The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | Articles | Latin America/Colonial | Notes on Spanish Imperial Defense of Latin America (revised)

Email to a friend
Printer friendly

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. 

    The 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.


  1. ministerial responsibility as against conciliar form of government. Minister of Indies instead of Council of Indies. French idea, partial change
  2. Council of the Indies
  3. Casa de Contrataciůn
  4. administrative districts in America--multiplication, intendenacy system tried in Spain first
  5. taxation
  6. trading system
  7. Miscellany of other economic by government
  8. military, defense, and expansion
  9. 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 GŠlvez, 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 Contrataciůn 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 America.

    New captaincies-general were created in Venezuela (1761), Cuba (1777), and Chile.

Trading System

    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 Contrataciůn in 1790 and an increased number of consulados in the late 18th century.

Defense Changes

    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.

Intellectual changes

Enlightenment involved the belief that reason could be used to achieve progress. The influence of Benjamin Franklin was great.

Jerůnimo Feijůo 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 Feijůo hid the foreign origins of the ideas, couching them in Spanish terms. He was a vehicle of the Enlightenment into Spain and Spanish America.

Josť MarŪa Campomanes and Gaspar de Jovellanos were examples of Enlightenment men in office. Josť 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 Econůmicas.del Amigos del PaŪs 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 shortage.@ 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@ society opposed.

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].

Political events


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 BogotŠ 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 Amarķ II, born Josť Gabriel Condorcanqui, was an educated Indian and direct descendant of the Inca Tupac Amarķ, 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 Amarķ 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 NariŮo in BogotŠ, 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 Simůn BolŪvar, 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. BolŪvar, believing he had betrayed the movement, caught him and turned him over to the Spanish. He died in a Spanish prison.
    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.