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.
This purpose of this essay is to reveal the diversity of writers responsible for creating the texts of lawsuits in the Spanish empire. It peeks behind the curtain of pages in civil complaints in an attempt to figure out how legal papers actually made it into the court record and who was doing their writing. While historians have recently thrown a spotlight on various official writers, from notaries to native procurators, in fact unidentified, unofficial writers penned quite a few petitions in civil suits. Knowing who wrote the filings in civil cases has a bearing on our understanding of Spanish imperial subjects, their interactions with the law, and ultimately how much of a hand they had in making their own historical record.
From the time that Columbus arrived in the Caribbean until Spain surrendered power over its mainland American colonies in the early 19th century, Spanish and Portuguese colonial mines poured forth vast amounts of bullion, including some gold and a far greater quantity of silver, both in terms of weight and its overall value relative to gold. Fiscal records indicate that Spanish Americans officially refined gold worth approximately 374,000,000 pesos, each consisting of 272 maravedís, whereas the amount of silver produced reached a value of 3,432,000,000 pesos (to these figures need to be added contraband output, estimated to have been around 17–20 percent). In other words, the colonies refined nine times more silver than gold. While Columbus, Cortés, and other earlier explorers may have fantasized primarily about gold, it was the flood of American silver that touched off the price revolution in Europe and monetarized the emerging world economy, especially because China had a voracious appetite for silver, not gold. At the same time in the American colonies, mining distorted economic life because of the incentives the industry received from a silver-hungry monarchy. Mining also had profound consequences for indigenous society, severely exploited to provide workers for the mines and refining mills.
Colonial refiners used two methods to beneficiate their silver ores, smelting and amalgamation. Smelting was suitable for all types of American silver ores but required large amounts of fuel to heat the ovens. It remained widely used throughout Mexico during the entire colonial period. Amalgamation was a newer technology, adapted to American ores during the mid-16th century. Although it did not require large quantities of charcoal and other fuels, as smelting did, amalgamation depended on the availability of mercury. Nearly all quicksilver used in colonial Spanish American silver mining came from either Huancavelica (Peru) or Almadén (Spain), with occasional supplements from Idria (Slovenia). Whereas both smelting and amalgamation were used widely in Mexico, Andean mines relied on amalgamation.
On August 13, 1521, the conquistadors and their native allies seized Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. The Spaniards succeeded because they had agreed with the Tlaxcalans and other indigenous self-governing communities (altepetl) to fight the Aztecs. After the conquest these communities continued their traditions, and the Spaniards replaced Aztec leadership with their own. The friars and the secular church converted the natives, and together with the crown they foiled the conquistadors’ attempts to become liege lords with jurisdiction. The process culminated in the New Laws of 1542, which curbed the encomienda, a grant to a Spaniard that comprised several Indian towns paying him or her tribute. In its stead a society of corporations evolved, composed of town councils, lay brotherhoods of churches, and others, complete with their own laws and jurisdictions. Then a series of silver strikes beginning at Zacatecas in 1546 drew settlers into the region called the Bajío north of the former Aztec and Tarascan empires. The local natives resisted initially, and when peace came, they and the settlers created a dynamic early capitalist economy that invigorated other regions. The frontier expanded when animal herds moved further north beyond the mines, and the zone of Spanish influence grew to the south as well.
In 1540 Spanish conquistadors and their indigenous allies began seizing the northwestern Yucatan Peninsula, and they took Tiho/Mérida in 1542. The Yucatan, the Bajío, and the other regions that composed colonial Mexico successively integrated into a global commercial network spanning Europe, Africa, and Asia. The crown and the merchant guild (consulado) in Seville sought to capture the burgeoning Atlantic commerce within the fleet shuttling between Seville/Cadiz and Veracruz and restrict the silver flowing from Acapulco to Asia via the Philippines. Market forces defied most of the rules they put in place. Merchants from Asia settled in Manila; Peruvians docked in Acapulco; and the Dutch, French, and English competed with fleet merchants or operated contraband trade from the Caribbean islands to New Spain. In the 18th century, the crown found allies to loosen trade regulations within the empire and curb corporative autonomies. A series of audits (visitas) shook New Spain, and more compliant viceroys and officials appeared, while the friars lost over one hundred parishes (doctrinas) during the mid-century. The king expelled the Jesuits in 1767; registered ships sailing individually replaced the fleet in 1778; and in 1786 José de Gálvez introduced the intendants in New Spain. As the empire transitioned toward a territorial state, Napoleon imprisoned the Spanish king (1808). In 1810 Miguel Hidalgo and a popular following unleashed the War of Independence. As the conflict unfolded, the legitimacy of the old order crumbled, and the empire dissolved in 1821.
Susan Elizabeth Ramirez
This essay focuses on the principal Pizarro family members who played active roles in the exploration, invasion, and colonization of the Andes. Francisco Pizarro served as leader until his assassination by Diego de Almagro partisans in 1541. Juan fought against stout native resistance until he was fatally injured during the siege of Cuzco. Gonzalo led the forces against the New Laws and their implementation by the first viceroy, Blasco Núñez Vela. After the viceroy and his forces were defeated and he was executed, Gonzalo ruled the Andes until Licenciado Pedro de la Gasca arrived to reestablish crown hegemony. Royalist and Gonzalo’s rebel forces clashed. Gonzalo’s defeat cost him his life. Hernando, long the de facto patriarch of the family, emerged as the defender of family interests. He married his niece, the mestiza daughter of Francisco; consolidated their holdings, selling assets at risk of confiscation in Peru; and reinvested the proceeds in safer products in Spain. His manipulations and planning allowed him to establish an endowment that assured the survival of the family into the 20th century.
This article examines the long history of Potosí, Bolivia, home of the world’s most productive silver mines. The mines, discovered in 1545 and still active today, are discussed in terms of their geology, discovery, productivity, labor history, and technological development. The article also treats the social and environmental consequences of nearly five hundred years of continuous mining and refining.