Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Bourbon Century

Latin American History
May 3, 1991

The last Hapsburg to rule in Spain was Charles II.  By the time of his reign, the government had long been thoroughly corrupt and apparently unconcerned with the condition of the economy and government of the country.

The trade with the Indies was nearly completely in the hands of foreigners.  The revenue from the Indies, what little there was, barely made it to the bank before creditors collected.  The Army had lost any distinction it had as a result of the many lost wars it had experienced since the sinking of the Armada in 1588.  In short, the country was going to hell in a hand basket.

The Hapsburgs had been having a wonderful time bankrupting Spain; there is no reason to suppose Charles was any different.  He could not have helped knowing the state of his country but he apparently made no effort to correct the situation until his death.  Even if he had tried, it is doubtful if it would have mattered by this time.  Charles' health was bad and resulted in his being consistently at the point of death and constantly making crowned heads nervous by it.

Intrigue is not a modern concept and countless nations have been handed back and forth by conspiracies.  France and England had arranged to have an Austrian Archduke take over the Spanish throne at Charles' death and to divvy up the possessions.  While Charles may have been contrary about dying, he was obviously a prudent man with a concern about his country. He must have realized under Hapsburg rule Spain would only continue to decline.  He left a will naming seventeen year old Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis 14th, as his heir. Philip of Anjou became Philip V of Spain.  Perhaps this was Charles' way of doing penance for his sins or of repairing the damage done to Spain by his own family.

Whatever his reason, it immediately plunged Spain into the War of the Spanish Succession.  France paid most of the cost of this war and it was devastating for her but it was a new life for Spain.  Even though she lost some of her possessions as a result of the war, it was to Spain's benefit.  Fewer possessions take less money to run and less military energy to defend.

In the beginning some objected to the country being run by the French king and his French advisers.  After all, this was the same Spain which had known centuries of foreign domination, the older members of government would not easily welcome its return.  However, once they realized these were the same kind of men who had helped France prosper they accepted the leadership.  Spain supported their new King and were overwhelmingly loyal to him.

Although, all major post were held by Frenchmen to start with, gradually well-born, military men took over; in turn, the noble class died out.  Under Bourbon rule Spain blossomed.  With the French came enlightenment ideas which would affect all areas of Spanish society in both Spain and New Spain.  Government, diplomacy, economic affairs and cultured life returned.

Reforms began with Philip and his ministers and continued until the last Bourbon ruler, Charles III in 1746.  Charles III is considered to be perhaps the finest King Spain ever had and it is under his rule that the most extensive and beneficial reforms occur. The idea of the French rulers was to centralize government and bring the monarch's power to the local level; by the end of Charles III's reign this was accomplished and both Spain and New Spain had, for a time, experienced prosperity.

The creation of the Ministry of the Marines and the Indies in 1714 nearly eliminated the Council of the Indies.  All policy making decisions were delegated to the Ministry of the Marines and the Indies, as were matters concerning finance, commerce, trade, war, and most matters concerning the colonies.  The Council continued but it dealt mostly with court matters.

The House of Trade was moved to Cadiz in 1717, a seaport town, and its functions limited.  An effort was made by Philip V to bring back the flota but it didn't work. In the beginning trading monopolies were created along the same lines of the Dutch East India but only one survived very long and was profitable.

It was under Charles III and on the advice of an economist, Jose Campillo, that private registers or individual sailings were authorized.  With the introduction of free trade, Spanish trade increased to the point of nearly eliminating all foreign traders.  The result was so good duties were reduced and in some cases eliminated.  Trade between colonies was allowed as well.  These changes caused a decrease in smuggling and a drop in prices of manufactured goods in the colonies, and raw goods in Spain.

The opening of trade helped Spain but only slightly affected the Indies, since all trade was carried out with the soul purpose of filling Spain's purse.  Latin America was still being stripped of its resources for the benefit of Spain.  The increase of trade created a growth in the merchant class in Spain and Latin America, but these were usually members of the privileged class. It was a case of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.  In no way nor at any time do the Indian, mestizo, and mulatto benefit from the trade increase.

Another major reform was the division of viceroyalties into smaller units called intendencies.  This was a French idea which had been used in Spain by Philip V and was now brought to Latin America by Charles III.

The ruler of these intendencies was called the intendent and was nearly always a Peninsular Spaniard.  His powers included operation of the government, administering justice, promotion of economy - trade, agriculture, industry - oversee the church, provide military defense, collect taxes and see to the welfare of the people.  Below him were sub-delegates to help him deal with this enormous job.  It is obvious from the list of duties that smaller units would of course be easier to deal with in every way.  The lines of authority were clearer and more efficient and less corrupt government was possible.

The church was not an institution France admired and in France it was kept under tight rein.  In spite of the Bourbon kings of Spain being devout, they felt the church was too rich, too powerful, and too large.  Over a period of time the King had lost the most of his right to nominate clergymen to Rome.  After the King recovered this right, he then proceeded to reduce the size of the clergy.  By 1717, Philip V would allow no new convents in New Spain and by 1734 no one could enter religious orders for ten years.  The clergy could no longer assist in the making of wills.  This circumvented the church's ability to accumulate wealth by getting those making wills to leave their property to the church as a means of atonement.  In 1753 Charles III issued a concordate allowing the Crown to tax church property and in 1767 he expelled the Jesuits from Latin America.

The Bourbon reforms in Spain were evident but not until the reign of Charles III was there real evidence of these reforms in Latin America.  It is difficult to tell how effective they were because they existed for only a short time.  Government did improve to some extent, trade improved, and wealth increased for some, including the crown.  By restricting the church, reducing the clergy, and decreasing its wealth the crown reduced its power.  However, its influence remained, especially in Latin America where it became an instrument of revolution.

However, inequalities existed and the reforms did not address these.  The enlightenment prized so highly by the French and so eagerly accepted by the Spanish Americans was the catalyst for the resulting revolutions. Before the reforms could take a firm hold the people changed. The division between Peninsulares and Creoles widened allowing the creation of revolutionary thought to express itself.  The unfair treatment of Indians, mestizos and mulattos would provide the revolutionaries with an army.

The transplanting of institutions and ideas which were to give Spain greater control gave Latin America the structure, the means, and the determination to break away.  In essence, the Bourbon century was successful in one area it never intended to be. 


Fagg, John.  Latin American History.  The Macmillian Company:      London:  1969, 213-372.

Gibson, Charles.  Spain in America.  Harper Torch Books:  New     York:  1967, 160-216.

Graham, Richard.  Independence in Latin America.  Alfred A.     Knoph:  New York:  1972, 3-131.  

Herring, Hubert.  A History of Latin America: From the Beginning     to the Present.  Knoph:  New York:  1968, 237-286.

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