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The Spanish Colonial System

From its founding until the eighteenth century, the Council of the Indies possessed supreme legal, administrative, military, trade, finance, and, by way of royal patronage over the church in the colonies, religious authority. It was the primary executive and lawmaking body, as well as the final court of appeals.

Immediately below the Council of the Indies, and located in the American and Asian kingdoms, were the archbishops, viceroys, and judges of the royal courts audiencias. Throughout the reign of the Hapsburgs, from to , the colonies had two viceroyalties: New Spain and Peru. Between and , when the Portuguese and Spanish crowns were united, the viceroyalty of Brazil was integrated into the imperial bureaucracy. Under the Bourbons, who ruled since , two additional viceroyalties were created: New Granada , and La Plata As the alter ego of the crown, viceroys possessed broad executive and lawmaking powers, and they acted as the vice-patron of the church and the president of the viceregal audiencia.

Predominately aristocrats without juridical training, viceroys could influence decisions and proceedings of the tribunal as its president, but could not decide the outcome of legal cases. In addition, as the secular protectors of Indians, viceroys were ordered to designate at least one day each week to hear cases and to receive petitions brought by native subjects. As a specially designated court for the protection of native people, the Juzgado guaranteed that native people received abbreviated legal processes, summary judgments, and reduced or free legal services.

Despite the legal protections proffered by the Juzgado, natives in New Spain recognized that having their case heard by judges or appealed to the audiencia could provide legal advantages, in certain cases. Similarly, native people in outlying provinces recognized the impracticality of bringing their cases before either the audiencia or the Juzgado in Mexico City , or the audiencia in Lima and relied on provincial audiencia judges to decide their cases. In the frontiers and outlying provinces, the provincial audiencia judges were generally the highest royal officials with whom the local population interacted.

Presentation on theme: "THE SPANISH COLONIAL SYSTEM"— Presentation transcript:

In addition to their judicial powers, audiencia judges generally possessed extensive executive and administrative authorities—being the first royal bureaucrats to arrive in newly conquered territories. The earliest audiencias , or royal courts, were established in Santo Domingo and Mexico City , to rein in the conquistadors.

Under the Bourbons, the Audiencias of Buenos Aires —, reinstated in , Venezuela , and Cuzco were also established. Jurisdictional disputes were common among the secular and religious authorities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries because officials held overlapping authorities.

The Spanish conquistadores and colonial empire

Despite being structurally subordinate to the viceroy, for example, the audiencia judges who lived away from the viceregal capital were able to exercise their executive and administrative powers in relative autonomy, while those closer to Mexico City and Lima frequently challenged the executive and administrative authority of the viceroy.

Additionally, while archbishops were responsible for overseeing the evangelization of and upholding religious orthodoxy among the native population, and viceroys for the good governance and treatment of the native population, their respective interpretations of how to administer the native population brought them into frequent conflict with one another.

On one hand, as colonial officials brought their disputes to the Council of the Indies, it allowed the council to assert royal authority in the colonies. On the other hand, recognizing the overlapping jurisdictions, native people learned to manipulate the tensions in the system, often to their advantage, as they appealed their cases from lower courts or challenged the legal interpretations and powers of parallel authorities.


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At the imperial level, laws derived from royal and viceregal provisions, mandates, and ordinances. In general, crown laws addressed specific concerns of particular petitioners and litigants and, therefore, generally were narrow in scope rather than universal. Moreover, generally responding to the initiative of petitioners and litigants, crown laws reflected the concerns and issues of Africans, Indians, and castas mixed-raced people , as well as Spaniards.

As the imperial period progressed, the crown increasingly promulgated universal laws for common problems and aimed to standardize laws. The earliest bodies of laws issued were the Laws of Burgos — and the New Laws , both of which aimed to establish standards for governance as well as conduct for Spanish colonists in their dealings with the native population.

Although most laws remained particular, as the legal system developed, royal officials increasingly aimed to universalize and standardize laws, and to have laws to mediate between the various communities under crown authority. At the communal level, laws were based on the customary laws, traditions, and ordinances of the particular community. In issuing laws that addressed concerns or issues of a particular community, Castilian practice necessitated that royal law and legal decisions not ignore the rights, traditions, and practices of the community.

Thus, each community had its own legal tradition, whether it was a locality, such as a village, town, or city; or a religious, political, or economic community, such as the body of friars, nobles, merchants, or military orders. Likewise, according to colonial legal practices with Castilian tradition, in the crown mandated that its officials protect native customs and traditions in their legal decisions—as long as the indigenous laws did not contradict Catholic doctrine or natural law.

In civil disputes involving persons from other communities or sojourners, Spanish officials—governors, corregidores , and alcalde mayores —adjudicated the cases. In the early sixteenth century, and later in frontier areas, when royal officials were not present, friars often adjudicated civil and criminal cases. Likewise, being charged with tutoring native people in Spanish political, legal, and religious norms, zealous friars, parish priests, and royal officials sometimes punished native people for practices that contradicted Catholic doctrine or natural law.

Baldwin, but I have carefully revised it and am alone responsible for it in its present shape. To facilitate the consultation of Roscher's authorities for further reading or investigation short bibliographical notes have been added where they seemed likely to be useful. An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page.

Full text of "The Spanish colonial system"

If the problem persists, please try again in a little while. No cover image. Read preview. Excerpt The secular rivalry and conflict between the colonial interests of England and Spain which the United States inherited, the many points at which our history touches that of the former Spanish colonies, and the earlier and later absorption of Spanish possessions within our national boundaries make an intelligent appreciation of the work of Spain as a colonizing power an important object in the study of American history. Read preview Overview.

Read Overview. The Geographical Review, Vol. Public Administration Quarterly, Vol.