Bourbon Reforms in Latin America Essay

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By the late 17th century, the Spanish state had grown ossified, its grip on its overseas empire enfeebled. Trade and production in its American colonies had stagnated, Spain’s debts had mounted, and its imperial rivals had grown greatly in power—especially the English, Dutch, and French. Following the death of the heirless Charles II, the last Habsburg ruler of Spain in 1700, the War of the Spanish Succession, and the resulting Peace of Utrecht, the French Bourbon dynasty assumed control of the Spanish Crown. There followed under Bourbon rule a series of reforms intended to reinvigorate the state and empire. The Bourbon assumption of the Spanish throne from 1713 heralded the onset of a host of changes in law and policy, domestically and overseas—changes that fall under the general heading of the Bourbon reforms.

The overarching goals of the Bourbon reforms in the Americas were to strengthen Spain’s dominion and control of its colonial holdings and thus reenergize the empire. These goals were to be achieved by centralizing state power through a series of administrative reforms; increasing production and trade within the colonies; augmenting the revenues flowing into the Spanish treasury; and undermining the power of the Crown’s opponents and rivals. Ironically, these shifts in law and policy, intended to bring the colonies more closely under Spain’s control—and occurring just as the Enlightenment was profoundly transforming the face of the Atlantic world (indeed, the ideological impulse inspiring the Bourbon reforms has been called the Catholic Enlightenment)—ended up having the opposite effect: alienating the colonies’ Creole (American-born Spanish) population, intensifying their sense of American nationalism, and laying the groundwork for the wars of independence in the first quarter of the 19th century.

For purposes of analysis, the reforms instituted can be divided by the Bourbon monarchs Philip V, Ferdinand VI, Charles III, and Charles IV into the following categories: economic, political and administrative, military, and religious. The most intensive period of reform began in the 1760s under Charles III. To understand the origins and impact of these reforms, it is necessary to situate them in the context of the major events of the 18th century, especially the Seven Years’ War/French and Indian War in North America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, and the French Revolution in 1789—the republicanism and tumult of the latter horrifying monarchs across Europe, especially in Spain, and effectively ending the period of the Bourbon reforms in Spain’s American colonies.

Economic Reforms

Some of the principal goals of the Bourbon reforms were to increase production of primary export products in the colonies and trade within the colonies and between the colonies and Spain. Of greatest concern to the Crown was mining, which provided the bulk of the revenues flowing into the Spanish treasury. In an effort to stimulate silver production, in 1736 the Crown slashed its tax (the royal fifth) in half. It also helped to ensure a lower price for mercury, funded technical schools and credit banks, dispensed titles of nobility to prosperous mine owners, and facilitated the formation of mining guilds. Similar measures were adopted to increase gold production, especially in New Granada, the Crown’s major source of gold.

From 1717 the Crown also created state monopolies on tobacco production and trade. In keeping with the precepts of mercantilism, one of the major concerns of the Bourbon monarchs was to prevent the colonies from producing manufactured goods that would compete with goods exported from Spain. The resulting royal restrictions on industry and manufacturing in the colonies severely dampened colonial entrepreneurial activity, with the exceptions of the export-oriented mining, ranching, and agricultural sectors. A related mercantilist concern was to restrict trade with foreigners, especially the British, and thus ensure that all colonial trade was directed solely to Spain. A long series of laws and decrees were intended to achieve this result, most notably the compendious legal code of 1778, “Regulations and Royal Tariffs for Free Trade between Spain and the Indies.”

Many elite Creoles bridled at these and related restrictions, heightening their sense of alienation from the Crown. Similarly, measures to increase production in mining and agriculture generally meant more onerous production and labor regimes for workers and slaves. Overall, the Bourbon economic reforms succeeded in their aim of increasing production, trade, and royal revenues, while at the same time undermining both elite and subordinate groups’ sense of loyalty and allegiance to the Crown.

Political And Administrative Reforms

Accompanying the economic reforms were a host of political and administrative measures intended, again, to increase royal control of the colonies. One set of administrative reforms was to carve two new viceroyalties out of the Viceroyalty of Peru: the Viceroyalty of New Granada (1717 and 1739; a subjurisdiction of New Granada, created in 1777, was the CaptaincyGeneral of Venezuela) and the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata (in 1776). Following a series of inspections (visitas generales) from 1765–71, the Crown endeavored to weaken the power of the Creoles, whose influence, in the view of some, had grown too large.

In pursuit of this aim, audiencias were enlarged and their membership restricted to exclude most Creoles. The most substantial administrative reform came in the 1760s and 1770s, with the creation of a new layer of bureaucracy, a kind of regional governorship called the intendancy, which was to report directly to the minister of the Indies. The intendancy system, which threatened the authority of viceroys and other high administrators, largely failed in its goal of centralizing state control, mainly in consequence of the institutional inertia that had developed over the preceding two centuries and administrators’ resistance to relinquishing their authority. To the extent that the cumbersome bureaucratic apparatus was streamlined and rationalized, it was overwhelmingly in favor of peninsular Spaniards (those born in Spain) and to the detriment of Creole Spaniards—again, heightening many Creoles’ general feelings of disenchantment with royal authority.

Military Reforms

Especially in the wake of the British capture of Manila and Havana in 1762 (both returned to Spanish control in the Treaty of Paris of 1763), the Spanish Crown sought to enhance its military power throughout the empire. Efforts to strengthen the military were also rooted in the growing specter of violence from below, most visibly manifest in the Andean revolts from the 1740s to the 1780s. The Crown’s response to these crises was to increase the number of troops under arms and the number of commissioned officers. Most such commissions went to Creoles. From 1740 to 1769 Creoles made up about one-third of the officer corps. By 1810 the proportion approached two-thirds.

Elite Creoles could and often did purchase such commissions—a shortsighted policy that augmented both royal revenues and the power of American-born notables. On the other hand, given the extreme race class divisions throughout the colonies, the Crown was reluctant to arm members of the lower classes. Overall, the military reforms failed in the goal of strengthening the ties between Spain and the colonies by creating a large body of Creole officers who would later prove instrumental in the wars of independence.

Religious Reforms

The alliance and intermingling of Crown and church is one of the major themes of Spanish-American colonial history. In 1753, as part of the broader effort to reassert royal supremacy, the Crown negotiated a concordat with Rome stipulating greater royal authority in the nomination and appointment of ecclesiastical authorities. But the most consequential Bourbon reform in the religious realm was the expulsion of the Jesuits from all of Spanish America (and from Spain) in 1767. By the 1760s the Society of Jesus had become one of the most powerful institutions in the colonies—economically, politically, religiously, and in the realm of education by virtue of its extensive system of schools and colleges. The 1767 expulsion of some 2,200 Jesuits from Spanish America reverberated throughout the empire, as many Creoles, either educated in Jesuit colleges or sympathetic to the order’s progressive outlook, found the expulsion deeply troubling. In subsequent decades, the Crown auctioned off the estates and properties accumulated by the Jesuits and pocketed the proceeds. The Jesuits’ expulsion was a crucial source of disenchantment among many elite Creoles, driving yet another wedge between the Crown and those whose support it would most need to perpetuate its American empire.

All of these Bourbon reforms—economic, administrative and political, military, and religious—had multiple and contradictory effects, at some levels drawing the colonies closer to Spain and at other levels deepening divisions. Part of a broader trend in the 18th-century Atlantic world toward more modern and interventionist state forms, the reforms on the whole failed to achieve their intended results, mainly by generating diverse elite Creole grievances against royal authority—an accumulation of grievances that, in this age of rising nationalist sentiments in Europe and the Americas, facilitated the formation of a distinctly American identity and thus laid the groundwork for the wars of independence after the Napoleonic invasion of Iberia in 1807–08.


  1. Bethell, Leslie, ed. The Cambridge History of Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1984;
  2. Deans-Smith, Susan. Bureaucrats, Planters, and Workers: The Making of the Tobacco Monopoly in Bourbon Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992;
  3. Lynch, John. Bourbon Spain, 1700–1808. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

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