Colonial Governance in Spanish America

Emily Berquist Soule

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online March 2013 | | DOI:
Colonial Governance in Spanish America

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
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  • Regional and National History



Infamously complex and mutable, yet in some ways surprisingly standardized, the Spanish governance of colonial America is a much-explored topic that remains an important subject of historical analysis. In general, it can be broadly parsed into three phases that are especially useful in showing change—and continuity—over time. In the conquest period of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Crown issued decrees and promulgations from the peninsula but was largely unable to implement any systematic governance in America, where conquistadores and encomenderos exploited local people and resources in accordance with their own agendas. The administrative consolidation that took place under the Habsburg regime (1506–1700) imposed a more methodical system of rule. The Habsburgs established regular institutions of governance in America, including regional viceroyalties managed by royal officials called viceroys; the audiencia royal high courts of appeal; and the consejo de Indias that gave policy directives for Spanish possessions in America as well as Asia. The Habsburgs also established many of the most effective systems of economic exploitation, including the forced Indian labor draft known as the mita, and the complex system of transatlantic trade tax levies. After the death of Charles II in 1700, the mentally and physically disabled last Spanish Habsburg, Spain was subsumed by a war of succession as the major European powers battled over which of them would inherit the throne. By 1714, the French house of Bourbon emerged victorious and established a new rule from Madrid. But it was not until the reign of Charles III (r. 1759–1788) that the Bourbons would engender a large-scale reorganization of imperial administration, known today as the “Bourbon reforms.” Sometimes referred to as a “second conquest” of America, these measures sought to override the overlapping bureaucratic jurisdictions that had characterized the Habsburg method of rule. Within such a convoluted history of colonial rule, the earlier foundational scholarship of colonial Spanish American governance retains much of its value. Early works on the American bureaucratic and legal systems, and on specific figures therein, outline the contours of a system that often appears inscrutable at first glance. In the history of Spanish fiscal exploitation of America, significant early works likewise retain their usefulness, especially in terms of mining and transatlantic trade, two of the most challenging topics of economic policy. Since the cultural turn of the 1980s, the historiography of colonial Spanish America has been overwhelmingly dominated by social and cultural approaches. These studies often highlight the coercive relationships between elites and plebeians, Indian survival and rebellion, and local responses to imperial policies. Young scholars are approaching traditional topics of study with newer analytical frameworks. New approaches to economic history are broadening our perspective on imperial finance. For instance, recent work has shown how the financial instruments that arose surrounding the silver industry had implications reaching far beyond the industry itself. In keeping with the trend in early North American history, scholars of the Spanish Empire are also increasingly adopting Atlantic world perspectives in their work, often with a comparative slant. Another important trend of recent years is paying closer attention to frontier areas that the Spanish themselves considered marginal.

Article.  5516 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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