Latin American Studies Guatemala (Colonial Period)
by
Stephen Webre
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0209

Introduction

The colonial period in Guatemalan history is customarily dated from 1524 to 1821. During that time, Guatemala was the most populous and most prosperous of the provinces that made up the kingdom, or audiencia, of Guatemala, a district that stretched from Chiapas in the west to Costa Rica in the east. The largest single element in the colonial population consisted of native Mayas, but transatlantic contact added other important groups to the mix, among them Spaniards, ladinos (as mestizos are called in Guatemala), and Afro-descendants. Guatemala’s multiracial past offers multiple historical experiences for scholarly exploration. A challenge confronting any scholar of the colonial period is the need to distinguish clearly among the many different uses to which the place name Guatemala has been put. In addition to the province and the kingdom, both called Guatemala, there are two important cities. Often called simply Guatemala City, Santiago de Guatemala was the capital of both the province and the kingdom from 1524 until 1773, when severe earthquake damage led authorities in Spain to order its abandonment and a new city built some forty kilometers away. Known officially as Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, the new capital remains the center of government in Guatemala and is also commonly referred to as Guatemala City. For its part, the old city remained inhabited and is now known as Antigua Guatemala. Finally, the term Guatemala may also refer to the Valley of Guatemala, actually a complex of nine fertile and well-watered valleys whose dense native population, sometimes laboring alongside enslaved Africans, worked to produce maize, wheat, sugar, livestock, and other consumer goods for local and regional markets. Given the dominant role played in isthmian life by the old and new cities and their surrounding valleys, it should not surprise readers to learn that many works about Central America in the colonial period are, in fact, mostly about Guatemala. As it happens, the country itself has a long tradition of historical writing going back to Santiago de Guatemala’s most renowned 16th-century resident, Bernal Díaz del Castillo. During the colonial and early national periods, writers of history tended to be ecclesiastics, civil servants, attorneys, and other amateurs. About the middle of the 20th century, however, professionally trained historians began to enter the field. Works by pioneer professionals, such as Chinchilla Aguilar 1999, cited under Institutions), Samayoa Guevara 1978, cited under Institutions), and Lanning 1955, under Institutions), made significant contributions to institutional history. With the publication in the 1970s of watershed studies by Martínez Peláez 2010) and MacLeod 2008, all cited under General Overviews), historical production on Guatemala’s colonial past began to expand rapidly in both quantity and quality. It remains, however, a field of broad opportunity, offering abundant primary sources and many topics partially or completely unexplored.

General Overviews

The only book-length survey of colonial Guatemalan history is Jones 1994. Torres Rivas 1994 and Luján Muñoz 1993–1999 offer detailed treatments, with the latter providing much more extensive coverage of key issues in the field. The anthologies Webre 1989 and Herrera and Webre 2013 serve as good guides to trends in colonial historiography over the years. Originally published in the 1970s, MacLeod 2008 and Martínez Peláez 2010 continue to be essential preparatory reading for any colonial-era research project. Wortman 1982 supplements MacLeod and offers a different interpretation of some key issues. Finally Woodward 1999 and Woodward 2008 remain the standard general accounts of Guatemalan history in English.

  • Herrera, Robinson A., and Stephen Webre, eds. La época colonial en Guatemala: Estudios de historia social y cultural. Guatemala City: Editorial Universitaria, Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, 2013.

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    Collected essays deal with conflict in Maya pueblos; African slavery, emancipation, and mestizaje in the Oriente; nuns, power, and the control of convent assets; urban law enforcement; rivalries over intoxicating beverages and militia service in Quetzaltenango; heterodox religious practices; and racism and elite ideology. Includes contributions by Héctor Aurelio Concohá Chet, Paul Lokken, Christophe Belaubre, Alvis E. Dunn, Jorge H. González Alzate, Jordana Dym, Leonardo Hernández, Coralia Gutiérrez Alvarez, and Ivonne Recinos Aquino.

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

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    Recommended for a quick introduction, despite weaknesses, especially significant omissions for the mid-colonial period. A more comprehensive work is needed.

  • Luján Muñoz, Jorge, gen. ed. Historia general de Guatemala. 6 vols. Guatemala City: Asociación de Amigos del País, Fundación para la Cultura y Desarrollo, 1993–1999.

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    Collaborative effort with contributions by internationally recognized specialists. Encyclopedic in scope. For colonial topics, turn to Volume 2, edited by Ernesto Chinchilla Aguilar, and Volume 3, edited by Cristina Zilbermann de Luján.

  • MacLeod, Murdo J. Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520–1720. 2d ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.

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    Essential. Originally published in 1973, the work describes the long-term impact of the encounter between Spaniards and native peoples, including the impact on indigenous population; landscape and environment; and patterns of labor, production, and exchange. Accepting the thesis of secular depression in 17th-century Spanish America, MacLeod provides a convincing account of colonial authorities’ efforts to manage effects of boom-and-bust export cycles.

  • Martínez Peláez, Severo. La Patria del Criollo: An Interpretation of Colonial Guatemala. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

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    Essential. Originally issued in Spanish in 1970, the volume builds on Marxist analysis of Fuentes y Guzmán 1969–1972 (cited in Early Histories). Argues that that text reveals elements of dominant-class ideology justifying the wealth and privilege enjoyed by families such as Fuentes y Guzmán’s. According to the author, the fundamentals of Guatemalan society have not changed since colonial times, nor have attitudes and assumptions that underlie them.

  • Torres Rivas, Edelberto, gen. ed. Historia general de Centroamérica. 2d ed. 6 vols. San José, Costa Rica: FLACSO, 1994.

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    Collaborative effort motivated by 1992 observance of Columbian Quincentenary. Focuses on Central America as a whole, but Guatemala is well represented. Colonial-period topics are treated in Volume 2, edited by Julio César Pinto Soria, and Volume 3, edited by Héctor Pérez Brignoli.

  • Webre, Stephen, ed. La sociedad colonial en Guatemala: Estudios regionales y locales. Antigua Guatemala: Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica, 1989.

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    Collected studies intended to reflect major research trends at time. Essays deal with missionization, ethnic relations, land tenure, colonial elites, and urban society. In addition to Webre, contributors include Anne Cox Collins, Pilar Sanchiz Ochoa, W. George Lovell, Michel Bertrand, Julio César Pinto Soria, and Inge Langenberg.

  • Woodward, Ralph Lee, Jr. Central America: A Nation Divided. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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    The standard work in English on Central America, first published in 1976.

  • Woodward, Ralph Lee, Jr. A Short History of Guatemala. Antigua Guatemala: Editorial Laura Lee, 2008.

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    Abbreviated version of Woodward 1999, with a focus exclusively on Guatemala material. Quick place to begin.

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

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    Account picks up essentially where MacLeod 2008 leaves off. Wortman offers a more optimistic assessment of 17th-century economic conditions than MacLeod, followed by a skeptical appraisal of Bourbon-era policies and outcomes. The transition to postcolonial order is also addressed.

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