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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources and Translations
  • Journals
  • Conquest
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Economy and Labor
  • Society and Religion
  • Guatemala
  • Costa Rica
  • El Salvador and Honduras
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Independence

Latin American Studies Colonial Central America
David Carey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0076


Throughout the colonial period, Central America existed in the shadow of Mexico. The Spanish Empire’s preoccupation with its economic, political, and religious interests in Mexico afforded a certain degree of autonomy to those living and governing in Central America. Perhaps in part because of Spain’s limited interest in Central America, the historiography of the region remained sparse until the 1980s. The recent fluorescence in Central American colonial historiography can be traced to the 1970s with the publication of Severo Martínez Peláez’s La Patria del Criollo (see Martínez Peláez 2009) and Murdo MacLeod’s Spanish Central America (MacLeod 2008), both cited under General Overviews. Radically different in their approaches, sources, methods, and analysis, these two works became the foundations upon which future studies of colonial Central America were built. Extensively using literary works (particularly Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán’s Recordación Florida [Fuentes y Guzmán 1933], cited under Primary Sources and Translations), Martínez Peláez applied a Marxist analysis to his study of Guatemala. In his examination of the formation of social classes, large landowners’ exploitation, and what he called the creation of indios as laborers rather than an ethnic group, Martínez Peláez argued that the same exploitative relations that dominated the colonial era continued to rule modern-day Guatemala. In contrast, MacLeod turned to archival documents to demonstrate change over time and across regions in Central America during the colonial era. The influence of the French school associated with the Annales is notable in MacLeod’s focus on monocultural export production, Spain’s 17th-century “depression,” and other aspects of economic and demographic shifts during the colonial period. MacLeod’s impact is reflected in the demographic studies of colonial Central America that followed his groundbreaking book (see Lutz 1994 and Lovell 2005, both cited under Guatemala; Newson 1986, cited under El Salvador and Honduras; and Newson 1987, cited under Nicaragua). The 1992 Quinto Centenario that marked the five-hundred-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World further spurred research on colonial Central America. As one example, more than two hundred researchers participated in the first Congreso Centroamericano de Historia (Central American History conference) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in 1992. Beginning with the Fourth Congress in 1998, participants established a regular roundtable about colonial history. Because the majority of scholarship over the last three decades has tended to focus on the initial contact and early 16th century and the period after 1720, 16th- and 17th-century Central America is ripe with opportunities. Beyond a few fine studies, some of the best of which focus on the African presence in Central America (see Lokken 2001, cited under Society and Religion; Lokken 2004, cited under El Salvador and Honduras; and Cáceres Gómez 2000, cited under Costa Rica), the field is wide open.

General Overviews

The pathbreaking work of MacLeod 2008 notwithstanding, no book-length general synthesis of colonial Central America exists. Parts of some volumes, such as chapters 2 through 4 in Woodward 1999, and the collection of essays on the colonial era in Torres-Rivas 1994 offer nice introductions to the period and region, but a comprehensive synthesis continues to elude scholars. With its interdisciplinary approach, MacLeod’s monograph comes closest to a book-length synthesis in English, but the plethora of fine regional studies since its publication begs for an updated and broader study of Central America that takes its reader up to the time of Central American independence. For the most part, the general overviews mentioned below tend to focus on certain aspects of colonial rule to the exclusion of others. Wortman 1982 laid the groundwork for studies of politics and society with a particular focus on Bourbon rule. Dym and Belaubre 2007 expands, complicates, and at times contradicts Wortman’s analysis for the Bourbon era. As the colonial seat, Guatemala came to dominate colonial Central America. So the in-depth studies of colonial Guatemala (Jones 1994, Luján Muñoz 1996) offer insight into the region more broadly. Hall and Pérez Brignoli 2003 offers a window onto Central America’s colonial geography and cartography.

  • Dym, Jordana, and Christophe Belaubre, eds. Politics, Economy, and Society in Bourbon Central America, 1759–1821. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2007.

    As this collection of essays demonstrates, political, economic, and social changes often occurred irrespective of imperial mandates. Seldom systematic or coherent, the Bourbon reforms often had only a negligible impact in colonial Central America. Contributors arrive at this portrayal by examining schools, the Catholic Church, municipal governments, elites, gender relations, and alcohol. Good for undergraduates.

  • Hall, Carolyn, and Héctor Pérez Brignoli. Historical Atlas of Central America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.

    Concisely written, the authors use maps, charts, and tables to convey Central America’s colonial (and modern) period. With its emphasis on historical geography, this volume provides a fresh perspective on Central America’s colonial past. Good for undergraduates.

  • Jones, Oakah L. Guatemala in the Spanish Colonial Period. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

    This broad survey of colonial Guatemalan history pays close attention to Maya uprisings against colonial rule and the role of the clergy in extending the spiritual conquest of Guatemala.

  • Luján Muñoz, Jorge, ed. Historia General de Guatemala. 6 vols. Guatemala City: Asociación de Amigos del Pais, Fundación para la Cultura y el Desarrollo, 1996.

    Although the focus is on Guatemala, Volumes 2 and 3 cover the colonial period and provide detailed description and astute analysis that are relevant for the region as a whole. Because Guatemala housed the colonial capital of Central America, the political, economic, and social systems extended from there even as their applications differed by location and time. The sections on regional history in each volume underscore this latter point.

  • MacLeod, Murdo. Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520–1720. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.

    First published in 1973, Spanish Central America offers detailed description and analysis of the social and economic forces that shaped Central America in the 16th and 17th centuries. Particularly noteworthy as an early example of interdisciplinary analysis, this book uses concepts from anthropology, demography, geography, and even biology. This 2008 edition includes an informative essay on colonial Central American historiography since the 1970s. Good introductory book.

  • Martínez Peláez, Severo. La Patria del Criollo: An Interpretation of Colonial Guatemala. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.

    An English translation of La Patria del Criollo: Ensayo de interpretación de la realidad colonial Guatemalteca, which was first published in Spanish in 1971 (Guatemala City: Editorial Universitaria de Guatemala). Instead of approaching Guatemalan colonial history as an epic ethnic struggle, Martínez Peláez applied a Marxist framework and emphasized the class struggle and political economy. In addition to studying other injustices, he details the forced labor regimes Guatemalan elites imposed on indigenous peoples. Good for upper-level undergraduates.

  • Torres-Rivas, Edelberto, ed. Historia general de Centroamérica. 2d ed. San José, Costa Rica: FLACSO, 1994.

    Volume 2 (El régimen colonial [1524–1750], ed. Julio César Pinto Soria) and the first chapter (concerned primarily with Bourbon rule) in Volume 3 (De la ilustración al liberalism, ed. Héctor Pérez Brignoli) of this ambitious work cover colonial Central America. Taken together, these two volumes provide a good general history of Central America from 1524 to 1821 with particular attention paid to the economies, societies, and ideologies of colonial rule.

  • Woodward, Ralph Lee. Central America: A Nation Divided. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    Long considered the standard study of Central American history, this book provides the framework and effects of colonial rule in chapters 2 and 3. Chapter 3 is dedicated to Bourbon rule. Chapter 4 examines the transition to independence. Good for undergraduates.

  • Wortman, Miles. Government and Society in Central America, 1680–1840. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

    In addition to comprehensive coverage of the Bourbon era in Central America, this study pays close attention to the fiscal structure, particularly the lack of a legal export trade that made the central government dependent largely on tribute until the Bourbon reforms took effect. By highlighting interregional trade with Mexico, Peru, and Cuba, Wortman argues that the 17th-century depression had little if any effect in Central America.

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