In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Colonial Governance in Spanish America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Reference Works
  • Document Collections
  • Contemporary Accounts
  • Colonial Governance
  • Fiscal Governance
  • Bourbon Reorganization
  • Imperial Spain
  • The Catholic Church

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Atlantic History Colonial Governance in Spanish America
Emily Berquist Soule
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0101


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.

General Overviews and Reference Works

Most of the more recent overviews have been produced for undergraduate classroom use. The best of these is Burkholder and Johnson 2010. For specialists and scholars, Lockhart and Schwartz 1983 offers the most extensive discussion of social, political, and economic institutions. Its bibliography remains an excellent survey of the most important older literature in the field. Also foundational, Bethell 1984 is a broad-based collection of nuanced introductions to urban development, Indian policy, and Bourbon restructuring during the 18th century. Brading 1991 can be read as an overview but also serves as a reference work, as it consists of entries of five to ten pages on major figures of the colonial period, along with bibliographic references. Pillsbury 2008 is an indispensable resource for any scholar of the Andes, providing an unprecedented orientation to archival documentary sources in the region along with a richly illustrated and annotated two-volume dictionary of major figures and works. TePaske, et al. 1982–1990 is an indispensable resource for scholars seeking imperial economic statistics from South America.

  • Bethell, Leslie, ed. The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 1, Colonial Latin America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    Essays by leading scholars, including J. H. Elliott, Stuart Schwartz, and Asunción Lavrin. Volume 1 focuses on preconquest societies, general history, and the Catholic Church. Volume 2, also on colonial Latin America, includes sections on population, economic and social structures, and intellectual and cultural life. Both also treat Portuguese America.

  • Brading, David A. The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492–1867. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    Comprehensive intellectual history detailing the major figures of political, social, and religious thought throughout the colonial period.

  • Burkholder, Mark A., and Lyman L. Johnson. Colonial Latin America. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Seventh edition of the most useful textbook for undergraduate classrooms. Readable survey with useful chronologies and updated suggestions for further reading.

  • Lockhart, James, and Stuart B. Schwartz. Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    A synthetic overview suitable for scholars or graduate-level introductory reading. Especially strong on social and economic history.

  • Pillsbury, Joanne, ed. Guide to Documentary Sources for Andean Studies, 1530–1900. 3 vols. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

    Comprehensive reference work on the Andes that covers scholarship in history, art history, anthropology, and archaeology. Special emphasis on indigenous cultures. Volume 1 focuses on documentary sources, while volumes 2 and 3 give biographical and bibliographic information on authors and texts.

  • TePaske, John J., and Herbert S. Klein, with Kendall Brown, and Alvaro Jara. The Royal Treasuries of the Spanish Empire in America. 4 vols. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1982–1990.

    This four-volume set treats Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Río de la Plata, and Ecuador. Valuable quantitative statistics compiled from various colonial administration centers.

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