In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Bourbon Reforms in the Spanish Atlantic

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources: Writings of Key Spanish Reformers
  • Early Reforms in the Iberian Peninsula, c. 1700–1759
  • Early Reforms in Spanish America, c. 1700–1759
  • Political and Administrative Reforms in Spanish America, c. 1759–1800
  • Legal History, Legal Pluralism, and the Bourbon Reforms
  • Military Reforms in Spanish America, c. 1759–1800
  • Commercial Reforms, c. 1759–1800
  • Consulados, Merchants, and the Bourbon Reforms, c. 1759–1800
  • Fiscal Reforms and Public Debt, c. 1759–1800
  • The Enlightenment, Science, and the Bourbon Reforms
  • Race, Slavery, and the Bourbon Reforms
  • The Bourbon Reforms and Colonial Rebellions
  • The Bourbon Reforms and Spanish American Independence

Atlantic History The Bourbon Reforms in the Spanish Atlantic
Fidel Tavárez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0399


In a very basic sense, the Bourbon reforms began shortly after the arrival of the Bourbon dynasty to the Spanish throne in 1700, when Charles II, the last Spanish Habsburg, died without an heir. In his will, Charles II stipulated that the Sun King’s (Louis XIV of France) grandson would become the next Spanish king. Concerned that the Bourbons now ruled over France, Spain, and their respective empires, Europe worried about the advent of “universal monarchy,” a development that contemporaries thought would upset the European balance of powers, which ultimately provoked the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714). Thus, the early Bourbon reforms must be understood in the context of this succession war, which pitted France and Spain against the other contending European powers, including Britain, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Dutch Republic. The early Bourbon reforms were, at their core, an effort to streamline Spain’s fiscal and military efficiency to cope with the demands of war during one of the most consequential military confrontations in early modern Europe. While the Spanish crown spent much of the century attempting to restructure its fiscal system and military apparatus to meet the ever-increasing demands of war, during the second half of the century a host of Spanish ministers began to suggest that developing Spain’s military capacity was an insufficient measure to protect and increase Spain’s power in a modern commercial society. Rather, Spain also had to worry about bringing about economic improvement, a task which it could accomplish by integrating its imperial economy. It was in this context that the idea of comercio libre (free internal trade) emerged as a replacement for the highly regulated fleets and galleons system. By instituting a system of free internal trade, many argued, Spain would be able to synergize its vast territories across the world, potentially creating the conditions for the erection of a highly integrated imperial economy. In the end, this effort proved to be unrealizable, as warfare engulfed the Spanish Atlantic during the 1790s and the first few decades of the 19th century.

General Overviews

The Bourbon reforms have historically been one of the most important fields of study among scholars of colonial Latin America. Scholars have been particularly concerned with studying the extent to which Bourbon reformers were successful in carrying out the administrative, commercial, fiscal, and military reforms they devised for Spanish America. By the same token, scholars have remained interested in tracing the effects—political, social, and economic—of the many reform projects initiated in the 18th century. The most important works in this line of inquiry include Barbier 1977, Brading 1984, Stein and Stein 2003, and Andrien and Kuethe 2014. Among scholars of peninsular Spain, including the authors of Sánchez-Blanco 2002 and Aguilar Piñal 2005, the term Bourbon reforms is less prevalent. In its stead, scholars of Spain prefer to use terms like “enlightened absolutism” or “enlightened despotism” to describe the host of reforms carried out during the 18th century. This distinction, of course, is a matter of convention, sometimes not entirely warranted by the historical phenomena the categories are meant to describe. Whatever terminology one uses, it is clear that the 18th century was a period of significant political, cultural, commercial, fiscal, and military reforms across the Spanish Atlantic. It should not surprise, then, that scholars have examined this complex reforming process from multiple angles. Gelman, et al. 2014 examines the relationship between reform and economic growth over the course of the 18th century. Paquette 2011 and Sánchez-Blanco 2002 study the relationship between the Enlightenment and reform. Finally, Pearce 2014 offers a new interpretation of the origins of the Bourbon reforms in Spanish America.

  • Aguilar Piñal, Francisco. La España del absolutismo ilustrado. Madrid, Spain: Espasa, 2005.

    Essentially a work of literary history, this book also argues against the use of the term “enlightened despotism” to describe 18th-century Spanish society.

  • Andrien, Kenneth, and Allan Kuethe. The Spanish Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century: War and the Bourbon Reforms, 1713–1796. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    Written by two experts of the Bourbon reforms, this is the most complete survey on the subject. Moreover, this work insists that, contrary to the more traditional historiography, the Bourbon reforms began during the first half of the 18th century, as early as 1714.

  • Barbier, Jacques A. “The Culmination of the Bourbon Reforms, 1787–1792.” Hispanic American Historical Review 57.1 (1977): 51–68.

    DOI: 10.2307/2513542

    While previous scholarship had suggested that the Bourbon reforms lost steam after the infamous minister of the Indies, José de Gálvez, perished in 1787, Barbier argues that the reforms did not come to a halt after 1787. In fact, he insists, the reforms that took place after 1787 were a logical culmination of earlier Bourbon projects.

  • Brading, David. “Bourbon Spain and Its American Empire.” In The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 1. Edited by Leslie Bethell, 389–440. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    Building on his earlier work, Brading 1971 here suggests that the Bourbon reforms represented a “revolution in government.” But where he had previously focused on the period of José de Gálvez’s general visitation in New Spain (1765–1771) and his subsequent tenure in the Ministry of the Indies (1776–1787), here Brading argued that the intellectual origins were to be found earlier in the century.

  • Gelman, Jorge, Enrique Llopis, and Carlos Marichal, eds. Iberoamérica y España antes de las independencias, 1700–1820: crecimiento, reformas y crisis. Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José María Luis Mora; Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología; El Colegio de México, 2014.

    This collective work aims to provide a general survey, in the form of specialized chapters by experts of various locations across the Spanish Empire (and the Portuguese Empire to a lesser extent), of the relationship between reform and economic growth over the course of the 18th century. The volume also pays attention to periods of crises.

  • Paquette, Garbiel. Enlightenment, Governance and Reform in Spain and Its Empire, 1759–1808. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    Though a relatively recent book, Paquette’s work has become a necessary read among scholars of the Hispanic world. Through a detailed analysis of the ideas that informed the Bourbon reforms in Spain’s American empire, Paquette is able to show the influence that regalism and the notion of “felicidad pública” (public well-being) had on the Bourbon reforms.

  • Pearce, Adrian. The Origins of Bourbon Reform in Spanish South America, 1700–1763. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

    Like Andrien and Kuethe 2014, Pearce argues that the Bourbon reforms in Spanish America had earlier origins than originally thought. By focusing on South America, and especially on the Viceroyalty of Peru, Pearce shows that important reform projects were carried out during the first half of the 18th century.

  • Sánchez-Blanco, Francisco. El absolutismo y las luces en el reinado de Carlos III. Madrid, Spain: Marcial Pons, 2002.

    Interrogating the relationship between the Enlightenment and the reign of Charles III, who is often portrayed as an enlightened monarch, Sánchez-Blanco polemically suggests that Charles III was a despotic and absolutist king, not a supporter of the Enlightenment. In fact, the reign of Charles III (1759–1788) represented an abandonment of Spain’s Enlightenment project, which had allegedly taken place earlier in the century with thinkers like Benito Jerónimo Feijoo.

  • Stein, Barbara H., and Stanley J. Stein. Apogee of Empire: Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759–1789. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

    Focused on the reign of Charles III, this erudite and well-researched work argues that the Bourbon reforms were little more than a kind of “defensive modernization,” aimed at shoring up the “gothic” edifice of the Spanish Empire. Thus, according to the Steins, the reforms were never meant to completely transform the empire.

  • Stein, Barbara H., and Stanley J. Stein. Edge of Crisis: War and Trade in the Spanish Atlantic, 1789–1808. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1353/book.3370

    Focused on the period between the French Revolution and the Napoleonic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, this sequel to Apogee of Empire explores how Spain muddled through a period of deep crisis, which resulted from the deleterious effects of Atlantic warfare.

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