Notes on Spanish Imperial Defense of Latin America (revised)
© 2001 Donald J. Mabry
(1) Attempts at directed change instituted by the government in Spain
(2) non-intentional change because of outside influences.
After Philip II, the monarchs were progressively worse until Philip V, the first of the
Bourbon kings of Spain. Philip was the grandson of Louis XIV of France and had to win the
War of the Spanish Succession (1700-1713) to consolidate his position. The war cost
the Bourbons in territory and treasure. They brought new vigor and sanity to executive office. Philip V (1700-46)
and Ferdinand VI (1746-1759) were pretty good but Charles III (1759-1788) was very good,
an enlightened despot. There was a lot of modernization in the economic and intellectual
fields. Charles IV (1788-1808) was a poor king whose wife's paramour, Godoy, had too
much influence. Ferdinand VII (1808-1833) was no idiot but he was a poor king.
There was a stream of intelligent and systematic examination of the system in the 18th
century, reflecting the influence of the Enlightenment. There was a growth of belief in rationalism, the possibility of solving
problems through reason. There were two periods of reform: (1700-59) and
Charles III. The first two Bourbon monarchs had a hard time getting people to think about
problems. Thus, the first two kings were preparatory. Most of the drastic reforms
came quite late, which is one of the reasons why they didn't get much done. Toward the end
of the period, there was the impulse from the "Age of Revolution." Both had some influence
on liberal intellectuals in America but frightened moderate reformers in Spain.
international wars were a hindrance to reform. They cost money and drove the Spanish
government into and near bankruptcy many times. The war costs forced Spain to do things
that she didn't want to do, such as openly allowing foreign trade with America.
The reforms may also help cause the independence movement movements
of the 19th century. Historical causation is very hard to determine with accuracy.
- ministerial responsibility as against conciliar form of government. Minister of Indies
instead of Council of Indies. French idea, partial change
- Council of the Indies
- Casa de Contratación
- administrative districts in America--multiplication, intendenacy system tried in Spain
- trading system
- Miscellany of other economic by government
- military, defense, and expansion
- other miscellaneous--expulsion of the Jesuits important
Most the administrative changes came in reign of Charles III. Centralization,
simplification and an effort at efficiency were hallmarks. They were the result of (1) discussions of
intellectuals in Spain (2) inspections sent for that purpose. Jorge Juan and Antonio de
Ulloa, A Voyage to South America (1749), noted creole dissatisfaction
with Spanish government. Bernardo de Gálvez, a visitador, noted problems
Council of the Indies. In 1715, Crown changed it to the Minister of Indies but it was
not Charles III that there was an independent, strong ministry. It was stripped of
almost all functions except judicial.
(3) Casa de Contratación was moved to Cadiz from Sevilla. Cadiz had been in fact a
partner in the system. Its functions were reduced. Some transferred to the Ministry of the
Indies. Crown interested in centralization.
(4) intendancy system. It took a long time to extend it to America. It took
the place of the administrative subdivisions of the audiencia. It was given most of the functions of the oficiales
reales. The aims were to improve (1) defense (2) revenue, including economic production. Intendant echelons consisted of Intendant, partidos (subdelegados), and
superintendent in big places such as Lima and Mexico City. Intendants were rivals to the
viceroys. They were made standard for America but they never solved the problem of conflict of authority.
After the British captured Havana in 1762 during the 7 Years War,
the Crown installed an intendent there in 1764 as a defensive measure.
The Crown tried them in various places in the America. Put them all over. Peru
(1784) eight intendancies and about fifty-two partidos. Ordenances de Intendantes
are sources of information on conditions and the thinking of the Crown. Reduced the powers
of the cabildo. We don't know the effects of this move. We do know that the system didn't
work a great revolution in America. Some criollos felt threatened by intendent system.
Military districts or comandancias generales (general commands)
created. An example was along the northern borders of New Spain where the Crown created
the provincias internas. In 1751, in Panama, abolition of the audiencia and the
creation of comandancia general of the mainland (Tierra Firme). Panama was critically
important from the military viewpoint. Prompted, in part, by Admiral Vernon's attack on
Cartagena in 1740. Comandancia generales were military governments.
Addition of new district occurred because of growing population,
shifting population, and new problems.
New Viceroys created in 1717 in New Granada (northern South America)
and 1776 in La Plata (present-day Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia). The move
helped. Mid-18th century, La Plata was growing rapidly and faced threats from Portuguese
New captaincies-general were created in Venezuela (1761), Cuba
(1777), and Chile.
There was a thorough discussion of the contraband problem. The
system was porous as a sponge. Gave up the flota system and increased the number of
individual ships allowed to sail. Monopoly companies but didn't work very well. Single
most important change was comercio 1ibre (free trade). Has long history. Done in a series
of steps. Began under Charles III in 1765. Allowed major Spanish ports to trade with the
majority of Antillean ports with minimum regulations and formalities. Gradually extended
until existed within the Empire. In 1789, this policy was extended to New Spain. It took
the Crown so long to make up its mind!
Comercio libre was the clearest success of all the reforms. An
increase of trade within the Empire occurred at the same time as the institution of
comercio libre. Was there a causal relationship? What about smuggling? We only know that
there was an increase in trade.
Taxation changes. We don't know the effect on economic activity.
Other administrative changes included the abolition of the Casa
de Contratación in 1790 and an increased number of consulados in the late 18th
The militia system was created under Charles III. When it was first
organized, anybody could be in the ranks but officers were criollos. The criollos liked
it. It gave them some prestige. Criollos being privileged officers played an undoubted
role in stimulating a sense of Americanism. Spanish never liked doing anything which would
stimulate Americanism. The militias were, at first, very ineffective
The Jesuits were expelled for political reasons. They were seen as a threat to the state.
The rationalists didn't like the Jesuits, accusing them of obscurantism, but this wasn't the
reason they were expelled. The government thought they blocked what Crown wanted to do. It
was a startling administrative change.
Two general views on character and effect of those changes: (1) they were real reforms,
innovative, and given decent opportunity, they might have worked in that they would have
helped to continue empire longer. (2) They were nothing more than tinkering. This is the
prevalent view of scholars for the past 100 years.
Economic change in the late colonial period
Not much technological innovation in production. This was a small
source of criollo dissatisfaction. Trade in 1768 was 4 million pesos per annum. By 1800,
it was 6-8 million so it had grown only 3% or less per year.
The population increasing because, to a large degree, economic
improvement. Wartime activity seemed to help Spanish America. Sugar in Cuba and cattle in
Argentina were late developments with important political implications.
Enlightenment involved the belief that reason could be used to achieve progress. The
influence of Benjamin Franklin was great.
Jerónimo Feijóo did a lot of his work in the first half of the 18th. He climatized
some of the Enlightenment ideas to the Spanish environment; to make them acceptable to
Spain. People such as Feijóo hid the foreign origins of the ideas, couching them in
Spanish terms. He was a vehicle of the Enlightenment into Spain and Spanish America.
José María Campomanes and Gaspar de Jovellanos were examples of Enlightenment men in
office. José Celestino Mutis was a Spanish botanist who worked in New Granada, leading
the Royal Botanical Expedition to America. Taught a group of Colombians to observe the
natural environment closely.
Spanish crown was interested in the scientific and technological work of the
Enlightenment and thought it could keep out new political and social ideas. The French
Revolution the turning point; it so scared the Crown that the acquisition of new ideas was
discouraged as being un-Spanish.
Some sixty Sociedades Económicas.del Amigos del País were formed in Spain between
1775 and independence and fourteen in Spanish America in 1783-1819. They were apolitical
but their focus on local conditions and how to improve the economy inevitably led to some
dissatisfaction with the status quo. In America, the work of the Societies encouraged
Americanism as their studies made criollos realize that they didn=t need Spain.
Inquisition after 1789 especially became more and more political. There were
anachronistic institutions which were recognized as such.
Spain was more dubious about the Societies in America than Spain.
J. T. Lanning in writing about the introduction of new ideas, said that these ideas
were taken in under all sorts of disguises. They didn=t
state the source--that they were from Voltaire,
Franklin, and Rousseau, etc. By the end of the colonial period, the ideas were transferred
immediately. However, there were still barriers.
Crown displeased with the Societies=
examination of local problems, especially since they did it without supervision.
Colonial newspapers contributed to a sense of Americanism. They were a focus for a
discussion of the problems of isolation. They didn=t
have people comparable to Campomanes and Jovellanos Didn=t
have printed materials dealing with America. A few little ephemeral news sheets were
printed in the early 18th century such as the Gazeta de Guatemala???.
But in late 1780s, in the 1790s and in the first two decades of the 19th
century, there were more. Creole and Enlightenment oriented, printed for a considerable
period of time. Some became controversial. One example was the Mercurio Peruano
which was published for four years in the 1790. It was a creole publication sponsored by
the local Society members and enlightenment members. A friar, just arrived from the
Philippines, criticized Peru and criollos. The Mercurio Peruano replied and engaged
in debate with the pro-Spanish paper. Gazeta de Guatemala.
During the French Revolution, the Crown suspended publication because of a "paper
The printer replied that it was another attempt to shut up consideration of new ideas.
Majority of the literate population was indifferent or opposed to new ideas. It is
possible, however, that a lot just said nothing,
Crown didn=t like the aggregation of power in
private groups, especially if they engaged in criticism.
The Gaceta de Guatemala held an essay contest on the question of whether Indians should
wear Spanish clothing. Articles written by Sociedad members. Concerned that encouraging
the Indians to dress like Spaniards might encourage integration, which "white@
In the latter part of the 18th century, colonials got pretty excited about the
argument that men couldn't live in the tropics,
that the American climate and diet caused America to be a cultural desert. Criollos
resented that assertion [rightfully, since it is scientifically wrong].
Lots of work has been done on this subject and there are plenty of records. It is
difficult hard to find records that show why or how people thought. How many tumults? A
lot. What does it mean? Focusing on tumults creates a biased understanding of life. People
tend to report excitement not things that are calm. Or upheavals. Control of the upper
class was very firm. Don=t get attempted
revolutions. Tumults were riots. There was no pattern but in late colonial period one does
begin to see something more closely approaching a pattern. More, bigger, and with a high
frequency. Why? Precursors acted on the basis of these.
Some of these late colonial tumults were:
Yucatan Indians created a kingship as a result of complaints, trying to get away from
the tribute system, the system of justice, and the Christian church.
In Paraguay there was the revolt of the comuneros, townsmen revolting against the
centralization of authority.
In the Colombian province of Socorro in 1781, there was a protest against new taxes and
the collection practices of the visitador. The criollo leaders, aided by mestizos,
threw out the Spanish officials and elected a junta. They then marched to Bogotá to oust
the governor but they dispersed after the archbishop persuaded them that reforms would be
made. Then the Crown jailed some of the leaders and sought out other radicals.
Tupac Amarú II, born José Gabriel Condorcanqui, was an educated Indian and direct
descendant of the Inca Tupac Amarú, was educated by Jesuits. He opposed the suppression
of the Indians. When new taxes were imposed, he seized a corregidor and executed
him. He adopted the name Tupac Amarú and called upon Indians, mestizos, zambos, criollos,
and slaves to join him in driving the Spanish out. The rebellion lasted from 1780 to 1783.
The upper class (Spanish and Indian) closed ranks as well as most mestizos. The Spaniards
feared a race war. He was caught, mutilated, and executed in 1781, his body parts
displayed in various towns to discourage possible rebellion. His Indian followers
continued the bloody rebellion until finally defeated.
Societies like these must breed extreme cruelty among ruling class. They ordered the
destruction of the Indian past. They discouraged the wearing of Indian dress, for example.
They tried to destroy a sense of Indian consciousness. Indians tended to associate the
suppression of their revolts with the peninsulares, not the criollos, and thus tended to
support the criollos during the wars of independence.
Lots written, especially in Spanish, on the subject. They helped to bring about
independence but they didn=t play much of a role
themselves. Antonio Nariño in Bogotá, Colombia, influenced by the Enlightenment, printed
a copy of The Rights of Man in Spanish in 1794. He started giving them away, and was
caught. He was convicted. He escaped and distributed them again. Caught and escaped again.
His work is known in many places.
Francisco Javier Eugenio de Santa Cruz y Espejo deserves to be better known. He was a
casta from a poor family but he managed to go to a university in Quito. In the late
colonial period., he wrote things about his objections to the way things were done.
Laughed at the clergy and civil authority. He got mixed up with the local Economic Society
and published a periodical. It was the springtime of Quito. He was arrested and imprisoned
for his actions.
Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan born of a Spanish father, went to Spain at the age
of 21 and became an army officer. He soon was reading the works of the philosophes of the
Enlightenment and became a radical. He went to the West Indies in 1780. Perhaps the fact
that he was falsely accused of smuggling and treasonable behavior, he fled to the United
States in 1783. Although subsequently exonerated by the Consejo de los Indias, he sought
the political independence of Spanish America. He consulted with Americans, Brits,
Frenchmen, exiles, in fact anyone who would listen and might be interested in helping.
Leaving Europe in 1805 after more than twenty years in exile, he went back to the United
States. In February 1806, he sailed on the Leander , picking up two more ships in
Santo Domingo, and arrived in Venezuela where his small fleet was met by the Spanish, who
captured two oh his ships. He escaped to Barbados; got the help of Lord Cochrane (who
became deeply involved in various New World independence movements. He went back to
Venezuela, captured a fort and town, and found the population indifferent. Off to Trinidad
and then England late in 1807. There he conferred with Simón Bolívar, a fellow
Venezuelan who would go on to liberate northern South America. The two traveled home late
in 1810 and, once there, pushed for independence. The congress that they had called
declared independence and wrote a constitution. The Spanish fought back, however. After
the loss of battle of Puerto Bello, Miranda signed a capitulation. Bolívar, believing he
had betrayed the movement, caught him and turned him over to the Spanish. He died in a
Independence would come with the Napoleonic Wars and the Spanish
constitutional crisis of 1808. It would be led by criollos, many of whom had been militia
officers, supported by mestizos, blacks, and Indians but probably more people wanted to
keep the Spanish crown than wanted to run it out of the New World. The independence
movements were minority affairs. Most people knew nothing about the causes or the
rationale or the actions of the precursors. The key to Spain keeping its vast empire for
300 years, longer than any other modern empire, was the loyalty of its upper class.
You can read about other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading
Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.
Click on the book cover or the title to go to Llumina Press.