopedia of Aztec life, written in the Aztec language, Nahuatl, by a Franciscan, Friar Bernardino de Sahagún. In Peru one finds the legends of Huarochirí collected by the secular priest Francisco de Ávila. Although modern scholars are thrilled to have this wealth of detail about native culture at the time of contact, one must keep in mind the purpose for which it was compiled: to extirpate all vestiges of the pre-Columbian civilization. The need to learn the native languages also produced scores of other books, grammars, and dictionaries of the New World languages, from Floridian Timucua to Chilean Araucanian, from Aymara of Bolivia to Zapotec of Mexico and Tupi of Brazil.

The religious orders were the most active in the early phases of European settlement. The first organized missionary expedition to Mexico, a group of twelve Franciscans, arrived in 1524, led by Friar Martín de Valencia. It was followed in 1526 by twelve Dominicans led by Friar Tomás Ortiz and in 1533 by seven Augustinians under the guidance of Friar Francisco de la Cruz. By 1559 the missionary corps of New Spain had swelled to some 802 religious in some 160 monasteries.

The first missionary efforts in Brazil were conducted principally by Franciscans who accompanied the early voyages of discovery. The first organized missionary effort to Brazil was an expedition of six Jesuits under the leadership of Manuel da Nóbrega in 1544. By the end of the century there were 128 Jesuits active in Brazil. The secular clergy were active in Brazil from a very early date. The first parishes were erected in 1532, and in 1551 the diocese of Brazil was created. The first convent for nuns was not established until 1665, the second in 1735.

In Peru a similar pattern emerged. The Franciscans were among the first missionaries to arrive, along with Dominicans and Mercedarians, shortly following the Conquest. The Franciscan mission was initially led by Fray Marcos de Niza, who came down from Mexico with a small expedition but apparently returned home upon reaching what is southern Panama. In 1534–1535 the Franciscans established monasteries in Quito and in Los Reyes (modern-day Lima). In 1540 twelve Dominicans, the second expedition organized by the order, arrived under the leadership of Friar Francisco Toscano. The first Mercedarians appeared in Lima in 1535, and by 1540 they had established four monasteries, in Lima, San Miguel de Piura, Cuzco, and Guamanga.

Although active in Mexico, the Augustinians did not participate in the early missions in Peru. The Mercedarians arrived in Mexico in the late sixteenth century. In 1593 they established a college and a novitiate under the direction of the Guatemalan province. It was not until 1619 that the Mercedarians established an independent Mexican province. In the mid-sixteenth century the Jesuits became active throughout Hispanic America.


The first dioceses were erected in the Caribbean in 1511, including Santo Domingo, Cuba, Concepción, and Puerto Rico. On the mainland the first diocese, called Carola, was founded in 1519 and inspired by the ongoing conquest of the Aztecs. Following the confusion of the Conquest, the diocese was resurrected as Tlaxcala in 1526. The seat of the diocese later moved to the Spanish city of Puebla de los Ángeles, and thus the diocese is known variously as Tlaxcala, Puebla, or Tlaxcala-Puebla. The diocese of Mexico was erected in 1530 with Friar Juan de Zumárraga as first bishop. In South America, the diocese of Cuzco was the first to be erected, in 1537, with Vicente de Valverde, a Dominican and chaplain to Pizarro, as first bishop. Lima was founded in 1541. Both Mexico and Lima became archbishoprics in 1546, along with Santo Domingo.

The church in the Hispanic Americas was divided into three provinces, under the three archdioceses. Each of the three archdioceses had a number of suffragan, or subject, dioceses. The Province of Santo Domingo included all the dioceses erected in the Caribbean. The Province of Mexico included all the dioceses of Mexico, Central America, and the Philippines, until 1595, when Manila was elevated to an archdiocese. Later, in 1743 Guatemala became an archdiocese. The Province of Peru included all of South America. In 1564 Santa Fe de Bogotá became an archdiocese, controlling the northern part of the continent and Panama. In 1609, La Plata (modern-day Sucre, Bolivia) was elevated to an archdiocese.

The Portuguese placed all of their overseas possessions into one ecclesiastical province, centered in Funchal, on the island of Madeira. In 1551 the various territories within Brazil were placed under the administrative control of the newly created bishopric of Salvador da Bahia. In 1676 Bahia was made an archdiocese and Rio de Janeiro and Pernambuco were made suffragan dioceses. The African dioceses of São Tomé and Angola were also placed under the administrative control of the archbishop of Bahia. The following year Maranhão became a diocese, followed in 1719 by Pará, and in 1745 São Paulo and Mariana (Minas Gerais).

The secular clergy was organized under the authority of the local bishop; clerics were assigned to the cathedral, to provide it with ecclesiastical staff and to assist the bishop in his administration of the diocese. These clerics were collectively known as the cathedral chapter, or cabildo eclesiástico, which had a maximum of twenty-seven clerics, including five dignitaries, ten canons, six racioneros, and six medio-racioneros. The dignitaries, dean, archdeacon, chantre (precentor), maestrescuelas (schoolmaster), and treasurer, all received the honorific title don, and theoretically oversaw specific areas of the church's life. The canons and racioneros both participated in the daily round of religious observations. All these functionaries received stipends from the ecclesiastical tax, the tithe. The terms racionero and medio-racionero signify that these clerics received either a full or half ration from the tithe.

The organization of the cathedral chapters in Brazil was very similar to that in Spanish America. Yet in addition to the structure seen in the Hispanic world, the Brazilian church was also divided into prelacies. There were territories within established dioceses, which functioned as proto-dioceses. For example, in 1575 the Prelacy of Rio de Janeiro was created by Pope Gregory XIII. The territory was fully subject to the bishop of Bahia, but had its own local prelate. The prelate, often called a vicar, exercised most of the functions of the bishop for the southern territories of Brazil. At the same time a prelacy was created for the far north, in Pernambuco. Both would become independent dioceses in 1676.

The parish priest might fulfill several obligations. His principal responsibility was the spiritual cure of souls. If he enjoyed an income guaranteed by the crown or by some other patron, he would be the beneficiary of that stipend, or beneficiado, signifying that he held his office for life. If he served as an ecclesiastical judge, whose power emanated from the bishop, the ordinary ecclesiastical judge of the diocese, he would be known as a vicario.


Just as the secular clergy was divided into dioceses and grouped into provinces, so, too, was the regular clergy divided into provinces. In Mexico, the Franciscans had two. The Province of the Santo Evangelio de México encompassed the central region of the colony, mostly the dioceses of Puebla and Mexico; the Discalced Franciscans administered the Province of San Pedro y San Pablo in the western area, in the dioceses of Michoacán and Guadalajara. The Augustinians likewise had two provinces: in the west was the Province of San Nicolás Tolentino, and in the central zone was the Province of the Santísimo Nombre de Jesús. The Dominicans had a province in the central area, the Province of Santiago. In the south, in the dioceses of Oaxaca and Chiapas, there was another Dominican province, that of San Hipólito. Thus, in each instance the orders established one province in the central area and another in a more distant region. As the church developed, additional provinces were added, especially in Central America.

Likewise in South America the orders divided into provinces. The Dominicans had the Province of San Juan Bautista, serving Peru; the Province of Santa Catalina Mártir for Quito and Popayan; and the Province of San Lorenzo Mártir for Upper Peru and Río de la Plata. The Franciscans had the Province of the Twelve Apostles for Peru, the Province of San Francisco for Quito, the Province of La Santísima Trinidad for Chile, the Province of San Antonio for Upper Peru, and the Province of Santa Fe for Bogotá. Similarly the Mercedarians and Augustinians divided the region into their own provinces.

Several of the religious orders were active in Brazil. The Jesuits and the Franciscans had the longest history in the region, dating from the first decades of Portuguese occupation. Each order had one province to administer their activities in Brazil. In the seventeenth century the Benedictines, Carmelites, and Trinitarians established missions, convents, and monasteries. Other orders had a smaller presence, including the Capuchins, the Discalced Carmelites, and the Oratorians. The Mercedarians and Augustinians arrived only in the eighteenth century.


In addition to providing for the spiritual needs of the faithful, the church took an active role in education. While the Dominicans had established some grammar schools, as had the Franciscans, education in Ibero-America came to be dominated by the Jesuits. Three universities were founded in the mid-sixteenth century in Santo Domingo, Mexico, Peru. Most dioceses established seminaries for the secular clergy in the seventeenth century, although these relied heavily on the Jesuits.

In Brazil the Jesuits were also at the forefront of higher education. The Jesuit colleges in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro were the first authorized to grant degrees and prepare students for further study at the University of Coimbra, in Portugal. Later in the colonial period other schools were founded by the Jesuits, Oratorians, and local bishops, yet none was ever granted the title of university.

The church also acted as a bank. In general, colonial Hispanic and Portuguese America was cash poor. Many transactions relied on credit. The principal source of institutional credit was the church. Through the institution of pious works, and specifically chantries, Capellanías, the church acquired significant amounts of cash which had to be loaned at interest to generate more income. The church only loaned money when real estate was used as collateral. The loan took the form of a mortgage or lien. The important difference was that the church did not want, or expect, the loan to be paid off or the mortgage amortized. The church needed the constant income to pay for her various ministries and projects. Thus the impositions became nearly perpetual. If an individual lacked cash but still wished to found a capellanía, he could do one of two things: he could give real estate to the church, which would then rent or sell the property to generate the needed income; or he could give part of a piece of property or voluntarily impose a lien on a free and clear property and begin to pay the interest, thereby donating money which he did not actually possess. This latter method provided the colonial economy with a means of capital formation.

The secular clergy and religious orders acquired large tracts of land. By far the leader in this regard was the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The religious orders depended on the rents and revenues generated by rural and urban property for their long-term sustenance. The only order to eschew this practice was the Franciscans. The Franciscans found that the possession of property was antithetical to their ideal of apostolic poverty. Nevertheless, when taken as a whole, the lands held by the church constituted a significant portion, some estimates have even placed it as high as a third, of the arable agricultural land of the Ibero-American colonies.


As the religious orders accepted sons of the local elite, a significant change occurred in their social composition. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, membership in the religious orders was evenly divided among those born in Europe (peninsulars) and those born in the New World (Creoles). As the orders were largely self-governing on the local level, the social division between peninsulars and creoles led to factionalism whenever elections were held. In order to ameliorate the effects of this division, a system in which control would alternate between the two factions was developed. This system, the alternativa, eventually was adopted throughout most of the religious orders and also came to include the European-born Spaniards who had entered the orders in the New World.

In the seventeenth century there were many conflicts between the secular and regular clergy. In 1574 Phillip II of Spain had decreed that all parishes would eventually be subject to the control of the seculars, but the indigenous population was so large and the clerical population still so small, that it was necessary to keep the regulars in the parishes. The process through which parishes passed from the regular to the secular clergy was usually a bitter one and did not end until the 1740s.

The second area of conflict between the seculars and regulars concerned the payment of the tithe. The regular clergy claimed to be exempt from payment, since the church should not rightly tax itself. On the other hand the local bishops felt that as long as the religious orders did not recognize the bishop's supervisory power over their actions in the parishes, the orders were not truly subject to the bishop. Therefore, they had to pay the tithe. This conflict came to a head in the diocese of Puebla, in New Spain, during the episcopacy of don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza (d. 1659), when the Jesuits refused to tithe. Eventually the religious orders accepted both the duty to tithe and to subjugate themselves to the local bishop.


What had been a series of conflicts between the seculars and the regulars in the seventeenth century turned into an assault by the monarch on ecclesiastical privilege in the eighteenth century. The monarch favored the seculars, since under the patronato real he controlled the seculars far more completely. Consequently the monarch attempted to limit the independent action of the regulars or to place them firmly under the control of local bishops. There were several decrees of the early eighteenth century which placed limits on the construction of new monasteries, moratoria on entrance into the religious orders, and limits on bequests to the orders. This pattern came to a dramatic conclusion in 1767, when the crown expelled the Jesuits from the New World. (They had been expelled from Brazil in 1759–1760.) While the expulsion of the Jesuits responded to many concerns emanating from Europe, it can clearly be seen as part of a general royal attempt to bring the orders under royal authority.

The fourth provincial council of Mexico (1771) and the sixth provincial council of Peru (1772) clearly recognized the monarch's rights and privileges as patron of the church and accorded him all deference and honor, in essence making him the pope for the New World. The Mexican decrees were so excessively favorable to the monarch that they were somewhat of an embarrassment in Madrid and received neither royal nor papal approval.

The pattern of increasing royal control over the church culminated in the early nineteenth century. In 1804 the monarch called in all of the loans, liens, and mortgages extended by the church. In a desire for more capital the crown demanded the amortization of the loans and promised to pay the church the annual interest based on royal bonds, or juros. In 1812, in the wake of the French invasion of Spain and the flush of liberal power, the ecclesiastical fuero, the right of clerics to have their legal cases heard in church courts, was abolished—an act that clearly defined the clergy as just another royal bureaucracy.

See alsoAnticlericalism; Augustinians; Capellanía: Dominicans; Franciscans; Mercedarians.


Mariano Cuevas, Historia de la iglesia en México, 5 vols. (1921–1928).

Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (1949).

Antonine Tibesar, Franciscan Beginnings in Colonial Peru (1953).

Rubén Vargas Ugarte, Historia de la iglesia en el Perú, vols. 1 and 2 (1953–1959).

Leon Lopetegui and Antonio De Egaña, Historia de la iglesia en la América española, 2 vols. (1965–1966).

Robert Ricard, The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico (1966).

Michael P. Costeloe, Church Wealth in Mexico, 1800–1856 (1967).

Nancy M. Farriss, Crown and Clergy in Colonial Mexico, 1759–1821 (1968).

Eduardo Hoornaert et al., História da igreja no Brasil (1977).

John F. Schwaller, Origins of Church Wealth in Mexico (1985) and Church and Clergy in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (1987).

Arlindo Rubert, Historia de la iglesia en Brasil (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Brading, D. A. Church and State in Bourbon Mexico: The Diocese of Michoacán, 1749–1810. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Brading, D. A. First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492–1867. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Burns, Kathryn. Colonial Habits: Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Dean, Carolyn. Inka Bodies and the Body of Christ: Corpus Christi in Colonial Cuzco, Peru. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Díaz, María Elena. The Virgin, the King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre: Negotiating Freedom in Colonial Cuba, 1670–1780. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Mills, Kenneth. Idolatry and Its Enemies: Colonial Andean Religion and Extirpation, 1640–1750. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Peñafort, Luisa Zahino. Iglesia y sociedad en México, 1765–1800: Tradición, reforma y reacciones. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1996.

Schwaller, John F. The Church in Colonial Latin America. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Books, 2000.

Souza, Laura de Mello e. The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross: Witchcraft, Slavery, and Popular Religion in Colonial Brazil. Trans. Diane Grosklaus Whitty. Austin: University of Texas Press, Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, 2003.

Taylor, William B. Magistrates of the Sacred: Priests and Parishioners in Eighteenth-Century Mexico. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Vainfas, Ronaldo. A heresia dos índios: Catolicismo e rebeldia no Brasil colonial. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1995.

                                                 Jeffrey Klaiber

The Colonial Period

views updated Jun 11 2018

The Colonial Period

In the territory that became Spanish Paraguay at the time of the Conquest lived 300,000 Native Americans, called Guaranis by the Spaniards, in fourteen Guarás, or regional and ethnic groups. Guaranis were part of the Tupi-Guarani linguistic family and were culturally similar to the Brazilian Tupinamba. Horticulturists who grew manioc, sweet potatoes, maize, and other crops on garden plots, they lived in villages of 1,000 to 3,000 people. They traced descent patrilineally but practiced matrilocalism, that is, couples settled near the wife's family. Their political organization was a chieftainship based on extended families. In the 1530s and 1540s, Guarani traditions of matrilocalism and of formalizing alliances by exchanging women provided the basis for an alliance between Guaranis and Spanish settlers, who brought few women to the upper Río de la Plata. Guarani caciques gave their daughters and nieces to Spaniards in order to formalize Guarani acceptance of Spanish tools, weapons, and military protection, which the Guaranis desired. Spaniards accepted most women as concubines, not wives, but offspring of these unions were the first products of the biological and cultural mixing that gave birth to the modern Paraguayan population.

Early European explorers in the Río de la Plata included Juan Díaz De Solís and Sebastian Cabot. The European founders of Paraguay, however, were the survivors of the expedition led by Pedro de Mendoza in 1535 to Buenos Aires. After indigenous resistance drove Mendoza's subordinates north to Paraguay in 1537, Carios, Guaranis of central Paraguay, befriended Juan de Salazar y Espinosa, who founded the fort of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Domingo Martínez de Irala dominated public life in Paraguay's early years. He oversaw the Spanish retreat from Buenos Aires and the founding of the Asunción cabildo (city council) in 1541; participated in the overthrow and exile in 1545 of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca; and by fathering and recognizing numerous mestizo children, symbolized the ethnic fusion that begat Paraguayans. In 1556 he set a pattern for labor and hierarchy by awarding in encomienda 27,000 tributary Guarani men to 300 Spaniards. The Indians' service ensured Spanish domination.

The Asunción cabildo dominated local affairs. It was controlled by the landowners and encomenderos, who often ran the province, at times overruling the royally appointed governor, until the late colonial years. The cabildo was the arena for the turbulent politics of the province of Paraguay. After the mid-1500s, when trans-Chaco Spanish explorers and Guarani auxiliaries gave up their unsuccessful quest for wealth in Upper Peru, members of the Paraguayan elite lived part of the year on rural estates that exploited Guarani labor and part of the year in Asunción. Guaranis mostly lived in segregated towns and commuted to work on Spanish properties. Spaniards and Guaranis together fought common enemies along the Río Paraguay and in the Gran Chaco. That children of conquerors spoke not Spanish but Guarani at home contributed to the widespread use of the Guarani language, still an integral part of the Paraguayan identity in the 1990s.

Although Paraguay is often identified with the Jesuits, the earliest religious establishments in the province were those of Mercedarians, Jeronymites, and Dominicans. Franciscans founded the first Paraguayan missions. Mission towns, such as Yaguarón, Altos, Tobatí, and Atyrá in the 1500s and Caazapá and Yuty in the 1600s, were founded by Franciscans and Guaranis, and they endured in the 1990s. The Guaranis slowly converted to Catholicism. Outwardly they accepted Catholic ritual quickly, but privately they worshipped in Guarani ways for many decades, as they did in Jesuit missions later.

In Asunción, education for male children of the European elite was entirely by religious masters. Boys from privileged families often obtained their early education from tutors and then attended Franciscan, Mercedarian, and later Jesuit secondary schools. Because Paraguay never had its own institution of higher education, fortunate Paraguayan youths attended the University of Córdoba in what is now Argentina. Education for the Guaranis included instruction in basic literacy for a few and in Catholic religion for the many.

Jesuits first arrived in Asunción in 1588 and began missionary work among the Guaranis in 1609. Governed from Córdoba del Tucumán, the Jesuit province of Paraguay contained only ten of the thirty-two Guarani missions within the boundaries of the present Republic of Paraguay, and most of them avoided colonists and royally appointed bishops and governors as much as they could. Other Jesuit enterprises in colonial Paraguay included a church in Asunción and a colegio, or Jesuit chapter house, where many of the boys of the elite were educated. Jesuits also maintained the profitable Paraguarí estate, where in the early 1730s they grazed 30,000 cattle. Produce from this ranch was exchanged in the beef-scarce and largely moneyless province for tobacco and sugar. Jesuit enterprises competed with those of the merchants of Asunción, over whom Jesuits enjoyed several advantages. Spanish landowners, and later Spanish-Portuguese forces, attempted to overthrow and partition the Jesuits' claim to indigenous labor. Only in 1767, when the Jesuits were expelled, did such competition cease.

Colonial Paraguayans faced hostile powers from all sides. From Guaranis, Spanish settlers inherited conflict with Payaguás on the Río Paraguay and from Abipones, Mocobís, and Tobas from the southwestern Chaco. From the north, attacks of the Mbayás pushed back the frontiers of the province in the later 1600s. Hostilities also came from Brazil. In the 1600s, paulistas (slave hunters of São Paulo), who coveted Guarani labor, and in the 1700s crown-sponsored Portuguese efforts threatened Paraguay. Brazilian raids in the 1620s and 1630s that desolated Jesuit missions also forced Hispanicized settlers to abandon Guairá, including Ciudad Real and old Villa Rica. Violent conflicts between Paraguayans and Brazilians continued up to the War of the Triple Alliance in the 1860s.

Paraguayan political culture was turbulent, but its rebelliousness resembled that of other Spanish frontier areas. Great turmoil occurred in the 1540s and 1550s among rival conquerors, during the anti-Jesuit uprising led by Bishop Bernardino de Cárdenas in the 1640s and in similarly motivated upheavals led by José de Antequera y Castro in the 1720s and by Paraguayan comuneros in the 1730s. This unrest did not express disloyalty to the crown, only violent politics. Until the creation of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in 1776, Paraguay was far away from superior authorities, specifically, the viceroy in Lima and the Audiencia of Charcas. This distance and neglect encouraged disputes, which normally originated with the men who dominated the municipal council of the capital. They sought special favors and freedom from royal controls, especially wishing to avoid royal laws such as the 1612 Ordinances of Francisco de Alfaro, regulating native labor. The Paraguayan elite also sought lower taxes and the abolition of the privileges that the crown had awarded to competitors. Paraguayans opposed the Jesuit mission province's light tax burden and monopoly of Guarani labor. They also objected to the privileges enjoyed by the city of Santa Fe, which collected taxes on Paraguayan exports to support the war of the santafecinos against the indigenous peoples.

The economy of Paraguay for two centuries was largely one of subsistence. Crops included such essential commodities as manioc, sweet potatoes, maize, wheat, citrus fruits, tobacco, and sugar. Paraguayans always raised livestock, although until the last colonial decades, cattle and horses were often in short supply, because the climate, plants, and insects were more hostile to quadrupeds in Paraguay than farther south. In the capital, numerous artisans plied their trades, and in the interior, the Guarani villages of both Jesuit and civil provinces specialized in various crafts.

Until the last decades of the colony, very little money found its way to Paraguay, and barter was the normal means of exchange. Most Paraguayans even paid taxes in kind.

What money there was, chiefly to purchase imported European merchandise, at first came from the exports of yerba maté (Ilex paraguayensis), a tea that became popular as far away as Peru. This trade was modest until the last colonial decades, when it expanded rapidly. Specie also came to Paraguay from contraband trade in silver in the 1600s and in tobacco in the 1700s, which Paraguay's border location and crown monopolies encouraged. Jesuits cultivated yerba maté on their own plantations, and these leaves fetched the highest prices. Paraguayan merchants, however, continued to obtain the product from the wild, usually with paid mestizo labor.

In the late colonial years, the Paraguayan economy grew spectacularly, and the supply of money increased. Exports of yerba maté multiplied. Paraguayans also grew tobacco for the royal monopoly, and they exported cattle products, especially second-quality hides, and timber products. As river commerce increased, Asunción became an important regional center of shipbuilding.

Few European immigrants came to Paraguay until the late 1700s, when merchants of Spanish birth began to direct local affairs. Independence in Paraguay came about after citizens in Buenos Aires deposed the viceroy in 1810 and tried to extend their control to Paraguay, where the spirit of localism was strong. Most Paraguayans resented the pretensions of the port city and prepared to resist Argentine demands by force. At Paraguarí on 15 January 1811, Paraguayans routed the porteño army of Manuel Belgrano. On 14 and 15 May 1811, led by Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, Captain Pedro Juan Caballero, and others, Paraguayans overthrew Bernardo de Velasco, the last Spanish governor. They declared independence on 12 October 1813.

See alsoAsunción; Comunero Revolt (Paraguay, 1730–1735); Guarani Indians; Mendoza, Pedro de.


Martin Dobrizhoffer, An Account of the Abipones: An Equestrian People of Paraguay, 3 vols., translated by Sara Coleridge (1822; repr. in 1 vol. 1970).

Alfred Métraux, "The Guarani," in Handbook of South American Indians, vol. 3, edited by Julian H. Steward (1948).

Harris Gaylord Warren, Paraguay: An Informal History (1949).

Elman R. Service, "The Encomienda in Paraguay," in Hispanic American Historical Review 31, no. 2 (1951): 230-252.

Elman R. Service, Spanish-Guarani Relations in Early Colonial Paraguay (1954; repr. 1971).

Philip Raine, Paraguay (1956).

Carlos Zubizarreta, Historia de mi ciudad (1964).

José L. Mora Mérida, Historia social del Paraguay, 1600–1650 (1973).

Philip Caraman, The Lost Paradise: The Jesuit Republic in South America (1976).

Adalberto López, The Revolt of the Comuneros, 1721–1735: A Study in the Colonial History of Paraguay (1976).

Branislava Susnik, Los aborigenes del Paraguay, 7 vols. (1978–1987).

James Schofield Saeger, "Survival and Abolition: The Eighteenth-Century Paraguayan Encomienda," in The Americas: A Quarterly Review of Inter-American Cultural History 38, no. 1 (1981): 59-85.

Jerry W. Cooney, Economía y sociedad en la intendencia del Paraguay (1990).

Thomas Whigham, The Politics of River Trade: Tradition and Development in the Upper Plata, 1780–1877 (1991).

Additional Bibliography

Acevedo, Edberto Oscar. La Intendencia del Paraguay en el Virreinato del Río de la Plata. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Ciudad Argentina, 1996.

Boccia Romañach, Alfredo. Esclavitud en el Paraguay: Vida cotidiana del esclavo en las Indias Meridionales. Asunción, Paraguay: Centro UNESCO Asunción: Servilibro, 2004.

Ganson, Barbara Anne. The Guaraní under Spanish Rule in the Río de la Plata. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Quevedo, Roberto, Margarita Durán Estragó, and Alberto Duarte, eds. Actas capitulares y documentos del Cabildo de Asunción del Paraguay, Siglo XVI. Asunción, Paraguay: Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Asunción, 2001.

Rivarola Paoli, Juan Bautista. La Real Hacienda: La fisca-lidad colonial, siglos XVI al XIX. Asunción, Paraguay: Ediciones y Arte, 2005.

Techo, Nicolás del. Historia de la provincia del Paraguay de la compañía de Jesús. Translated from Latin into Spanish by Manuel Serrano y Sanz. Asunción, Paraguay: Centro de Estudos Paraguayas Antonio Guasch: FONDEC, 2005.

                                   James Schofield Saeger

The Colonial Period

views updated Jun 27 2018


The development of the law in the thirteen American colonies between 1620 and 1776 was marked by the willingness of the colonists to apply elements of English common law and to devise new, and often simpler, ways of handling legal matters. Because many of the colonial settlements were geographically isolated, the law varied from place to place, and local traditions, customs, religious beliefs, and economic conditions often played major roles in shaping the law.

The Pilgrims who left England in 1620 to settle in Massachusetts were escaping from religious intolerance and persecution. Their religious beliefs, rooted in a strict version of Protestantism, led them to create a government that was dominated by the church leadership. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, Massachusetts had become a more heterogeneous and secular society with a growing commercial class that created a demand for trained lawyers and judges.

Other colonies were shaped by different traditions. In Pennsylvania the Quakers played a decisive role in the development of law and social arrangements. In the southern colonies, law became an instrument to support the institution of slavery. Laws in slaveholding colonies presumed that slaves were chattel (personal property) rather than human beings.

The Colonial Period

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The Colonial Period