Wanted: document ‘handler and shaker’. Provincial rivalries and imperial reform in the early Bourbon Spanish world

Francisco A. Eissa-Barroso
(francisco.eissabarroso [at] Manchester.ac.uk)

In a letter to Philip V, first Bourbon king of Spain, dated 23 July 1720, the city council of Cartagena de Indias suggested the appointment of an individual who, ‘for a small salary’, would ‘continuously handle and shake’ the documents in the archive of the viceroyalty of New Granada. This fortunate individual would have to cope with the tropical heat of the Caribbean port which, according to the aldermen, ‘while torrid, is neither intolerable nor bothersome’ being in fact ‘less hot than many parts of Spain during the summer, with the only difference that [in Cartagena] there is little respite from the heat throughout the year’.[1] Although not specified in the letter, the fortunate appointee was probably expected to perform his enviable tasks and brave the unrelenting heat wearing a thick velvet cassock and a wig, in keeping with the fashions of the time and the standing of an employee of the Spanish Crown. Unfortunately, the king never created such an enviable position.

The letter in which the authorities of Cartagena de Indias celebrated the moderate and enjoyable climate of their city and recommended the appointment of a document shaker who would prevent the papers in the viceregal archive from being destroyed by termites (comején) failed to achieve its objective: the relocation of the capital of New Granada from Santa Fe de Bogota to the coast. In fact, quite contrary to its authors’ intentions, the letter gave origin to a process which would lead to the suppression of the viceroyalty in 1723.

Cartagena’s request to become the viceregal capital should be read in the context of its longstanding rivalry with Santa Fe for primacy within the New Kingdom of Granada. Cartagena was the oldest of the two cities; in the early days, it had provided a crucial foothold for Spanish exploration and colonisation of the South American mainland; it had since become the most important commercial hub in the region. It boasted its own provincial governor and a bishopric; it was the see of the Inquisition in New Granada and by most accounts it was the more dynamic and wealthy of the two cities. Moreover, before 1717, it had requested on at least two occasions the creation of viceroyalty in the New Kingdom.

Santa Fe, although founded later and perhaps less well communicated (being far from the sea, high in the central valleys), had a more benign climate and its fertile surrounding provided abundant food to support its population. For these reasons, it had from early on become the regional administrative centre.  In the early eighteenth century, it had a governor of its own (formally superior to that of Cartagena); it housed the region’s high court (audiencia), its archbishopric, its only mint and the superior royal treasury. Tensions between both cities were exacerbated by Cartagena’s reliance for its defence on financial resources from the interior and by Santa Fe’s attempts at controlling and centralising all trade going to or from Cartagena. Thus it is not surprising that upon the creation of the viceroyalty of New Granada both cities bade each other to become the new demarcation’s capital city.

Unfortunately, far from securing the viceregal capital for either city, their disagreement played directly into the hands of political actors in the Iberian Peninsula who saw the continued existence of the viceroyalty as a challenge to their authority. After all, New Granada had been elevated to the rank of a viceroyalty as part of the ambitious programme of reforms introduced by Philip V’s controversial minister Giulio Alberoni in 1717. These reforms had weakened the influence and authority of both the Council of Indies, in Madrid, and the Merchants’ Guild of Seville/Cadiz.

In 1720, following Alberoni’s fall from grace, both the Council and the Merchants’ guild were keen to see all of his reforms overturned. Not surprisingly, the Council managed to turn the dispute between Cartagena and Santa Fe into an excuse to supress the viceroyalty. In response to Cartagena’s letter, the Council asked a number of leading corporations and authorities in New Granada to comment on whether the viceregal capital should remain in Santa Fe or be moved to the coast. More than ten replies were received. Of these, only one objected to the existence of the viceroyalty urging the crown to suppress it. The criticism voiced by Alejo Díaz Muñoz, military magistrate (auditor de guerra) of Cartagena de Indias, filtered down almost verbatim into the text of the royal decree which suppressed the viceroyalty of New Granada in November 1723. This decision temporarily did away with an institution which had been created without the Council of Indies’ input and whose head thought himself to be exempt from the Council’s authority.

This account of the suppression of the viceroyalty of New Granada challenges those interpretations prevalent in the historiography. These tend to blame the short-lived existence of the viceroyalty on the unsuitability of its first viceroy, Jorge de Villalonga, on the extreme poverty of New Granada, supposedly unable to afford the expense of a viceroy, or on the failure of the viceroyalty to achieve the aims for which it had been created. Moreover, the interpretation I have briefly outlined here highlights the importance of considering the broader context of the Spanish Monarchy for explaining policy decisions which affected specific regions within the empire; at the same time, it sheds light on the ways in which the interests and voices of local and regional actors interacted with political tensions at the court in Madrid impacting on policy making, even if not always in the intended manner.

Suggestions for further reading:

Eissa-Barroso, Francisco A., ‘El abate, el consejo y el virreinato: la política cortesana y la primera creación del virreinato de Nueva Granada (1717-1723)’, in España y América en el Bicentenario de las Independencias, ed. by F. Fernández Beltrán and L. Casajús (Castelló de la Plana: Publicaciones de la Universitat Jaume I, 2012), pp. 293-315.

Kuethe, Allan J. and Kenneth J. Andrien, The Spanish Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century: War and the Bourbon Reforms, 1713-1796 (Cambridge: CUP, 2014), Chapters 1 and 2.

Kuethe, Allan J., ‘Cardinal Alberoni and Reform in the American Empire’, in Early Bourbon Spanish America. Politics and Society in a Forgotten Era (1700-1759), ed. by F. A. Eissa-Barroso and A. Vázquez Varela (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 23-38.

[1] Archivo General de Indias (Seville), Santa Fe, leg. 286, n. 28b, f. 300v.

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