Atlantic History Warfare in Spanish America
Rodrigo Moreno Gutiérrez
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0347


In the same way that it is possible to understand warfare as organized violence with political ends, it is also useful to think of it as a particular condition of a society: a set of radically transforming experiences of individuals and communities; an unpredictable and chaotic process that defines identities and produces new forms of common life; and the creative space of a particular culture marked by different types of relationships between the members of a community. As can be seen from several historiographical traditions, there is a direct relationship between warfare and the process of state building: the state makes war and war makes the state. The regime established in America from the end of the 15th century to the 19th century can be explained by this relationship between institutional construction and the practice of violence. Like any empire of its time, the Spanish monarchy founded its authority, part of its legitimacy, its fiscal and administrative organization, its bureaucracy, its control systems, and its trade opportunities on the ground of warfare, and with these characteristics informed the slow and problematic processes of conquest, colonization, and subjection of the New World. Approaching Spanish America through both warfare and the military offers two major advantages: on the one hand, learning the history of its institutional, social, political, economic, and cultural development, and on the other, identifying the prolific historiography that has studied it. This bibliographical selection expresses both fields: the history of warfare in Spanish America and its changing historiography. The characteristics, pretensions, contradictions, and flaws of the Spanish institutional framework that for three centuries expanded from the Caribbean and came to dominate immense regions of North, Central, and South America until it entered into crisis and collapsed, leading to the emergence of national states, can be understood from its capacity to mobilize economic and human resources for warfare. Likewise, these very diverse armed forces involved in such processes were historical expressions of the societies that produced them. The studies in this bibliography express the historical complexity of Spanish America from the perspective of organization and experience of warfare. Although the sections are thematic, as far as possible the selection seeks to include in each case the broad spectrum of the three centuries of colonial domination; the sections referring to War Experiences do evolve with a more chronological criterion from conquests to independences and the emergence of national states.

General Overviews

Leading specialists in the history of warfare and military institutions in Spanish America have written very helpful general overviews, some of which were part of the important and still useful Spanish collection published by Mapfre in 1992 on the occasion of the Fifth Centenary. In this collection, Marchena Fernández 1992 summarizes the historical evolution of the army and militias in colonial Spanish America, Gómez Pérez 1992 the transformations of the defensive system in the 18th century, Salas López 1992 its regulations and norms, and Calderón Quijano 1996 the design, construction, and importance of its fortifications. There are some overviews of the military structure and organization developed in New Spain like Guedea 2002 and Beverina 1992 about Rio de la Plata, which can be complemented with Kuethe 2000 as a survey of the international conflicts that caused the reforms of the 18th century. The edited book Kuethe and Marchena Fernández 2005 brings together articles that provide a complete overview of the historiographic perspectives and concerns that have addressed the Spanish-American colonial military world in recent decades, particularly in its latest historical stage.

  • Beverina, Juan. El virreinato de las provincias del Río de la Plata: Su organización militar. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Biblioteca del Oficial, 1992.

    Originally published in 1935, it features a useful survey of the military structure and militia organization of the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata. It describes the functions of the military authorities and the characteristics of the combat units, as well as a relevant documentary selection.

  • Calderón Quijano, José Antonio. Las fortificaciones españolas en América y Filipinas. Madrid: Mapfre, 1996.

    Complete overview of the defensive infrastructure that was designed and built in America (and in the Philippines) to defend the positions of greater strategic importance, particularly the port nodes that were to be defended against piracy. The book explains the characteristics and purpose of these fortifications, covering each of the American territories and their respective coastlines.

  • Gómez Pérez, Carmen. El sistema defensivo americano, siglo XVIII. Madrid: Mapfre, 1992.

    Useful overview of the transformations that “the army of America” underwent as a result of the continuous normative modifications implemented by the Bourbons throughout the 18th century. Based mainly on regulations and laws, it explains types of recruitment, logistics, supplies, weapons, health, feeding, training, and costs of the Spanish-American military system.

  • Guedea, Virginia. “La organización militar.” In El gobierno provincial en la Nueva España, 1570–1787. Edited by Woodrow Borah, 135–162. Mexico City: UNAM, 2002.

    Brief overview of the characteristics of military organization of Spanish America. Although it refers only to the Viceroyalty of New Spain, it also describes the generalities of military government structure and its attributions, as well as the particularities of military and militia service in the Indies, with notes on coastal and frontier defense systems.

  • Kuethe, Allan. “Conflicto internacional, orden colonial y militarización.” In Historia general de América Latina. Vol. 4, Procesos americanos hacia la redefinición colonial. Directed by Enrique Tandeter, 325–348. Madrid: UNESCO, 2000.

    Overview of the defense system of Spanish America and its transformations throughout the 18th century. Explains the transition from a low-cost apparatus of military garrisons to the development of large militia units that ended up in the hands of the Spanish Americans themselves, in terms of both composition and financing.

  • Kuethe, Allan J., and Juan Marchena Fernández, eds. Soldados del rey: El ejército borbónico en vísperas de la Independencia. Castelló de la Plana, Spain: Universitat Jaume I, 2005.

    Compilation of nine important articles, most of them previously published, by Lyle McAlister’s most influential disciples: Allan Kuethe, Leon G. Campbell, Juan Marchena Fernández, and Christon I. Archer. Together, they offer a representative insight into various matters (discipline, structure, politics, financing, authority) of the Spanish-American warfare in the late colonial period in such areas as New Spain, Peru, and Cartagena.

  • Marchena Fernández, Juan. Ejército y milicias en el mundo colonial Americano. Madrid: Mapfre, 1992.

    Didactic and schematic overview of the military institution in colonial Spanish America by one of the most referred specialists in the subject. It deals with the evolution of the military defense and control of the American domains until its gradual professionalization. Discusses matters such as the internal structure, social composition, and daily life of the Spanish army in America.

  • Salas López, Fernando de. Ordenanzas militares en España e Hispanoamérica. Madrid: Mapfre, 1992.

    Survey of the evolution of military regulations that Spanish monarchy gave to America from the 16th to the 18th century, with a focus on the reforms introduced by the Bourbons and in particular the Military Ordinance of 1768. It includes aspects of recruitment, military justice, and punishment.

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