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date: 26 April 2017

Mexico in Spain’s Oceanic Empire, 1519–1821

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: New Spain, empire, state, conquest, church, friars, Indians, reforms, global, trade

Building the Corporate Empire

Native Communities, the Friars, and the Secular Church

After the conquest of the Aztec empire, colonial Mexico, or New Spain as it was then known, became a core kingdom in the polycentric Spanish Empire.1 A strong economy reinforced the centrality of New Spain, while other regions, such as the North Frontier, the Philippines, and Cuba gravitated into its orbit. Social networks glued together people of various social and ethnic backgrounds in patron-client relationships. Corporations such as guilds, municipal councils, and lay brotherhoods of the church emerged or evolved from indigenous organizations, and special laws safeguarded their autonomy. Most corporations wielded jurisdiction over their members, and they mediated royal rule. The members were typically born into a hierarchical social layer, and they left these corporations only by forfeiting most social ties within. Politics changed incrementally, and the territorial state emerged. The crown forged a consensus with various social groups in New Spain, including those from below, to rule individuals in clearly defined and subordinate territories. Laws and courts applied more uniformly to all, while the mediating power of liege lords, who presided over vassals, or particular corporative jurisdictions declined. Since about the late 17th century, the cycles of reforms accelerated, dissolving the privileges of kingdoms, corporations, estates, and even birth. While these aims were at times repressive and encountered corporate opposition, they encouraged private economic initiative and greater individual self-determination, increasing the responsiveness of officials and strengthening the military. Trade restrictions within the empire eased up. The project of fully converting the empire into a territorial state unraveled when Napoleon arrested the king of Spain in 1808, and the following sovereignty crisis shattered the Spanish World.

This tension between the corporative empire and territorial state began to take root when Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, fell on August 13, 1521. Hernán Cortés and the conquistadors succeeded because they had struck manifold agreements with the native polities, such as the Tlaxcalans, to help in the fight against the Aztecs. The Spaniards merely replaced Aztec leadership with their own. The Indian self-governing communities (altepetl) retained most of their traditions, administering communal lands and adjudicating litigation. The altepetl continued to rotate power and obligations with other altepetl or among the cellular units (calpulli), which the Spaniards recognized as neighborhoods, or barrios. The native nobility of the altepetl, called principales or caciques, largely preserved their status, and the crown recognized them as on par with the Castilian lower nobility, or hidalgos. The nobles learned Castilian, rode horses, and adopted European clothes and a sword. On occasion caciques even joined the Spanish military orders, themselves markers of noble and pure lineage. The community governors became clients and sometimes godsons of the Spanish officials, and they acted as patrons of their community. Such patron-client relationships formed the fabric of both the indigenous and European societies, although practices differed in detail. The clients, most of them native commoners (macehuales), had provided labor services and tribute in kind to the nobles and the Aztecs before the conquest. After the fall of Tenochtitlan the conquistadors seized the Aztec share of the tribute, while the local nobility remained firmly in place.

Native communities also came to an agreement with the clergymen that arrived in New Spain after the conquest. Support from natives—and the offspring of the Spanish settlers—gave the religious corporations a pivotal role in the realm. In 1523 the Franciscan Pedro de Gante, rumored to be an illegitimate son of Emperor Charles V, and two other friars from the Netherlands came to New Spain. In May 1524 twelve observant Franciscans followed them, thinking of themselves as the successors of the Apostles. These friars, also called regular clergy, lived in a monastic community according to strict rules. In 1560 there were about 380 Franciscans in 80 monasteries, 210 Dominicans in 40 cloisters, and 212 Augustinians in 40 institutions. The friars converted the natives, and they prodded indigenous officials to raze the temples for use in the foundations and stonework of religious buildings. The regulars and the natives together built soaring churches that underlined the leading role of the main towns or alteptel and their elites. The indigenous leadership agreed to end the human sacrifices, while the friars helped fend off rapacious conquistadors. The clergy’s initial enthusiasm about indigenous mass conversions gave way to the conviction that the faith could only be anchored in communicating individually with the faithful. At about the same time, the Council of Trent (1545–1563) clarified that the sacraments, such as mass and baptisms, had to be said in the local language, so the people could understand the priests. This raised the incentive for the clergy to learn native languages. Many regulars grew up with native speakers, and they demonstrated their linguistic knowledge in schools and at the university. When the friars joined others in the monasteries sprinkled across New Spain, they also subscribed to their order’s great corporate autonomy from the crown. The orders had their own ecclesiastical courts, and the friars elected their regional provincials or leadership. In addition, the regulars gained wealth, often in the form of landed estates, and influence. The Augustinians, for example, wielded such power that their enemies derided them as “monarchs.”

The secular church soon began rivaling the regulars. These were the bishops and parish priests who lived among the faithful. In 1656–1662, for example, the orders, with the exception of the Jesuits, began paying the secular church a tenth of their proceeds, a substantial amount because the regulars owned many agricultural enterprises, or haciendas. The tenths contributed to the completion of cathedrals and sumptuous parish churches in New Spain. In 1525 the first bishopric was consecrated in Tlaxcala, subsequently moving its seat to the city of Puebla. In 1539 the church founded the diocese of Mexico, and elevated it to an archbishopric in 1546. Dioceses quickly sprung up in Guatemala, Oaxaca, Michoacan, Chiapas, and Yucatan. The bishops shaped the religious education and message for the realm, and they regularly audited (visita) the secular and regular parishes. They also adjudicated moral trespassing in ecclesiastical courts. The secular church equally resented state meddling with their corporate identity. Nonetheless, the crown gained the patronage (padronazgo) to appoint bishops and prelates, while Rome merely confirmed them. The church periodically convened synods in New Spain, examining applicants and composing a ranked list of three candidates for a vacant parish. As the vice-patron, the viceroy had a say in the selection process. He sent observers to the synods and could select any priest from the ranked list. In most cases, viceroys complied with the wishes of the church to avoid a conflict. In 1656 the viceroy the Duke of Alburquerque compared the bishops’ power to the princes of Flanders and the dukes of Italy, articulating the exasperation of an increasing number of statesmen with the great autonomy of the church.

The Crown and the Encomenderos

With the secular church somewhat tethered by royal patronage, the crown built alliances that included Indians to foil the conquistadors’ attempts to extend their jurisdiction. After the conquest Cortés distributed grants (encomiendas) over Indian towns to the conquistadors. Many of these grant holders, or encomenderos, hoped to gain jurisdiction and become full-fledged liege lords of the Indians. The king, however, stalled the progress of the encomienda. In the following years, the crown tightened its grip on the realm by building a judicial system that weakened the conquistadors. In 1524 the Council of the Indies formally began to hear appeals from America, and in 1527 the crown established a high court (audiencia) in Mexico City. The New Laws from 1542 repeated earlier prohibitions of the encomienda, while protecting the indigenous population. A stream of encomendero complaints reached Spain, which acceded by extending the inheritability of the encomienda to two lifetimes. After this period, the grant would revert to the crown. In 1549 the crown ended personal labor services to encomenderos and replaced them with tribute payments. Discontent smoldered among the encomendero party. Between 1565 and 1568, Martín Cortés, the conquistador’s heir, allegedly plotted to oust the viceroy. The audiencia heard of the conspiracy and arrested a number of encomenderos. Madrid also drastically reduced Cortés’s estate. To stem discontent, the crown ordered that the original settlers and their offspring be preferred for offices in New Spain, but the king never recognized such a privilege to the same degree as in other peninsular realms. The encomiendas now became rare, and the crown converted the few remaining ones into royal pensions.

In the subsequent years the viceroy; a crown auditor, or visitador; and newly appointed district officials continued curtailing the encomenderos, while holding the indigenous nobility accountable for making tribute collection more efficacious. Antonio de Mendoza, viceroy from 1535 until 1550, began introducing the Castilian municipal model to indigenous towns. He appointed administrators and first-instance judges, who usually oversaw several indigenous communities. Commissaries fanned out to do a head count of the declining Indian population and reassess the tribute, sparing only the nobility. The auditor Jerónimo Valderrama (1563–1566) clarified the borders of the Indian towns and ended the greatly varying collection modes that allowed every town to contribute their local products, such as turkeys or wood. The district administrators began levying the tribute in either money or maize from the Indian nobility, permanently removing the encomenderos. The standardization curbed tribute evasion and the ability of indigenous nobles, district administrators, and clergymen to tamper with receipts. A thin layer of about two hundred Spanish officials descended upon the realm.

Native Communities Become Corporative Towns

By mid-century, the indigenous town councils were taking on the corporative trappings of Castile. The preconquest nobility retained their preeminence, but slowly the door opened for more political competition. Larger Indian towns set up a cabildo, or municipal council, with certain landholdings and jurisdiction. The main indigenous towns like Tlaxcala and Texcoco that had allied with Cortés obtained a coat of arms and the seal of a city. Town councilors (alcaldes) administered the internal affairs, while the governors (gobernadores) wielded the symbolic staff of judicial authority to sentence minor offenses. Constables (alguaciles) enforced local rules. Meanwhile, smaller towns usually had only alcaldes. About four thousand of these indigenous republics concentrated in central New Spain. In 1560 the crown ordered these republics to hold elections. To this end, the adult male population usually gathered every year to raise their hands without much discussion, confirming deals cut behind closed doors. The descendants of the preconquest nobility typically organized these elections, safeguarding their status and the services that communities owed them. Elites ritually emphasized their native identity to sustain their status, but they diluted their claims to preeminence when parts of these groups began moving into Spanish towns. Commoners, many of them of mixed descent, began challenging the status quo and infiltrated traditional elite circles. The corporate structure originally condoned the claims of lineage, but municipal elections undermined the preconquest elites’ exclusive access to power.

Next to the Indian communities, the enslaved and free black population grew and played an important role too. Initially Portuguese merchants owned the monopoly (asiento) to import slaves, and they picked up human cargo at the Angolan coast in Africa. When the Portuguese split from the Castilian crown in 1640, this scheme ended. Subsequently, the crown sold the monopoly to either Italian or Portuguese merchants, who often fronted for Dutch traders. The merchants shifted to buying slaves in the British West Indies and transported them to New Spain. While in the very early 18th century the French Guinea Company shipped slaves, the peace of Utrecht (1713) gave English traders the right to import 4,800 Africans to Spanish America annually. As slavers and officials often colluded, they often exceeded the limits until the crown canceled all remaining English privileges in 1750.

Blacks toiled on the sugar plantations on the Gulf and the Pacific coast; they labored in the silver mines, and many worked in commerce and households of Mexico City. In 1611–1612 about 1,500 slaves protested in the city against their mistreatment. The black confraternities at the churches organized the election of four slaves as their kings and queens with the intent to rise up on Holy Thursday. The authorities got wind of the plot and hanged twenty-eight men and seven women on the main square. In 1649 officials executed fifty blacks in a giant auto-da-fé. Hacienda owners and officials had reason to be concerned. Five important rebellions shook Córdoba and Orizaba in the 18th century. Those who managed to run away set up towns (palenques), and they forcibly resisted their reenslavement, while often preying on society too. The corporative society on occasion integrated these palenques under yet another special contract with the king. For instance, after decades of fighting and lengthy consultations, the crown recognized the palenque San Lorenzo de los Negros and the freedom of its inhabitants in 1618. Other slaves attained their freedom too, and by the second half of the 17th century, the free black population surpassed the enslaved population in New Spain.

The indigenous (and black) communities joined the corporative society, which began to conflict with the incrementally advancing territorial state. The district administrators (alcaldes mayores), while coopted into local society, collected tribute, adjudicated conflicts, and relayed information, even from the imperial fringes, to Mexico City and Madrid. The encomenderos never became liege lords of vassals, and the established Indian lineages lost their unchallenged claim to power. A more dynamic society arose, one that was wealthier than most in Europe.

Justice and the Viceregal Court

The justice system of New Spain enjoyed broad authority among the locals until the coming of independence. Its magistrates drew on the panoply of often contradicting norms—the royal orders, the Castilian laws from 1581, and Roman law. The distinction between morality and legality was fluid; for example, the Bible and canon law figured heavily alongside precedence, indigenous traditions, and the interpretations of important lawyers. Judges used their good judgment (arbitrio) to determine the appropriate norms for a specific case. Fairness meant “rendering to each their own,” which could mean taking into account the different social status of the litigating parties along with the judges’ personal interests. This process gave magistrates wide latitude in forging a compromise to preserve peace and community harmony.

In such a legal environment, civil and criminal trials proliferated in the 16th and 17th centuries, like they did in Europe. This “popular legalism” gave even commoners relatively easy access to and representation in the courts throughout the Spanish Empire. The alcaldes mayores and the elected municipal council members (alcaldes ordinarios) served as the first-instance judges, although most did not have a law degree. Meanwhile, the high court (audiencia) magistrates all graduated from the universities in Spain or America. The high court heard appeals and reviewed cases involving serious crimes. The viceroy and his legal adviser adjudicated much of the litigation among Indians. In 1590 this viceregal practice formally became the Indian Court in Mexico City (Juzgado General de Indios). On the frontier access to judges was more difficult, but even there officials and litigants negotiated results. Judges often bemoaned querulous Indians who caused lengthy trials and a heavy work load, yet process demonstrated the king’s care for justice and enhanced the legitimacy of the system. By ruling on conflicts in remote parts of the empire, the state made its presence felt there too.

Integral to this judicial process were the deliberations of the Council of the Indies, which heard appeals and petitions from the American authorities. The council advised the king and with his approval issued a royal communication (real cédula) to resolve the conflict. In 1680 jurists at the council published these communications as the Collection of the Laws of the Indies (Recopilación de las Leyes de los Reinos de Indias). The Collection confirmed the status of the American “kingdoms and seignories” (reinos y señoríos) with their distinct body of laws and traditions akin to those of the peninsula. The Collection conceded this privilege to the American realms, while it also unified and strengthened the authority of royal law, giving crown jurists a tool to eschew the full breadth of judicial pluralism. The Collection and the legal interpreters became the judicial guideposts for the high courts and the great councils. Only in the 18th century did reformers begin distancing themselves from the great law collections, which Pablo de Mora y Jaraba called the “origin of litigation and confusion.” The reformers demanded that recent royal orders supersede the corporative guarantees contained in the collections.

The principles of the territorial state slowly undermined the collections, which supported the autonomy of New Spain and its corporations. At the same time, these territorial principles conflicted with the viceregal court, an entrepôt of power that stitched together the various regions. In some respects the court in Mexico City rivaled Madrid in influence. The personal contact of the viceroy with power elites often helped clear the way for new policies, but infighting or palace intrigues could mar a tenure. The quotidian operations of the court were rather informal and remain poorly understood. Akin to the practices of courts in other imperial hubs such as Lima and Barcelona, the viceroy of New Spain originally dispensed vast patronage by appointing most district administrators (alcaldes mayores). The viceroy also appointed a series of other posts, such as officials at the Indian court, fortress soldiers, and even colorful positions like the “barber-surgeon” of the College of Christ. A number of rituals small and large underlined the status of the viceroy. The lavish viceregal entries competed with the proclamation ceremonies, in which the inhabitants regularly hailed a succeeding king of Castile as “emperor of the Indies.” An Indian impersonating the Aztec emperor Motehuczoma surrendered the diadem to the viceroy on horseback. This enactment was popular in the local mind, because it downplayed the forceful character of conquest. If New Spain had joined Castile freely, the crown had to respect its laws and customs like those of the peninsular kingdoms. In the act of the viceroy taking the diadem, the ritual also hinted at the continuance of the imperial title within Mexico. The viceregal court attached the local population to the realm and the crown, but its role increasingly conflicted with the principles of the advancing territorial state.

The Dynamic North Frontier

After the fall of the Aztec and Tarascan empires, the conquistadors and their native allies campaigned further north. Seminomadic peoples quickly integrated the European military arsenal into their repertoire and resisted conquest, while epidemics of disease took a heavy toll. Settlers from New Spain poured in after several silver strikes, and together they formed a more dynamic mestizo society than existed in central Mexico. Wage labor predominated from the beginning in profit-oriented businesses, while the indigenous corporate government and landholding structures played a lesser role than in the densely settled former Aztec and Tarascan empires. Colonial Mexicans, or better novohispanos (from New Spain), seized the region northwest of these empires, calling it New Galicia. Subsequently, the Mixton War (c. 1535–1542) put the conquerors’ resolve to a test. Since 1525 the novohispanos sought to impose their rule on New Galicia, and conflicts with the natives were exacerbated. Charismatic leaders rallied the conquered and unconquered Indians, and the uprising revitalized religious traditions. By 1539 between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand Indians were driving back the invaders. In 1741 they fought an army of novohispanos and their five thousand indigenous allies from Michoacan. Led by Pedro de Alvarado, one of the conquistadors of Tenochtitlan, the army besieged the native strongholds in the mountains, among them the Mixton fortress, but failed to subdue the resistance. On the retreat, Alvarado fell into a ravine and perished. Fifty thousand rebels then attacked Guadalajara, the capital of New Galicia, but the city did not fall. Finally Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza pacified the region with the help of more indigenous allies. In the subsequent conflicts with the nomadic natives, friars and officials struck a different course. They distributed clothing, seeds, cattle, and tools among the local people. This calmed the frontier and integrated these Indians into novohispano society.

The occupation of the north became permanent with the silver strikes at Zacatecas (1546), Guanajuato (1550), San Luis Potosí (1590s), and El Parral (1661). Settlers from central Mexico, among them Tlaxcalans and Tarascans, rushed to share in the bonanza. Agriculture, manufacture, trade, and transport grew. After the Chichimec peace in the 1590s, farms and haciendas flourished along the road connecting Mexico City to Chihuahua. Farms produced wheat and corn for the mines, while extensive cattle, mule, and sheep haciendas moved further north where land was cheaper. The region roughly enclosed by the cities of Querétaro, Valladolid (Morelia), and Zacatecas became known as the Bajío. Black slaves and enslaved Indians toiled in the Bajío mines, but in smaller numbers than the free workers of various ethnic backgrounds. Remunerations, technical knowledge, and capital investment rose. By 1600 the silver mines reached an early peak. Meanwhile, the local economy of Querétaro, for example, evolved from small fertile fields owned by natives to a mercantile hub. An Otomí municipal council defended the indigenous interests until a Spanish council superseded it in 1655.

North of the Bajío, disease and ongoing violence equally eroded the native population, and languages and customs rapidly gave way to a mestizo culture. In 1563 New Vizcaya, later known as Chihuahua, was conquered, followed by New León in 1580. Novohispanos also moved into the Californias to keep out other European powers and offer shelter for the ship that usually arrived there annually from the Philippines. After 1697 missions expanded in Baja California, and beginning in 1769 Franciscans established twenty-one missions in Upper California. In 1685 novoshispanos crossed into Texas, where fortresses and missions reined in Indians and stalled frontiersmen from French Louisiana.

In 1598 novohispanos founded Santa Fe in New Mexico. This opened the path for converting the Pueblo Indians, while triggering a massive upheaval. Many locals resented the arrival of Christianity which did little to protect them from Apache raids. Religious traditions resurged, to which the governor responded in 1675 by whipping and hanging a number of lapsed Pueblo caciques. In addition, an extended drought killed off herds and crops, and Spanish demands exacerbated the crisis. The Great Pueblo Revolt erupted in 1680. About seventeen thousand Indians led by a native called Popé burned down Santa Fe and drove the novohispanos and their indigenous allies back to El Paso. The rebels killed over four hundred friars and settlers and obliterated all tokens of Christianity. Then the native alliances crumbled. Diego de Vargas, the new governor of New Mexico, restored an understanding with some Pueblo Indians concerned about Apache attacks. Vargas and his allies stormed Santa Fe in 1693 and executed seventy rebels. The governor gained a tenuous hold over the western Pueblos, although he made little progress among the Hopis. Subsequently, the population of New Mexico grew as the mining camps voraciously consumed textiles and hides from the region. In 1780 about ten thousand Hispanicized settlers outnumbered the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. Both the Mixton War and the Great Pueblo Revolt temporarily halted the novohispano advance, but ultimately the regions north of the former indigenous empires integrated into greater New Spain. In the Bajío and the northern regions, silver strikes sparked settlement and economic growth. The area beyond the mining camps supplied mules, horses, hides, and meat. Locals and immigrants blended rapidly into a dynamic mestizo culture. These regions together contributed much to New Spain’s emerging role as a core kingdom of the empire.

The Mayas Form a Corporative Society in the Yucatan Peninsula

While in the north a dynamic early capitalist society emerged, in the Yucatan Peninsula a corporative structure with a strong indigenous character evolved, more closely resembling the society in central New Spain. In the preconquest peninsula, various Maya towns such as Mani competed for power over vassals. Then the Spaniards arrived. After two failed attempts to seize the Yucatan, Francisco de Montejo and his cousin returned in 1540 accompanied by a host of novohispano indigenous troops. They struck a bargain with the local dynasty, and in the following year they founded San Francisco de Campeche on the western shore. In 1542 they seized Tiho/Mérida, while indigenous resistance continued. The cacique Nachi Cocom forged a Maya alliance to besiege Tiho/Mérida, but he failed to take the city, and fighting subsided. When the violent conquest phase ended, the crown took advantage of the typical internecine squabbles among the conquistadors and the clergy to ease out the Montejos, much as it had done with Cortés. In 1549 an alcalde mayor took the reins of government, and in 1591 the crown set up a separate Indian court for the peninsula alongside Mexico City and Lima. Indians in the Yucatan, like those in New Spain proper, paid one eighth of a peso annually for the three court jurists and interpreters. Litigation itself was free for most Indians.

As a system of justice and governance emerged, the task of converting the Mayas fell mainly to the Franciscans. By 1580 the friars had founded twenty-four monasteries. Fray Diego de Landa made a name for himself by eradicating idolatry. In Mani in 1562 the Franciscan burned scores of Mayan codices and executed transgressors, who up to this point had suffered only reprimands or at most a whipping. As Christianity spread, Yucatecans expanded the borders of their realm. After several failed attempts to control the central peninsula, a combined Hispanic and native army marched in 1687 toward the town of Paliac, south of Belize, building churches and recognizing nobles along the way. One of the reasons for renewed activity in the region was the English expansion from Belize. While the English remained in the region, the fighting on the border expanded the Yucatecan hold on the peninsula.

The Corporative Structure of New Spain in Global Commerce

As a corporative society evolved in New Spain, a dynamic trade network began connecting America and Europe. Structures seeking to regulate the interchange rose up in parallel fashion, but market forces defied many regulations. The king intended to exclude foreign merchants and ensure a steady flow of silver to the peninsula. In 1503 the crown established the House of Trade (casa de contratación) in Seville, Andalusia, to enforce regulations and restrict emigration. The crown ordered that all merchandise going to New Spain embarked on the annual fleet in Seville or Cadiz and closed all other peninsular ports to Spanish American commerce. The merchants who organized the trade set up their own guild (consulado) in Seville, and this corporation became one of the most powerful of the empire. The consulado periodically extended large loans to the crown, and for two centuries the guild warded off most changes to its commercial privileges.

Commodities crossed the Atlantic both ways. The fleet departing Andalusia delivered mercury from Almadén (Spain) and Idria (Habsburg realms). Miners relied on quicksilver to reduce ore to silver. The convoy also hauled products such as copper, stamped paper, wines, and books. The fleet returned from Veracruz with tobacco, maize, chili peppers, cacao, and the precious dye stuffs cochineal and indigo. While agricultural products mattered, the chief export of New Spain was silver. In the sixteenth century, New Spain seconded Peru in silver production and together they mined up to 85 percent of world supply. In the 1670s New Spain surpassed Peru in silver mining, and in the 18th century, the realm produced about 57 percent of the silver in circulation.

The other European powers noted the rich silver fleets traversing the Atlantic. By the sixteenth century, pirates roamed the Caribbean, and the European powers seized islands to serve as outposts of contraband trade. Interlopers supplied New Spain with silk, linen, and cotton textiles produced in England, Italy, Flanders, and France. England and Portugal shipped slaves across the Atlantic. Sloops and other smaller ships approached the lesser ports of New Spain, such as Pánuco, to exchange goods for unminted silver. Commerce expanded significantly in the early 17th century, and contraband trade competed with the Spanish fleet.

While Atlantic trade expanded, expeditions sailed west on the Pacific and seized the Philippines for the empire. In 1565 the San Pedro left the isles to search for a return route to New Spain. For the next two and a half centuries, a ship known as the nao or the Manila galleon plied the Pacific Ocean and developed into a flotilla. As the Pacific trade thrived, the consulado of Seville and the crown sought to contain competition and the draining of silver to Asia. Acapulco officially became the exclusive destination for the nao, which could not carry merchandise worth more than 250,000 silver pesos to New Spain, nor anything worth more than 500,000 silver pesos to the Philippines. According to the laws, only Chinese merchants could supply goods from the Asian mainland to Manila. In practice the Pacific merchants ignored these rules. Spanish and Portuguese ships frequented Portuguese, English, French, and Dutch trading posts in India and China. From 1717 to 1719 the Philippine governor even sent emissaries to Siam (Thailand) and Tonkin (Vietnam). A sizeable Chinese, Japanese, and Malay population, and a smaller novohispano community, converted Manila into a cosmopolitan hub. Meanwhile when the nao arrived in Acapulco, Manila residents set up shop next to Indians, Mestizos, Africans, and Spaniards. Once the fair ended, most left Acapulco, fleeing the heat, epidemics, and mosquitoes that bred in the still waters of the San Diego fortress moat.

The nao furnished New Spain with spices such as cinnamon, pepper, and clove. Carved ivory, porcelain, and other earthenware from China arrived in Acapulco. The nao did not only provide luxury items, and people of a wide social spectrum purchased silk woven in both shirts and bedspreads of various qualities. In the second half of the 18th century, merchants increasingly imported raw silk thread to manufacture textiles in New Spain, while East Indian cotton cloth began competing at lower prices. The nao transporting these goods left the Manila port of Cavite in the first week of July, sailing with the monsoon winds to New Spain. The galleon often struck mainland at Upper California, where it anchored to replenish supplies. The ship then headed south to Acapulco, usually arriving in December or January. In April at the latest, the galleon set sail for Manila. The voyage offered little pleasure, as the trip to Acapulco took roughly two and a half months, while sailing to Manila could take as long as six. Five to six hundred men squeezed into the close quarters of the galleons and suffered scurvy, fleabites, fevers, and sunstroke. In 1697 the Italian traveler Gemelli Carreri wrote in his Voyage Round the World that he “sailed almost half the planet . . . suffering hunger, diseases, and chills, . . . The salted fish . . . smelled nauseously and had such quantity of worms and insects, that I was ever uncertain whether I consumed fish or living flesh.” The challenging journeys of the nao tied the islands firmly to New Spain.

Seeing the potential of both the Atlantic and Pacific trading routes, merchants from other Spanish realms ventured to New Spain. Cacao arrived from as far away as Caracas and Maracaibo in Venezuela. Despite royal prohibitions from 1631 and 1634, Peruvian merchants departed from the Lima port of El Callao and hauled silver from the Potosí mine, mercury, wines, and oils. Their ships pulled into Guayaquil (Ecuador) to pick up bedspreads, quinine, and sombreros from the Andes. The traders continued north to Panama, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, before pulling into Acapulco Bay. Between 1670 and 1740 at least eighty ships traveled from Lima to New Spain according to the record, and this was only the tip of the iceberg. On the return trip from Acapulco, the merchants loaded Asian merchandise, iron and tar for caulking ships, and African slaves. Tobacco came from New Spain, Cuba, or New Grenada (Colombia). The vibrant Atlantic and Pacific trade integrated New Spain into a global network spanning Europe, Africa, America, and Asia.

From Corporate Empire to Territorial State

Ending Corporative Oligopolies of Trade

As the global commerce expanded, the prevailing economic ideas shifted in the late 17th century. Corporative oligopolies or small groups of privileged traders had dominated commerce up to that point. The trade laws had failed to benefit the Castilian economy and the crown, and the consulados increasingly seemed self-serving. Few of the fleet merchants were originally Spaniards; most were naturalized foreigners or acted through local strawmen. A rich range of late mercantilist tenets and early liberal ideas favored more competition within the empire to lower prices, revive the flagging economies, and enhance tax revenue. Change came at the expense of the consulados in Seville and Mexico City.

By the 1680s Spanish products had been relegated to a minor role. At least 94 percent of the goods leaving Andalusia were imported from elsewhere in Europe, and about 50 percent of the silver returning to Spain was contraband. Therefore, in 1717 the crown ordered the House of Trade and the consulado to move from Seville to Cadiz to be closer to the arrival port of the fleet and to keep a closer eye on irregular trade. Initially Dutch merchants dominated the contraband commerce to America, but French merchants caught up in the late 17th century. They left French ports to supply Veracruz and Lima, and they sailed via Canton (Guangzhou) and Manila for the American Pacific ports. Trade peaked somewhere between 1740 and 1760. Most English exports to New Spain initially took the route via Andalusia, but by the mid-18th century exports through the English outposts in the Caribbean surpassed them. The English merchants delivered woolens of different sorts, clocks, and Irish salt fish. Traders also supplied linen from Silesia and Westphalia in the Holy Roman Empire. Textile shipping from the city of Osnabrück arrived in the West Indies as osnaburgs. In the late 18th century, Great Britain became the leading importer to Mexico. Since about 1797, significant portions of English exports reached New Spain on merchantmen of the United States of America. The United States loomed large on the horizon and supplanted England as the leading exporter in the 19th century. Freer trade replaced the corporate privileges of the past, while Spain lost much of the commerce to the Dutch, French, and English, and to the United States.

During the Wars of Jenkins’s Ear and the war of Austrian Succession (1739–1748), the Spanish crown loosened commercial regulations to keep oceanic supply lines open. While individual ships had sailed from America before, other Spanish ports such as Barcelona could now officially compete with Cadiz by sending “registered ships” to America. These ships traveled individually at short intervals in tune with market demand. In 1755 the consulado in Cadiz forced an end to these ships going to New Spain and resumed the fleet sailing between Andalusia and Veracruz, while the registered ships continued traveling to other parts of America.

In 1765 ships began leaving Cadiz to travel around Africa to the Philippines. They competed with the Manila-Acapulco trade. Consequently, the great merchants in Mexico City who largely controlled the nao lost market share. Trade between Acapulco and Manila suffered another blow when Miguel Hidalgo’s insurgency broke out in New Spain in 1810. Silver production plummeted. In 1811 the last nao arrived in Acapulco. The end of corporate trade had come.

The Coming of the Territorial State

The late 17th century saw the intensification of cycles of reform aiming to transform the empire’s corporative structure and dissolve the privileges of realms and birth. Private economic initiative and individual self-determination outside of corporate customs expanded, while the crown sought to gather more tax revenue to improve the military. Madrid built alliances with various social groups and networks in New Spain to attain these goals. That quest already loomed large in the mind of the first minister the Count-Duke of Olivares (1623–1643), who sought to spread Castilian laws throughout the empire. Olivares’s viceroy in New Spain, the marquis of Gelves (1621–1624), forewent the viceregal entry, broke up a maize price-fixing scheme, and banned brothels and gambling houses. On January 15, 1624, a crowd rioted on the main square and forced Gelves to abandon the palace. In Gelves’s wake, people in Mexico City paid higher sales taxes, and the friars in Puebla lost over thirty-five parishes to the secular clergy.

The monarchy did not stagnate afterward. Rather, various government coalitions initiated reform cycles that alternated between phases in which traditional elites—the aristocracy and council jurists—gained the upper hand in turn. For instance, Queen Mariana of Austria and her favorites, Fernando Valenzuela (1673–1676) and the Count of Oropesa (1685–1691, 1698–1699), assembled reform coalitions. These coalitions proceeded to curb the viceroys’ patronage drastically. The viceroys had until then appointed most district administrators in exchange for money, and by the late 17th century most contemporaries condemned the practice as corrupt. In 1675 Queen Mariana and Valenzuela began selling the appointments to the wealthier districts themselves, against the bitter objections of the viceroys. This strengthened the crown, while the viceroys lost somewhere between 50 and 90 percent of their patronage in the following decades. The change resulted from a general weakening of the traditional pillars of the monarchy, that is, the aristocrats, the council jurists, and the high clergy. In the ensuing War of the Succession (1700–1713/14), a third of all Spanish aristocrats fell out of favor with the king for sympathizing with the Habsburg pretender. Rule became more bureaucratic, and the territorial state advanced.

When the Marquis of Casafuerte became viceroy of New Spain (1722–1734), the pattern of naming viceroys changed too. Casafuerte and his successors were no longer aristocrats but career military men who had proven their mettle in combat and organization. A pathway to office opened for the lower nobility and bourgeois groups in exchange for efficacy and obedience to the crown. A similar spirit inspired the early 18th-century audits of New Spain. The auditor of the high court (1715–1727) removed thirteen of the nineteen judges and prosecutors and suspended 156 subordinate officials—jailors, porters, and notaries—for abuses. The auditor counted on support from the novohispano society, including blacks and Indians, who sought redress for their grievances. Never before had a court been so pummeled, nor was this to happen again in New Spain. While the court did not subsequently conform to modern standards of justice, it followed the royal laws more closely. During the mid-century, a new wave of secularization followed. Between 1749 and 1755 the friars in New Spain, usually well-connected with the local elites, lost over one hundred parishes to the bishops. The friars’ great corporate autonomy had been a thorn in the side of reformist politicians. The indigenous population in many cases welcomed the secular clergy “with music and flowers,” because the friars had alienated them in the prior decades with quarrels over land ownership and excessive service demands.

While these political reforms continued, the Mexican economy and population expanded again. By the 1670s, silver output in Zacatecas and Guanajuato grew rapidly, rivaled in the early 18th century by the northern mines such as Santa Eulalia. After 1650 the indigenous population recovered from its calamitous postconquest collapse. More people demanded foodstuff and manufactured goods. They also sought work, which lowered wages. Attempts to cut labor costs triggered the 1730 unrest in Santa Eulalia and the 1766 labor struggle in Real del Monte. Later large protests shook the Bajío. Despite these setbacks, mining technology improved and output surged. As a growth engine, the Bajío mines pulled along a train of smaller economies in Spanish North America, extending into what is now the U.S. Southwest and the Caribbean. Cattle and sheep ranching moved north, where land was cheaper. In the 17th century, the wool industry followed the herds, moving from Puebla to Mexico City and Querétaro. Meanwhile Puebla shifted to the production of cotton textiles. The Bajío intensified grain harvests starting in the 1760s, and land values rose. In the final decades of the period, San Miguel el Grande (now Allende) boomed as an manufacturing town, producing cloth and cutlery. The hot western lowlands grew sugar and tropical crops, while the mountains sloping down to the eastern coast increased tobacco output. New Spain’s renewed economic strength underlined its role as a core kingdom upon which the smaller realms depended.

King Charles and José de Gálvez

Against the backdrop of a booming economy, King Charles III (1759–1788) aimed at further curbing the corporate empire while integrating New Spain into a systematic and hierarchical structure of territorial governance. He prohibited the custom of hailing the new king as “emperor of the Indies,” because this idea foregrounded the corporate autonomy of the novohispano kingdom within the empire rather than its status as a province in a territorial state. Politicians in Madrid married measures aimed at freeing the economy, with new monopolies on tobacco and trade. The pragmatic idea was to increase the silver flow to Spain. The reforms irked the beneficiaries and oppressed many, while others found reducing the power of local oligarchies worthy of support.

The urgency of reforms became palpable again when English forces occupied Havana and Manila between 1762 and 1763. The crown responded to the perceived imperial weakness by naming José de Gálvez general auditor of New Spain (1765–1771). He ensured that newly elected members (síndicos personeros del común) breathed fresh air into the closed municipal councils, whose posts had been passed down for generations to the children of officeholders. In 1766 the crown ordered the Spanish and indigenous municipal councils to report their finances to royal accountants. The crown reduced expenses for religious fiestas and cracked down on the practice of town elites and district administrators of helping themselves to community funds. In 1769 the crown made common cause with regional elites by establishing consulados in Manila, Guadalajara, and Veracruz, competitors with the consulado of Mexico City. Then the crown founded the Bank of San Carlos in 1782 and ordered the municipal councils to remit all financial surplus. The bank issued royal bonds and promised to aid the towns in emergencies and above all during famines. Indigenous communities paid 180,000 pesos to the bank, but most towns clandestinely transferred their treasury funds, pastures, and herds to the lay brotherhoods of the local churches to hide them from the crown’s watchful eyes. Ultimately, the bank did not succeed and went bankrupt. These measures to break up oligarchic structures and enhance the tax base mirrored larger early modern trends. Some groups supported these policies, although the transfer of community wealth was certainly unpopular in New Spain.

The crown also expelled the Jesuits, the most autonomous and influential of the orders, from the empire and stifled opposition to the measure. In 1766 the prohibition on wearing wide hats and long capes, under which weapons could be concealed, angered many in Madrid, as did rising bread prices. On Fat Tuesday, the hat-and-cloak revolt got out of hand. King Charles fled Madrid and had to dismiss his secretary of finance. When the revolt subsided, Charles and his advisers pointed their fingers at the Jesuits, who had earned a reputation for intransigence. On June 25, 1767, the king ousted the Jesuits from the empire. In Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí hundreds took to the streets to protest the expulsion, some of them denouncing the king as a heretic. This coincided with growing unrest in the mines over declining wages. Auditor José de Gálvez and the reformed army marched north, hanging eighty-five people along the way, among them thirteen indigenous governors and officials. Gálvez ordered the whipping of over eight hundred people, sending them to the presidios or into exile. The crown garnered further ill will by establishing a tobacco monopoly in New Spain, raising consumer costs to enhance tax revenue. In 1765 the monopoly sold 1.5 million pesos worth of tobacco, and by 1800 sales had risen to eight million pesos. Expelling a powerful group such as the Jesuits, repressing opposition, and raising revenue through the tobacco monopoly shook the corporative structure and caused uproar in New Spain.

José de Gálvez continued his anticorporative policies during his term as secretary of the Indies (1776–1787). In 1776 the crown acceded to petitions to set up a mining tribunal, which adjudicated conflicts, taught engineering, and allowed the miners to more freedom from the mercantile oligarchy. In 1778 Gálvez also permanently ended the New Spain fleet and replaced it with registered ships. Freer commerce came to New Spain, dealing yet another blow to the mercantile corporations of Mexico City and Cadiz. In 1786 Gálvez pruned the viceroys by ordering intendants to govern newly defined provinces. These intendants initially answered directly to the king and not to the viceroy. Regional elites eyed the intendants with suspicion, but they also saw a chance to forge an alliance against the power of Mexico City and its oligarchy. In addition, the crown abolished the Indian court (Juzgado General de Indios), which it had formally established in 1590. This was as another consequence of dissolving corporate privileges and special group laws. Indians sought justice through the ordinary channels just like all other novohispanos.

The great Túpac Amaru Revolt (1780–1781) in the Andean Highlands slowed down the reform project. Túpac Amaru II and his followers sought to reverse increasing tax pressure and establish a neo-Incan empire. The Peruvians loyal to the crown suppressed the revolt with great effort. Then in 1787 Gálvez died, followed by King Charles III in 1788. Within two years of Gálvez’s death, most reformers associated with his politics had stepped aside. When the French Revolution (1789) starkly displayed the consequences of reforms gone awry, the crown backpedaled, and the discontent in New Spain declined.

Because of the measures to increase tax revenue in New Spain, the realm shipped large quantities of silver to other dependent kingdoms, while moderate amounts arrived in Madrid. In the 17th century, all American realms combined contributed less than 10 percent of the royal budget in Madrid. This number declined to 5 percent in the following decades, and rose to 12 percent in the late 18th century, despite substantial fluctuations. Meanwhile, 18th-century New Spain sent more than half of its exported tax revenue to the fortresses, monasteries, and missions on the northern frontier, in the Philippines, and in the Caribbean. These dependent economies thrived on this infusion. Many novohispanos resented the silver remittances as another form of expropriation. Yet New Spain never shipped the full amount as ordered, and it profited from the improved defense. The destination of the remittances varied over time too. In the Caribbean shipments to Puerto Rico declined in the late 18th century, and Cuba lost its support in the early 19th century. With the onset of the War of Independence (1810) in New Spain, remittances collapsed. The core realm had supported and influenced other kingdoms, and its transition to independence had begun.

The Collapse of Empire

While statesmen and residents began to embrace the idea of a Spanish nation in the early 18th century, many novohispanos inclined more toward regional patriotic ideas sustaining the autonomies of a corporate empire. The idea of a Spanish nation played on the long-established bonds between Castilians dwelling in all regions of the empire. Statesmen and locals nudged Indians to become full-fledged Spanish citizens in exchange for giving up much of their culture. This idea prized homogeneity, in contrast to our modern appreciation of diversity. Similar processes took place all over Europe, where regional vernaculars were in retreat. Parish schools teaching Spanish began proliferating in the 1680s. Charles III later argued that Indians should abandon their languages altogether, because they “sounded like the mooing of animals.” Novohispano representatives of a corporate empire rejected such criticism as coming from a “lazy clergyman” who had failed at learning native vocabulary. In 1755 Juan José de Eguiara y Eguran, a professor at the University of Mexico, called all inhabitants of the viceroyalty “Mexicans,” when previously this term had referred only to the indigenous people and their tongue. Novohispano patriotic overtones began to spread in a challenge to the Spanish territorial project, but independence was not on the table yet.

To tame the specter of even greater divisions between Spanish America and Spain, the Count of Aranda suggested in 1783 that the king should formally proclaim himself emperor of the Indies and make his sons kings of the American realms. King Charles IV revived this imperial idea, which Napoleon recognized in the treaty of Fontainebleau (1807). The following year, Napoleon imprisoned Charles and his son Ferdinand VII at Bayonne, and instead the Corsican general dreamed of empire. As a consequence, the legitimacy of the old order crumbled in the early 19th century. On September 16, 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo and his parishioners raised the banner of the Virgin Guadalupe in the town of Dolores in the Bajío, calling for independence from Spain. His largely popular alliance grew to twenty thousand followers, and they seized Guanajuato, massacring Spaniards and Creoles in the process. A civil war ensued in New Spain. At the same time, beginning in 1810, the parliament (Cortes) of Spain escaped the French occupation of the peninsula and convened in Cadiz, in southern Spain, to draft a new constitution. Delegates from New Spain, many of them representing corporate ideas, quarreled with the proponents of a territorial state who sought to advance the project of a Spanish nation composed of individuals. Indigenous towns in New Spain seized the moment. Local groups took over the leadership from old lineages. Dependent indigenous towns broke away from their main towns and formed municipal councils. The main towns opposed the move precisely because they represented towns or corporations rather than human individuals. As the ties binding the Spanish realms loosened, the idea of an Aztec empire returned. In 1821 the army colonel Agustín de Iturbide united the royal and rebel forces and marched on Mexico City, offering the title of emperor of Mexico to King Ferdinand of Spain or one of his three royal princes. When the crown refused, a crowd of supporters called on Iturbide to claim the title for himself. Emperor Agustín lasted from 1822 to 1823. He went into exile and died in front of a firing squad in the following year. The Mexican Empire, albeit brief, was not some historical invention. Rather, the Spanish territorial project ended, and the imperial Aztec title reverted from the kings of Castile to Mexico, which became an independent empire once more. The task of wholly dissolving the corporate structure fell to the 19th century.

Discussion of the Literature

In the 1950s scholars began doubting the absolute power of early modern kings, and concluded that social groups, like the aristocracy or government officials, jockeyed for influence with each other and the crown. As a result, in 1967 John Leddy Phelan helped forge a historiographical consensus on the quasi-autonomy of the Creole elites in America, a phenomenon Mark A. Burkholder attributed to the sale of appointments.2 H. G. Koenigsberger showed in 1975 that European princes ruled a concatenation of largely autonomous principalities, or “composite monarchies,” a term John Elliott then applied to the Spanish realms.3 This insight on the fragmented character of the early modern state roughly parallels the discussion about the “Bourbon Reforms” from 1765 to 1787, which David Brading viewed as an assault on Creole autonomy. The ensuing discussion cast light on the intertwining of church, society, and government corporations and the abyss between intent and execution of the reforms. Since then scholars such as Horst Pietschmann, François-Xavier Guerra, Antonio Annino, and Jaime Rodríguez O. have locked horns over the extent to which the old regime was composed of associations or corporations and transitioned to a territorial, modern, or constitutional state in which sovereignty rests with individual citizens.4 In the 1980s Bartolomé Clavero and Jesús Lalinde Abadia agreed that historians should avoid the anachronistic term “state,”5 but Anthony Pagden showed that the concept in fact began to coalesce semantically with “empire” and “monarchy” and then evolved into the superordinate term. Thus the discussion over “states” and “colonies” gave way to “empires,” “the Atlantic World,” and “polycentric monarchies.”6 Scholars reassessed the role of Madrid by turning their attention to the “monarchy of courts” of the viceroys residing in Mexico, Lima, Naples, and other cities.7 In this line of thinking historians recast New Spain’s role as a “fiscal submetropolis” (Marichal), “political nucleus” (Mazín), or “informal empire” (Pietschmann) within the Spanish empire,8 with Bartolomé Yun Casalilla and others analyzing the links among the territories rather than with Castile. John TePaske and Herbert Klein showed that New Spain drew other realms into its orbit through its large silver remittances (situados), a point on which Carlos Marichal, Johanna von Grafenstein, and Matilde Souto elaborated. Historians debate how much political power the novohispano elites gained through the situados.9 While this discussion continues, a lively scholarship has cast light on global commercial ties within the Caribbean and Atlantic,10 while other scholars, such as Carmen Yuste, have emphasized the Pacific connections of New Spain to Asia.11 John Tutino tied the regional history of the Bajío into the global economy, reframing older debates over mining, dependency, and “modes of production.”12

A new approach appeared in the 1970s when Stuart Schwartz mapped social networks in the colonies and historians such as Sharon Kettering argued that social groups did not always act coherently. Rather, relations between patron, clients, and brokers bridged social spectra to mobilize resources.13 In the 1990s this approach burgeoned in Latin American scholarship, elucidating that these networks transcended the empire to stymie royal initiatives (Michel Bertrand), while corporations often acted as mere window dressing for social networks (Christian Windler). Scholarship tended to view the patron-client relations as Procrustean frames determining the conduct of individuals, until Zacarias Moutoukias demonstrated that a family network—the strongest of old-regime ties—supported opposing political camps during Argentine independence. Social networks and their internal values, it appears now, endured, while people entered, exited, and even straddled networks, despite the seemingly inexorable social exigencies.14 These advances show that early modern states functioned only by building alliances with groups, social networks, or realms. For this reason, Regina Grafe and Alejandra Irigoin underline the similarity between the British parliamentary system and Spanish “negotiated absolutism,” which restrained predatory confiscations,15 while other historians stress agency of subordinate groups, such as indigenous peoples, blacks, or women, in state formation and independence.16 Within the history “from below,” scholars are again focusing on the role of the law, building on Woodrow Borah’s emphasis on the legitimacy of the colonial justice system in resolving conflicts, while global scholars insist on the casuistic, polyvalent, or multinormative nature of early modern justice.17 As the semantic histories of key terms such as law, colony, or empire remain opaque, the multinational Iberconceptos project set out to draw clearer contours following the trail blazed by Reinhart Koselleck’s conceptual history.18 These diverse approaches make the discussion of the empire one of the most vibrant areas in global scholarship.

Primary Sources

Richard Konetzke assembled a vast amount of primary sources for social, political, and legal history in his Colección de documentos para la historia de la formación social de Hispanoamérica, 1493–1810, 3 vols. (Madrid: CSIC, 1953–1962). In addition, the laws of the Indies (Recopilación de las Leyes de los Reinos de India) remain important, as do the Laws of Castile (Recopilacion de las leyes destos reynos hecha por mandado . . . del Rey don Philippe Segundo), which are especially helpful for understanding legal process.

The most important archive in Mexico is the National Archive of Mexico (Archivo General de la Nación), which contains well-cataloged and abundant sources such as the correspondence of the authorities, the reales cédulas, or court rulings, records on indigenous land ownership, the Indian court, and church documentation. The Historical Archive of the Municipal Council of Mexico (Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de México) houses municipal meeting records, among others, while the Cathedral Chapter (Archivo del Cabildo Catedral Metropolitano de México) and the Archive of the Archbishopric (Archivo Histórico del Arzobispado de México) shed light on the church and church-state relations. In Spain, the General Archive of the Indies (Archivo General de Indias) is the most important repository covering almost any aspect of imperial history. The General Archive of Simancas (Archivo General de Simancas) records individuals’ careers, while the Historical Archive (Archivo Histórico Nacional) has many summary end-of-term reviews (residencias). The section on the nobility (Archivo Histórico Nacional Sección Nobleza) provides information on many Spaniards that went to New Spain and the Spanish side of the empire as a whole. The digitized sources of these and other archives can be accessed through the Portal de Archivos Españoles (PARES). In addition, the National Library of Spain has significant holdings of early modern prints on empires, trade, and governance, along with treatises on law and “mirrors,” or specula of princes’ education and the like. The Collective Spanish Heritage Catalog (Catálogo Colectivo del Patrimonio Bibliográfico Español) gives digitized access to books and catalogs of Spanish libraries, including much on Latin America. Google Books is now a key source for finding texts, and many are digitized there. In addition, Professor Jane Landers of Vanderbilt University hosts the Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies, a massive online collection of digitized primary sources that contains valuable information on New Spain’s “fringe”—Cuba and Florida. In addition to these primary source collections, H-Mexico, the Hispanic American Historical Review, Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos, and the University of Texas Latin American Network Information Center, among others, provide links to sources, discussion threads, book reviews, and other resources on imperial histories.

Further Reading

Álvarez de Toledo, Cayetana. Politics and Reform in Spain and Viceregal Mexico: The Life and Thought of Juan de Palafox, 1600–1659. Oxford: Clarendon, 2004.Find this resource:

Bonialian, Mariano Ardash. El pacífico hispanoamericano: Política y comercio asiático en el imperio español, 1680–1784; La centralidad de lo marginal. Mexico City: Colegio de México, 2012.Find this resource:

Burkholder, Mark A. Spaniards in the Colonial Empire: Creoles vs. Peninsulars? Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.Find this resource:

Deeds, Susan M. Defiance and Deference in Mexico’s Colonial North; Indians under Spanish Rule in Nueva Vizcaya. Austin: Texas University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Haring, C. H. The Spanish Empire in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.Find this resource:

Kuethe, Allan J., and Kenneth J. Andrien. The Spanish Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century: War and the Bourbon Reforms, 1713–1796. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Lockhart, James. The Nahuas after the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Pagden, Anthony. Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France, c. 1500–1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Quezada, Sergio. Yucatán: Historia Breve. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2010. A series of useful introductions to the regional histories of Mexico, covering Guanajuato, Oaxaca, Sonora, and others.Find this resource:

Rodríguez O, Jaime E. “We Are Now the True Spaniards”: Sovereignty, Revolution, Independence, and the Emergence of the Federal Republic of Mexico, 1808–1824. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Rubial García, Antonio, ed. La iglesia en el México colonial. Mexico City: UNAM, 2013.Find this resource:

Schroeder, Susan, and Stafford Poole (eds.). Religion in New Spain. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2007.Find this resource:


(1.) I am indebted to Prof. Susan Deeds, Tracy Goode, and Guadalupe Pinzón for helpful suggestions. I owe much to Pietschmann, Bernecker, and Tobler, Eine kleine Geschichte Mexikos.

(2.) Fritz Hartung and Roland Mousnier, “Quelques problèmes concernant la monarchie absolue,” in Relazioni del X Congresso Internazionale di Scienze Storiche, Rome 1955 (Florence: G. C. Sansoni, 1955), 1–55; John Leddy Phelan, The Kingdom of Quito in the Seventeenth Century: Bureaucratic Politics in the Spanish Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967); Mark A. Burkholder and Dewitt Samuel Chandler, From Impotence to Authority: The Spanish Crown and the American Audiencias, 1687–1808 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1977); updated in Burkholder, Spaniards in the Colonial Empire: Creoles vs. Peninsulars? (Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013); on a negotiated state see Horst Pietschmann, Staat und staatliche Entwicklung am Beginn der spanischen Kolonisation Amerikas (Münster, Germany: Aschendorffsche Verlagshandlung, 1980); and Spanish translation: El estado y su evolución al principio de la colononización española de América (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1989).

(3.) H. G. Koenigsberger, “Composite States, Representative Institutions and the American Revolution,” Historical Research 62.148 (1989): 135–153; John H. Elliott, “A Europe of Composite Monarchies,” Past and Present 137 (1992): 57–59; and Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006).

(4.) Important is Horst Pietschmann, Walther L. Bernecker, and Hans Werner Tobler, Eine kleine Geschichte Mexikos (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2007); François-Xavier Guerra, “De la política antigua a la política moderna: La revolución de la soberanía,” in Los espacios públicos en Iberoamérica: Ambigüedades y problemas, Siglos XVIII–XIX, ed. François-Xavier Guerra, Annick Lempérière, et al. (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1998), 110–129; Jaime Rodríguez O., “We Are Now the True Spaniards”: Sovereignty, Revolution, Independence, and the emergence of the Federal Republic of Mexico, 1808–1824 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); Antonio Annino, “Soberanías en lucha,” in De los imperios a las naciones: Iberoamérica, ed. Antonio Annino, Luis Castro Leiva, François-Xavier Guerra (Zaragoza, Spain: Ibercaja Obra Cultural, 1994), 229–253; and David Brading, Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico, 1763–1810 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 33–96.

(5.) . Jesús Lalinde Abadía, “Depuración histórica del concepto de estado,” in El estado español en su dimensión histórica, ed. Jesús Lalinde Abadía, Manuel J. Peláez, et al. (Málaga, Spain: Publicaciones Universitarias, 1984), 19–58; Bartolomé Clavero, “Institución política y derecho: Acerca del concepto historiográfico de ‘estado moderno,’” Revista de Estudios Políticos 19 (1981): 43–57; and Jean-Frédéric Schaub, “El pasado republicano del espacio público,” in Guerra and Lempérière, Espacios públicos, 27–53.

(6.) Anthony Pagden, Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain, and France, c. 1500–1800 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 12–13; Pedro Cardim, Tamar Herzog, José Javier Ruis Ibáñez, and Gaetano Sabatini, eds., Polycentric Monarchies: How Did Early Modern Spain and Portugal Achieve and Maintain a Global Hegemony? (Brighton, U.K.: Sussex Academic Press, 2012); in general terms, David Armitage, ed. Theories of Empire, 1450–1800 (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 1998). The classics on imperial organization are J. H. Parry, The Spanish Seaborne Empire (London: Hutchinson, 1966); and C. H. Haring, The Spanish Empire in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947). See also Colin M. MacLachlan, Spain’s Empire in the New World: The Role of Ideas in Institutional and Social Change (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); Stanley J. Stein and Barbara H. Stein, Silver, Trade, and War: Spain and America in the Making of Early Modern Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000); and Arndt Brendecke, Imperio e información: Funciones del saber en el dominio colonial español (Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2012).

(7.) Christian Büschges, “La corte virreinal en la América hispánica colonial durante la época colonial,” Actas do XII Congresso Internacional de AHILA, Oporto, 1999 (Oporto, Portugal: Centro Leonardo Coimbra-Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto, 2001), 2: 131–140; Alejandro Cañeque, The King’s Living Image: The Culture and Politics of Viceregal Power in Colonial Mexico (New York: Routledge, 2004); Christoph Rosenmüller, Patrons, Partisans, and Palace Intrigues: The Court Society of Colonial Mexico, 1702–1710, Latin American and Caribbean Series 6 (Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 2008); and Lara Sembolini, La construcción de la autoridad virreinal en Nueva España, 1535–1595 (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 2014).

(8.) Carlos Marichal, Bankruptcy of Empire: Mexican Silver and the Wars between Spain, Britain, and France, 1760–1810 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1–12, quote at 5; Oscar Mazín Gómez, “Introducción,” in México en el mundo hispánico, ed. Oscar Mazín (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 2000), 1:15–18; quote at 15; Horst Pietschmann, “Diego García Panés y Joaquín Antonio de Rivadeneira Barrientos, pasajeros en un mismo barco: Reflexiones en torno al México ‘imperial’ entre 1755 y 1808,” in Un hombre de libros: homenaje a Ernesto de la Torre Villar, ed. Alicia Mayer and Amaya Garritz (Mexico City: UNAM, 2012), 203–233, quote at 207. Scholars also discuss the colonial character of the American realms, “Para seguir con el debate en torno al colonialismo,” Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos, February 8, 2005.

(9.) Marichal, Bankruptcy, 1–15, 255–265; Carlos Marichal and Matilde Souto Mantecón, “La nueva España y el financiamiento del imperio español en América: Los situados para el Caribe en el siglo XVIII,” in El secreto del imperio español: Los situados coloniales en el siglo XVIIII, ed. Johanna von Grafenstein and Carlos Marichal (Mexico City: Colegio de México, Instituto Mora, 2012), 61–93; and Bartolomé Yun Casalilla, ed., Las redes del imperio: Élites sociales en la articulación de la Monarquía Hispánica, 1492–1714 (Madrid: Marcial Pons, 2009).

(10.) Enriqueta Vila Vilar and Allan J. Kuethe, eds. Relaciones de poder y comercio colonial: nuevas perspectivas (Seville: CSIC, 1999); and Adrian J. Pearce, British Trade with Spanish America, 1763–1808 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007).

(11.) Carmen Yuste López, Emporios Transpacíficos: Comerciantes Mexicanos en Manila, 1710–1815 (Mexico City: UNAM 2007); Guadalupe Pinzón, Acciones y reacciones en los puertos del mar del sur: Desarrollo portuario del Pacífico novohispano a partir de sus políticas defensivas, 1713–1789 (Mexico City: UNAM, 2011); Mariano Ardash Bonialian, El pacífico hispanoamericano: Política y comercio asiático en el imperio español, 1680–1784; La centralidad de lo marginal (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 2012); Tatiana Seijas, Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014); see also Xavier Huetz de Lemps, L’archipel des épices: La corruption de l’administration espagnole aux Philippines (fin XVIIIe–fin XIXe siècle) (Madrid: Casa de Velázquez, 2006); Classic texts are William Lytle Schurz, The Manila Galleon (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1959); and Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri, Viaje a la Nueva España (Mexico City: UNAM, 2002).

(12.) John Tutino, Making a New World: Founding Capitalism in the Bajío and Spanish North America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); and Fréderique Langue, Los señores de Zacatecas: Una aristocracia minera del siglo XVIII novohispano (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1999).

(13.) Sharon Kettering, Patrons, Brokers, and Clients in Seventeenth-Century France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

(14.) Stuart Schwartz, Sovereignty and Society in Colonial Brazil: The High Court of Bahia and its Judges, 1609–1751 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973); essential is Michel Bertrand, Grandeur et misères de l’office: Les officiers de finances de Nouvelle-Espagne, XVIIe–XVIIIe siècles (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1999); Spanish translation: Grandeza y miseria del oficio. Los oficiales de la Real Hacienda de la Nueva España, siglos xvii y xviii (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2011); Christian Windler, “Bureaucracy and Patronage in Bourbon Spain,” in Observation and Communication: The Construction of Realities in the Hispanic World, ed. Johannes-Michael Scholz, and Tamar Herzog (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1997), 299–320; Zacarias Moutoukias, “Negocios y redes sociales: Modelo interpretativo a partir de un caso rioplatense (siglo XVIII),” Caravelle 67 (1997): 37–55; and Bernd Hausberger and Isabel Galaor, “La conquista del empleo público en la Nueva España: El comerciante gaditano Tomás Ruiz de Apodaca y sus amigos, siglo XVIII,” Historia Mexicana 56.3 (2007): 725–778.

(15.) Alejandra Irigoin and Regina Grafe, “Bargaining for Absolutism: A Spanish Path to Nation-State and Empire Building,” Hispanic American Historical Review 88.2 (2008): 173–209; and Regina Grafe, Markets, Power, and Backwardness in Spain, 1650–1800 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

(16.) These include Eric Van Young, The Other Rebellion: Popular Violence, Ideology, and the Mexican Struggle for Independence, 1810–1821 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001); and Wim Blockmans, André Holenstein, and Jon Mathieu, eds., Empowering Interactions: Political Cultures and the Emergence of the State in Europe 1300–1900 (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2009). Important works on indigenous postconquest history are Charles Gibson, The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico, 1519–1810 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1964); James Lockhart, The Nahuas after the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of central Mexico, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992); and Kevin Terraciano, The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca: Ñudzahui History, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001). On black agency, see Herman L. Bennett, Colonial Blackness: A History of Afro-Mexico (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009); and Matthew Restall, The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009). A solid overview is Ida Altman, Sarah Kline, Juan Javier Pescador, The Early History of Greater Mexico (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003).

(17.) Víctor Tau Anzoátegui, “El poder de la costumbre: Estudios sobre el Derecho Consuetudinario en América hispana hasta la Emancipación,” in Nuevas Aportaciones a la historia jurídica de Iberoamérica, ed. José Andrés Gallego, CD-ROM (Madrid: Fundación Histórica Tavera, 2000); Carlos Garriga, “Sobre el gobierno de la justicia en Indias (siglos XVI–XII),” Revista de Historia del Derecho 34 (2006): 67–160; Thomas Duve, Sonderrecht in der Frühen Neuzeit: Studien zum ius singulare und den privilegia miserabilium personarum, senum und indorum in Alter und Neuer Welt (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 2008); Yanna Yannakakis, The Art of Being In-Between: Native Intermediaries, Indian Identity, and Local Rule in Colonial Oaxaca (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Brian Owensby, Empire of Law and Indian Justice in Colonial Mexico (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008); and Woodrow Wilson Borah, Justice by Insurance: The General Indian Court of Colonial Mexico and the Legal Aides of the Half-Real (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

(18.) Javier Fernández Sebastián, ed., Diccionario político y social del mundo iberoamericano: Conceptos políticos fundamentales, 1770–1870, Iberconceptos 2 (Madrid: Universidad del País Vasco, 2014); and Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).