What can we learn about the documents we work with if we incorporate a study of document creation, travel, and storage into the consideration of document content? Some well-known documents, such as the Popol Vuh, have backstories that reveal as much as their content. But even obscure documents, such as a dispute over a road detour in 18th-century Guatemala, can be read productively as objects with life trajectories. Understanding the “life” of this document—the world in which it was made, the tools and knowledge of its making, its travel while being written, its storage in colonial and national archives—sheds new light on its meaning. Similarly, all colonial documents can be interpreted in new ways if their lives are treated as part of the interpretation.
Jorge González Alzate
The Kingdom of Guatemala, a neglected backwater of the Spanish Empire under the Habsburgs, figured prominently in the long-term strategic planning of the Bourbon state. Royal preoccupation with this impoverished colony was reflected in the wide-ranging program of reform that the crown sought to put into practice in the isthmus over the course of the 18th century. For Philip V and his successors, the most pressing concern was the crown’s lack of control over the colony’s Caribbean coast (also known as the Mosquito Shore), a swampy and insalubrious region that for decades had been under the effective control of British interlopers and their native allies, the indomitable Sambo-Mosquitos. The main thrust of the reform project was therefore directed at addressing that serious security gap, a situation which, at the same time, severely limited Spain’s capacity to reap the benefits of Central America’s economy and trade. In its initial stages, the effort to implement the reforms proved to be a protracted and frustrating process, hampered by resistance from vested interests, lack of funds and personnel, natural disasters, and above all by recurring military conflict. It was not until the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756–1763) that Charles III, facing the prospect of an even more damaging British attack, resolved to take decisive action and commanded his ministers to expedite the pace of reform. Royal orders were then issued that called for the de-Americanization and overhauling of the civil administration, direct state intervention to stimulate economic productivity and expand maritime trade, the establishment of a modern, efficient, crown-administered fiscal structure, the strengthening of the defense system, and the assertion of royal authority over the ecclesiastical establishment. Initially, the uncompromising manner utilized by the crown in introducing the changes, particularly the reforms to the fiscal system, provoked much unrest and resistance among wide segments of the population. But in the end, the reforms survived and, by the closing years of the century, most of the measures had largely met the crown’s objectives. The fiscal surplus generated by the economic and commercial expansion of the second half of the 18th century enabled the Bourbons to attain their principal strategic objective in Central America, namely dislodging the British enemy from much of the Atlantic coast. Unfortunately, not long after this climatic point, the decades-long effort quickly unraveled as the monarchy began to collapse in 1808. In the end, the reform project proved insufficient; the dream of attaining modernization and preeminent status among European powers remained elusive. As conditions in the mother country deteriorated, so did the economic and political stability of Central America. The kingdom’s provinces were engulfed by increasing political volatility and economic depression. Following the example of neighboring New Spain, Central Americans declared their independence in 1821. Thus, in the end, the Bourbons had “gained a revenue and lost an empire.”