Spanish Colonial Administration


First look at the table that lays out, schematically, the organization of Spanish colonial administration. At the head of the entire system was the monarch. He, or she, was assisted by the Council of the Indies, an advisory committee consisting mainly of lawyers. The king and the Council were normally resident in Spain. In the American colonies the senior officials were the viceroys. Until the 18th century, there were two viceroyalties: New Spain (i.e. Mexico) and Peru (i.e. Spanish South America). In the 18th century, two more were added: New Granada (centred on Santa Fe de Bogotá) in 1739, and Río de la Plata (centred on Buenos Aires) in 1776. Viceroys were above all executive officers; but they also had judicial and legislative powers. Beyond that, they were vice-patrons of the Church, and had direct control of the colonial treasury. Below the viceroys in the system were the Audiencias: regional courts of appeal that also served, especially in areas far from the viceregal capitals, as executive councils, with some legislative powers. At the lowest, local level of administration, within the areas of the Audiencias, were district officers called alcaldes mayores or corregidores. They were first and foremost executive officers, but also served as local judges, and could make local regulations. In addition to all these, on the frontiers of the empire were several regions administered by gobernadores (governors), who were essentially executives, but with a strong military role to play as well, since the frontiers often needed to be defended from foreigners and in some places Indians.

You will also find here two maps, c. 1650, one of Middle America and the Caribbean, and the other of South America, showing the limits of the two original viceroyalties, and the jurisdictions (i.e. territories) of the various Audiencias.

The final item is a translation of the instructions given by the Emperor Charles V to Don Antonio de Mendoza, first viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) in 1535. The instructions reveal not only what the Spanish crown intended a viceroy to do in those early years of the empire, but also the crown's notions of the colonies' usefulness to Spain. Identify the main points in both those aspects of the document.