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The Book in the Iberian Atlantic, 1492–1824

Summary and Keywords

The Atlantic world has not only been a geographic space for the exchange of people and products. Since the 16th century, it has also been a cultural space for the production, exchange, diffusion, reading, and rewriting of printed objects. Historians of the independence era constructed the view that Latin America had been “closed to the outside world” during the years of the Spanish and Portuguese domination; however, later research has shown that this was not the case. Latin American countries, especially from the 18th century onward, were part of a print network through which all kinds of information was being produced, circulated, and read.

During the Spanish Enlightenment, especially at the time of the wars of independence (1808–1824), this circulation intensified. The end of the Spanish and Portuguese trade monopoly in the region, changes in the regime of print rights, technological developments that lowered the costs of publishing, and transformations of the forms of sociability that the wars of independence themselves generated gave way to an explosion of print all over the Atlantic word. Newspapers, pamphlets, and books on topics that were not only religious but also political, literary, satirical, and educational were printed and circulated in the region. This helped to change forever the way the Latin Americans viewed themselves and contributed to the formation of new nations.

Although the circulation of ideas throughout the Atlantic does not account for the development of political and social transformations that led to the independence of the Latin American countries, print culture and political culture are connected in many different ways. This article explores some of these forms of interaction.

Keywords: print culture, literacy, history of reading, book trade, Enlightenment, independence

Study of the history of the book is a broad field located at the intersection of two major historiographical subfields: on the one hand, the history of print culture, which includes the history of printing and publishing, as well as the study of the circulation of printed objects; on the other, the history of literacy, understood in the broad sense, encompasses both the history of written culture and the history of reading practices and is partly related to the history of education. Studying the history of the book in the Iberian Atlantic world entails exploring the political, cultural, and commercial interactions between Europe, America, and, to a lesser extent, Africa that shaped the way people wrote, published, read, and thought.

Clashes, Encounters, and the Emergence of “New Worlds”

In the pre-conquest world, aboriginal Americans made use of a wide range of forms of inscription: carvings on rocks or bones; knots on strings; paintings on walls, ceramics, textiles, and animal hides; and marks on paper. Pictograms representing meanings with no relation to sounds were employed throughout the continent by all groups, with more or less complex forms of organization—from the Olmecs, Purépechas, and Aztecs in Mesoamerica to the Incas in South America. As far as is known, only the Mayas developed a system of writing that represented phonetic language, combining logograms, phonetic syllables, and ideograms—from the third century bc. In Mesoamerica, religious and astronomical calendars, genealogies of rulers, histories of entire populations, tribute collection, and cartographic information were all recorded on codices. These were inscriptions on folded trips of amate paper (made from the bark of the amate tree), agave fibers, or animal hides folded like an accordion for storage. They were kept in temples and schools, and reading them was an activity that combined individual visual decoding with an oral explanation provided by priests or teachers. Some of the few preserved documents of this type are the codices Borgia, Féjérvary-Mayer, Laud, Bodley, Nuttall, Vatican B, and Dresden. Carvings on stone stelae were also common in Mesoamerica, some of the most elaborate of which have been found in the Maya ceremonial site of Palenque.

The conquistadores’ introduction of the Latin alphabet, another mode in the large repertoire of inscriptional practices, generated a range of mixed forms of writing combining text in indigenous or Spanish languages with pictorial representations, especially in the 16th century. Some of these forms were used in the documents that were produced by indigenous local authorities as registers of tribute for the colonial rulers and as proof of land titles. They were also used in manuscripts commissioned by Spanish missionaries or government authorities to indigenous scribes trained in Spanish schools (or written collaboratively by Spaniards and Indians) about pre-conquest traditions, history, and knowledge of the natural world—such as the codices Mendoza, Xólotl, Badiano, Telleriano-Remensis, and the Tira de la Peregrinación in Mesoamerica or the codex Murua in Peru. Indians also used the combination of words and pictograms to secretly record information that had been previously orally transmitted by their peoples, such as the Popol Vuh, a history of the Mayan people. Conversely, Spanish missionaries made use of the tradition of indigenous codices to create a genre of pictorial catechisms (known as Testerian manuscripts), small volumes consisting of mnemonic figures, each representing a phrase, word, or syllable of the Christian doctrine in an indigenous language. They were meant to make it possible for the Indians to memorize the dogmas, prayers, and commandments, so as to point out to the priests the sins they had committed. Eventually, the Latin alphabet was imposed. By the 18th century the teaching of Christian doctrine in indigenous languages was forbidden, and schooling for the indigenous population became a way to teach them in Spanish.

In Catholic Spain and Portugal, practices devised by the Council of Trent (1545–1563) aimed to instill religion in the inner consciousness of the believers, beyond outward ritual. Those practices had affected the urban and rural populations of the Iberian Peninsula just as they affected the Christianization of the pagan Indians in newly found land. The discovery of a fully inhabited new continent constituted a theological problem in its own right, but the ways in which the continents peoples were incorporated into Christianity derived from Counter-Reformation philosophy and policies. Counter-Reformation thought had an impact on the way religion was taught to the masses: among other things, it instituted the teaching of religious doctrine by means of the Catholic catechism, in contrast to the Protestant approach, which encouraged the unmediated reading of the Bible in vernacular languages. It also reinforced the sacrament of confession. At the same time, it enforced all sorts of controls on what could be written, printed, exported, and read so as to keep the Catholic flock united.

All this had an influence on the relatively late and slow start of printing in the American territories and on the kind of materials that were printed there. The first printing presses on the continent were established in the 16th and 17th centuries: Mexico City, in 1539; Lima, 1581; Puebla, 1640; and in Guatemala, 1660 (in English America the first printing press dates from 1638, in Cambridge, Massachusetts). In the rest of the Spanish and Portuguese cities printing presses were only acquired in the 18th or even the 19th centuries. Local printing in the 16th century was dominated by material aimed at the Christianization of the Indians and was therefore centered on catechisms, primers, dictionaries, and grammars of indigenous languages, as well as on the daily religious needs of the Spaniards—prayer books and liturgical works. The Spanish crown granted exclusive publishing rights to selected printers in Mexico City and in Lima and thus controlled what could be printed and inhibited the expansion of print in the American territories. Print was further restricted by the fact that typos and paper had to be imported from the Peninsula. Less controllable were the shipments of books from Spain that were read by the conquistadores. Indeed, the first books ever to arrive in America after Columbus’s first voyage were chivalric romances, such as the Amadís de Gaula, Poema del Cid Ruy Díaz, and Clarián de Landanís, and this kind of fictional literature was abundant throughout the 16th century. Although the crown attempted to prohibit the export of nonreligious popular literature to the Americas (of which more than fifty titles, in 316 editions, were printed in Spain during the 16th century), the conquistadores read chivalric fiction profusely. Irving A. Leonard, in his classic study Books of the Brave (1949), suggests that chivalric literature influenced the way the conquistadores saw themselves and thought about their experiences in the New World—what they encountered there and their fears, expectations, and desires.

Although it is important to acknowledge the continuity of the processes initiated in Europe and implemented in the Americas, it is also important to pay attention to the “new worlds” in terms of reading and writing created as a consequence of the Spanish and Portuguese conquest. Studies on indigenous scribes in Mesoamerica—the so-called tlacuilos—have suggested that the process of indoctrination and schooling for Indian elites, though it provided them with tools for mixed forms of textual and pictorial writing, also led to the creation of new realms of observation and to depictions of the Spaniards by the Indians that the Spaniards could not control (and which remain inaccessible to us today). The Indians did not simply impose or reject the views of Spanish modernity, they generated new worlds expressed in iconic scripts and nonstandard European languages that articulated modern forms of life from the standpoint of indigenous backgrounds—and reflected the capacity of the indigenous scribes in Mexico and Peru to dwell in a plurality of worlds.1

Networks, Markets, and Control in the Colonial Book Trade

Throughout the colonial era, reading in the Americas was regulated by several factors, implemented at different stages of the production and circulation of prints: the lack of facilities for setting up printing presses in the colonies, the crown’s monopoly on the issuance of exclusive printing and trade rights, the granting of licenses, the taxes imposed on book shipments, and the mechanisms of approval and the vigilance of the Inquisition. Portugal’s monopoly was stricter: treating Brazil mainly as an agricultural producer, Portugal had laws that forbade the manufacture of goods, including print, until the late 18th century; nonetheless, a handful of printing presses operated for short periods of time in different cities in Brazil throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1525, the Spanish crown granted the Seville-based printer Jakob Cromberger exclusive control over the book trade with New Spain, a monopoly that was later transferred to his son Johann (Juan) and shaped the American market for the first half of the 16th century. In the second part of that century, the book trade with the Americas was dominated by booksellers from different parts of Spain, which had established themselves in the capitals of the Spanish kingdoms. The American-based booksellers were often relatives of Spanish booksellers, and their family networks facilitated trade. Members of the missionary orders also acted as informal booksellers when they traveled to America on ships carrying large cargos of books. At the same time, printing began to take hold in the Americas after the crown began granting exclusive publishing rights to selected printers in the New Spain (including to a descendant of Cromberger) and Peru, and, later, in Guatemala, for the publication of popular religious books.

During the colonial period, around 30,000 titles were printed in Latin America, nearly half of them in the New Spain, as the classic compilation of the 19th-century Chilean bibliographer José Toribio Medina indicates.2 Since local production in the 16th century was dominated by religious materials for the Indians and the Spaniards, no books of chivalry or chronicles of the conquest were published in the Americas. In the 17th century, the number of books printed increased and the kinds of books that could be published was diversified. Books about natural history, such as the Repertorio de los tiempos by Henrico Martínez (Mexico City, 1606); chronicles of the missionary orders; and works of literature by local authors such as Bernardo de Balbuena, Juana Inés de la Cruz, and Juan de Espinosa Medrano were published in New Spain and in Peru in addition to the books of doctrine. In the first two centuries of Spanish domination, reading other than for purposes of Christianization was confined to the lettered elites dependent on the patronage of church and state.3

Every manuscript printed in Spanish America had to be licensed by civil and church authorities. The printer had to submit the manuscript to the local functionaries of the Consejo de Indias (Council of the Indies), which then turned it over to the censors for approval. Typically, permission to publish was granted, provided the text did not contain “doctrines” contrary to the teachings of the church or the crown and the manuscript was not listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, an index of prohibited books in Spain and Spanish America. Once approved, the consejo checked the typeset copies against the original submitted manuscript. The licenses had to be printed on the first pages of the book. If the manuscript or printed book was not approved, printers were asked to hand over all existing printed copies for sequestration or destruction. In the case of those texts printed without the proper licenses, it became the role of the Inquisition to locate the clandestine books already in circulation, which was done by monitoring the trade of books from one city to another.

Because of these controls, a great deal of what was read in the Americas came from the Iberian Peninsula. Following on some pioneering studies of the Atlantic trade between Spain and her colonies,4 a number of recent authors have begun to study the book trade by analyzing ships’ registers, postmortem inventories, library holdings, booksellers’ transactions registered in notary archives, Inquisition archives, and other inventories of merchants’ goods.5 This research has shown that the flow of printed material was more intense, and the Spanish American reading space more diverse, than is usually thought.

As was all trade between the Peninsula and the overseas territories, the transatlantic book trade was heavily regulated. The consulates of Seville, Cádiz, Mexico City, and Lima negotiated with the crown to establish the conditions of trade, the regulation of traffic, and the payment of taxes. Printers and booksellers played a lesser role in deciding the normative framework of the trade, though they were highly affected by those decisions.

In Spain, only one port was authorized to load merchandise. That port was Seville from 1504, until it was shifted to Cádiz in 1717. Books for export to the Americas would first be taken to customs in those cities, where they were registered in the corresponding ship and taxed. At first, books were exempt from the almojarifazgo de Indias, or customs tax, a 2.5 percent tax on the value of all exports to the Americas, but not from the avería tax, a 2 percent to 5 percent tax meant to protect the ships. But in the 18th century, books were subject to the custom tax and to the almirantazgo. Once the books had been inventoried for tax purposes, a customs officer would take the list to an official the Inquisition for approval; he issued a license, and the boxes of books were marked with the Holy Office stamp. This measure was intended to ensure that none of the books listed in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum—heretical works, books of magic and divination, and, in the 18th century, the writings of the French philosophes—were sent to the Americas. Books were thus consigned to the ships’ registers (Registro de Navíos de Ida) and dispatched.

A considerable number of books entered the colonies via the personal libraries of secular or religious functionaries. Since the importers of these kinds of books did not pay customs taxes, some ship’s officers registered books intended for sale as their personal luggage, though they still had to be listed in the ship’s registers. The books of private libraries tended to remain in the American territories; entire libraries were publicly sold after the death of their owners. When the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish empire in 1767, their libraries remained in the territories. Some of those books eventually became the core of the first so-called national libraries, founded soon after independence in the 1810s and 1820s. Colombia offers an emblematic case—in 1776 a royal library was founded in the New Granada based on 4,182 volumes that had been confiscated from the expelled Jesuits; it was re-founded in 1825 as the National Library of Colombia.

During the 18th century, when the production of books increased all over Europe, books printed in Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Geneva, and the German countries made their way to the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms. Although Spain issued a protectionist policy that prohibited books written in Spanish but not printed in Spain from entering the Americas, many of them made their way there, again via personal libraries, or through smuggling. Changes in the navigation system from 1750 onward made maritime trade faster and more intense. In 1778, the regulation of free trade ended the Cádiz monopoly by authorizing thirteen Spanish ports (and more later) to trade with the Americas, which relaxed some of the forms of registration and control—for example, books carried in personal luggage were no longer inventoried. Upon each ship’s arrival in the American ports, its lists of books still had to be approved by an officer of the Inquisition. At the same time, free trade between Spanish American ports was authorized as a measure to revitalize the economy of the entire empire.

Smuggling from other European countries, which was common throughout the 18th century, was legalized under a policy of “neutral trade” in 1797–1799 and 1805–1821, a consequence of the Spanish war with Britain and her blockade of the Cádiz port. This increased the import of English and French books, whose entrance into the Americas became increasingly difficult to control.

Booksellers were affected by the uncertainties of trade. Customs controls made loading and unloading very slow; taxes increased the prices of the books, and there was a permanent lack of liquid funds, which made all transactions insecure. Booksellers often faced bankruptcy, especially the first ones who had settled in the Americas in the 16th century. However, they did play a role in shaping the offer and the demand of the trade. When silver became readily available in Peru in the late 16th and the 17th centuries, Peruvian merchants—so-called peruleros—traveled to Seville to buy all sorts of merchandise, including prints, which in turn furnished the Seville booksellers with cash. Peruleros were in a position to select titles, negotiate prices, organize shipments, and charge commissions.6 This means that it was not only Iberian printers and booksellers who were deciding what books people in the Americas would read.

Reading and Writing in the Enlightenment

Free-trade policies in the last third of the 18th century increased the number of books available. The subject matter of imported books changed during this period: whereas more than half of the books before the 1770s were on religious themes, at the end of the decade books on civil matters (law, political economy, natural history, education, and dictionaries) were more common. And by 1808, books on these subjects accounted for about 60 percent of all imports. The ease of smuggling and the introduction of “neutral trade” allowed for the entrance of French and British books into the Spanish colonies. The writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Raynal, Locke, and Paine, for example, although officially forbidden, made their way into the colonies during this period, and their ideas were broadly diffused.

After the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Portuguese empire in 1759, and from the Spanish empire in 1767, Jesuit works on the literature, history, and nature of the Americas written and published in Europe (even before 1767) began to make their way back to the American territory. These works included Francisco de Almeida’s Orpheus Brasilicus (1737), José Gumilla’s El Orinoco ilustrado (1741–1744), Juan José de Eguiara y Eguren’s Bibliotheca Mexicana (1755), and Francisco Xavier Clavijero’s Historia antigua de México (1780).

At the same time, printing in Latin America in the 18th century increased threefold over the output of the previous century. This was partly thanks to the establishing of new printing houses in American cities: Havana (1701), Oaxaca (1720), Bogota (ca. 1738), Rio de Janeiro (1747), Quito (1760), Cordoba (Rio de la Plata; 1765), Buenos Aires (1780), Santiago de Chile (ca. 1780), Guadalajara (1793), Veracruz (1794), San José de Puerto Rico (ca. 1806), and Caracas (1808). Regulated by licenses and printing rights, books of religious doctrine and religious instruction still constituted the main production of these presses, but they also published historical and literary works. Yet the main novelty of the 18th century in terms of print were the periodicals that appeared all over the continent: Diarios y memorias de los sucesos principales (Lima, 1700–1711), Gaceta de México (1722, 1728–1742), Gaceta de Guatemala (1729–1731), Gaceta de Lima (1739–1776), Mercurio de México (1741–1742, 1764), Gaceta de La Habana (1764), Papel periódico de La Habana (1789), Papel periódico de la Ciudad de Santafé de Bogotá (1791–1797), and Gaceta de Buenos Aires (1810–1821). The monthly or weekly gacetas published news from the crown; events in Europe and in the different colonies; notices about the arrival of ships, edicts, and obituaries; and announcements of festivals and public examinations in schools and universities. Some periodicals focused on scientific and learned matters, such as the Mercurio volante of Mexico City (1772–1773), the Gaceta de literatura de México (1788–1795), and the Mercurio peruano (1791–1794). Toward the end of the colonial period, daily newspapers such as Telégrafo mercantil del Río de la Plata (1801–1805) and Diario de México (1805–1817) also entered the scene. The rapid growth of periodicals has led historians to speak of the constitution of a reading public in this period.

Considering the timely coincidence between the expansion of print in the late 18th century and the political independence of the Spanish American countries in the first two decades of the 19th century, it is legitimate to ask, did the spread of the modern ideas of the Enlightenment through print contribute to developing the thinking that led to the Spanish American independence? For much of the 20th century, this relationship was taken for granted: the diffusion of Enlightenment ideas was assumed to have been one of the causes of the drive for independence. Since the 1980s, historians have begun to question that assumption and to explore the complex relation between reading, ideas, and political action from different angles. In this, they have echoed a similar question that has permeated discussions in French historiography about the extent to which reading the French rationalist philosophes led to the outbreak of the French Revolution.7

The ways of addressing this question are influenced by recent developments in the understanding of literacy that have changed the way we look at the practices of reading and writing in the present, as well as in the past. Whereas in the past, literacy was conceived of as the ability to read and write, in our day the study of literacy refers to the sociocultural dimension of reading and writing, to the contexts and the variety of forms of appropriating those practices, as well as to their different uses and functions in the public and private spheres.8 Any literacy practice has to be situated in a broader repertoire of communicational modes and habits, which differ among cultural traditions. Moreover, reading and writing are seen as social actions in themselves: they play a role in constituting self-representation, personhood, and subjectivities in dialogue with other acts of reading and writing. This way of understanding literacy suggests that reading and writing are active, creative, and socially inscribed processes; it precludes any automatic identification between ideas and political action, and it acknowledges the varied uses and appropriations of reading and writing by different collective agents in any given time. This has transformed the ways in which we understand the history of practices of reading (and writing).

Accordingly, some historians have related the expansion of print to the development of nationalism in the second part of the 18th century. They have shown how the works on the ancient or natural history of the Spanish American kingdoms written by Jesuits, often from exile in Europe and in dialogue with European naturalists, highlighted the singularity of the American continent and contributed to the development of what has been called a “Creole nationalism”—that is, a certain pride of being born in the Americas in relation to the statement that American nature was in no way inferior to European nature. Moreover, the proliferation of newspapers, which reported both provincial and world news, developed an imagination of nation-ness and a consciousness of the existence of other nations—a sense of “us” versus “them”—as the classic thesis from Benedict Anderson goes.9 This can help us to understand the early development of a sense of nationalism in the Spanish American kingdoms, but it does not explain the link between that and the struggles for independence.

Other historians, inspired to a good extent from Jürgen Habermas’s thesis on the construction of a public sphere (Öffentlichkeit) in the German Enlightenment, have focused on the emergence of a similar public sphere in late colonial Latin America. That is, the formation of new reading publics in connection with the development of new forms of reading, discussing, and interacting with what was published. Historians argue that a new writing and reading culture emerged together with new forms of sociability: collective reading and literary gatherings in cafés, readers writing letters to newspapers, and Spanish American intellectuals communicating with book authors on the other side of the Atlantic. The expansion of schooling and higher education in the second half of the 18th century helped to make knowledge about politics, nature, and the past “public” and subject to open discussion, and this initiated the development of some form of political culture among the urban elites.10 This realization does not explain per se the link between public opinion and the ideals of independence; it speaks to the development of new forms of discussing and acting the political that would affect the way the colonies responded to the monarchic crisis of 1808.

Finally, the study of private and institutional libraries in Spanish America has provided new insights as to the history of reading during the Enlightenment. The comparative analysis of library inventories, despite the difficulties posed by the varied styles of cataloguing, offers a closer insight into what was actually read in the colonies.11 Although this research is still in its early stages, some work has already accounted for the existence of many copies of the works of Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau and other French philosophes in the libraries of archbishops in several American kingdoms. Although that is a sign of the widespread diffusion of those works, in itself it does not explain whether those readings fueled the ideals of independence, for it is difficult to connect most of the owners of those books with the independence struggles themselves.

In sum, the connection between the Enlightenment and revolution through reading remains difficult to prove, at least in a direct way. Instead, what has come to light in studies about print culture in the late colonial period is that the practices of writing, publishing, and reading are connected with social and political processes in complex and multidirectional ways.

Print Culture and Independence

The French invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 1808, unleashing major changes in the Portuguese and Spanish empires that ended with the independence of the continental colonies in America. The unprecedented abdication of the Spanish monarch and the resistance of all Spanish kingdoms to the French-imposed king led to a virtual dissolution of the empire and the emergence of new forms of political organization across the Atlantic.

The lack of a legitimate monarch resulted in a de facto end of the book-trade monopoly and of the restrictions on imports of foreign books and printing presses. Accordingly, large numbers of books, coming mainly from France and England, arrived in Latin American ports. The ensuing wars for autonomy and independence in Spanish America stimulated, by themselves, the purchase of portable printing presses (made possible thanks to new technologies for letterpress printing on wooden presses developed in England) and a collective desire to read about what was happening inside and outside each kingdom. The various insurgent and royalist armies used those presses to publish periodicals and new genres of print, such as manifestos, war reports, pamphlets, and flyers, and a large public outside the battlefields was interested in reading them. New spaces for discussion and collective reading were created, and the public sphere acquired a new dimension when more people in the urban centers got involved. Moreover, Spain’s liberal 1812 Constitution (which was endorsed by the countries that had not yet become independent) ended the crown’s monopoly printing rights, abolished the Inquisition, and established the freedom of the press. These measures were ratified a few years later by all the republican constitutions of the newly independent countries. And although Spain itself went back to the monarchic form, the new policies proved too popular and could not be reversed.

As a result of these developments, printing expanded exponentially. In the province of Venezuela, where the first printing press was introduced in 1808, seventy-one periodicals were published between 1808 and 1830. In Chile, the number of printing presses increased from one, acquired in 1811, to at least nine by 1830; as a result, eighty short-lived periodicals were published between 1812 and 1827, and by 1828 to 1830, there were fifteen regular periodicals and one daily newspaper in the capital alone. In Mexico, between 1804 and 1820 a total of 2,457 books and pamphlets were printed, and over that period the ratio of religious to political titles was inverted, from 80 percent to 5 percent to 17 percent to 75 percent.12 In Brazil, the print revolution coincided with the rise of Rio de Janeiro as the metropolis of the Portuguese empire between 1808 and 1821. When Peru’s royal family fled Lisbon and settled in Rio de Janeiro, the king lifted the ban on print and established the royal press there. Using printing presses imported from England, the royal press produced around 1,200 titles, on a variety of subjects, over the course of those thirteen years. Freedom of the press was established in 1821, when Brazil declared its independence (preserving a monarch from the Portuguese royal family); this ended the monopoly of the official printing house and the restrictions on imported books, and it allowed the number of local printing presses to grow exponentially.

All these rapid changes, which historians have characterized as a “print revolution,” were thus inextricably linked to transformations in the political culture encompassing broader sectors of the Spanish American population. Those changes would eventually contribute to the molding of the new identities in the early independent era.13

The independence wars also stimulated the publication of books in Spanish beyond the Iberian Atlantic in the United States, England, and France. During the 1810s and 1820s, in the North American cities of Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Charleston, and New Orleans, Spanish American and Brazilian diplomats and exiles published political works that then made their way back to their and other countries. In London, other diplomats and exiles published accounts of the struggles for independence and periodicals intended to gain British sympathy for the cause of independence of to instruct the Latin American reading public. Francisco de Miranda’s South American Emancipation (1810), Servando Teresa de Mier’s Historia de la Revolución de Nueva España (1814), William Robinson’s Memorias de la revolución de Mégico (ca. 1825), and Ignacio Núñez’s Noticias de las Provincias Unidas del Río de la Plata (ca. 1826) were printed in London. Equally, the journals Correio Braziliense (1808–1823), El Censor Americano (1820), Biblioteca Americana (1823), Variedades o mensagero de Londres (1823–1825), Correo literario y político de Londres (1826), Museo Universal de Ciencias y Artes (1824–1826), and Repertorio Americano (1826–1827), were published in London with the support of British sponsors with ideological or commercial interests in Latin America. Waves of Spanish émigrés who were in Bourdeaux, Paris, and London as a consequence of the political upheavals on the Iberian Peninsula, as well as Portuguese diplomats, also contributed publications for the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world, such as the periodicals O investigador Português em Inglaterra (1811–1819) and Ocios de españoles emigrados (1824–1827). Many of them worked as authors or translators of French and English literary or educational works, which thanks to the end of the Spanish and Portuguese trade monopolies, began to be shipped to the Latin American market once the countries obtained independence.

At the same time, publishers in France, such as Bossange, Didot, and Garnier, and in Britain, such as Ackermann, began to open branches of their businesses in the Latin American capitals in the 1810s and 1820s, with relative degrees of success. Free trade also meant that booksellers were more vulnerable to the unwanted reproduction of their works and to the uncertainties of long journeys and negotiations with local booksellers. For the Latin American readers, having access to books printed abroad became integral to a process of building new identities for themselves, away from Spain and Portugal from which they were becoming independent, and closer to what they perceived as the more “cultured” and educated French and British.

Did Books Provoke the Wars of Independence?

As similar debates in France regarding the French revolution have suggested, the connection between reading and political action is difficult to establish. To what extent do ideas that circulate in printed form have an influence on the major political changes that have been traditionally the focus of “mainstream” history? Fruitful research on the history of the book indicates that books don’t provoke revolutions by themselves; and yet print revolutions and social and political revolutions are inextricably linked. The availability of books, the development of reading publics around periodicals, and the freedom of the press were processes that contributed to the creation of practices of discussion in connection to reading, writing, and publishing. When the Spanish empire begin to crumble, in 1808, Spanish Americans organized themselves in surprisingly similar ways that had to do with their political history. The elites formed juntas and participated in cortes, and eventually organized movements for autonomy and independence, but they did not invoke the ideas of the French philosophes that many of them had read. Only after the political process had run its course and nations had obtained their independence and begun to organize themselves in a new way did the readings of the Enlightenment began to become a reference in the political writings of the new leaders.

Research has proven that rather than look for the connection between reading and acting, it is worthwhile to examine reading and writing as acting. Throughout the period discussed here, reading and writing were essential activities designed to make sense of the unintelligible, create new worlds, integrate the history and nature of the Americas into the world, advance the cause of independence, construct an apology for one’s own political or military trajectory, educate others, and refashion personal identities. Printed materials provide a space for discussion, a reference, or a means to access a new world; in that sense, printed works are in constant dialogue with political processes, but they hardly ever create them.

Discussion of the Literature

Historians and philosophers have long reflected on the nature of the cultural processes developed after the discovery and conquest of America. Were they an extension of the modern cultural, political, and social changes that were going on in Europe—and can we thus speak of an “incorporation” of the Americas into a typically Western modernity? Or did the conquest of America mean the emergence of entirely new “worlds” and processes? These questions have found expression in different scholarly trends, which are not mutually exclusive and which have highlighted important historical developments. One trend has emphasized the ways in which the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing Catholic Counter-Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries shaped the process of colonization in the Americas as much as they shaped the social and political reform in the Iberian Peninsula. Book histories informed by these views have tended to emphasize the “globality” of the Spanish and Portuguese empires—often contrasting the character of the different Atlantic empires—the commonalities in the legislation regarding print across the Spanish and Portuguese empires, and the flow of printed works from Europe to the Spanish American and Portuguese American kingdoms. Lists of books published in the Spanish Empire, such as the fundamental Manual del librero hispano-americano by Palau y Dulcet, emphasize the unity of the empire.14 A classic text of the history of reading in colonial America written from this perspective is Irving A. Leonard’s Books of the Brave (1949), who studied how the books about chivalry read by Spanish conquistadores of Mexico influenced the way in which they perceived themselves as fighting against the “infidels,” just as the heroes of the novels fought against the Arab invaders of Spain. Other books that consider reading and the books imported from Spain and Portugal to the Americas have followed that trend, for example C. A. González Sánchez’s New World Literacy: Writing and Culture across the Atlantic, 1500–1700 (2011).

A second trend in the study of the cultural development of the Americas has focused on the particularities of the American kingdoms. Historical accounts inspired by the nation-centered historical writing that dominated for much of the 20th century have made important contributions in terms of the history of printing and the history of libraries in each Latin American country.15 Some recent comprehensive summaries have revised this production in the entire Latin American region.16

Another type of historical writing has looked at the hybridizations produced in forms of reading and writing as a result of the imposition of the Iberian conquistadores’ worldviews on the native population. Miguel León Portilla’s book on codices has illustrated the ways in which the forms of recording information by local scribes in Mesoamerica changed with the Spanish conquest.17 Other scholars, inspired by postcolonial and subaltern critique, have emphasized the violence of the cultural clashes that took place as part of that hybridization and the new worldviews that the mixture of forms of recording generated.18 In fact, postcolonial critique has suggested that the violent conquest of America became an essential component of the development of Western modernity itself. Inspired by I. Wallerstein’s world-system model, it is considered that the discovery of America not only led to the formation of an entirely new world-economic system,19 but also that conquest and domination of the aboriginal population, as much as the slave trade from Africa to the Americas, led to a production of difference between self and other that was integral to the West’s modernity worldviews.20 Although this philosophical position has produced fewer empirical works, it has revolutionized the ways in which the history of ideas and the history of science are conceived of in Latin America,21 and it has led historians to think of the multidirectional interactions that took place between America and Europe and also in the dynamics of the appropriation of print in both sides of the ocean.22

Finally, bearing more or less relation to the postcolonial critique and drawing on global or Atlantic historiographical frameworks, another type of research, attempting to get free both from the nation-centered perspective and from the unidirectional Eurocentric view, has focused on the interactions of all the regions of the Atlantic—and the Iberian Atlantic, in particular—in terms of writing, publishing, trading, and reading books. An acknowledgment of the book as a material object, and not only as a conveyor of ideas, has led to the study of the book as a commodity subject to the conditions and regulations of trade.23 Studies on book trade have benefited from and dialogued with historiography that focuses on the global dimension of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. On the one hand, the study of common patterns of rule over distant regions of the empires and the ways in which those patterns connected people and goods and, on the other, the analysis of the networks built by merchants, missionaries and families, have set the framework for a better understanding of the relations of economic and cultural interdependence throughout the Atlantic world and beyond.24

This research suggests that the book trade between Europe and America was more than the diffusion of books printed in Europe; it was a two-way street, shaped by producers, booksellers, and consumers on both sides of the ocean. Histories written from this perspective have examined networks of trade and scenes of reading and writing.25

Primary Sources

For an overview of the hybridization of forms of inscription brought about by the Conquest, both for the conquered, see the Book of the Chilam Balam of Chumayel from the late 18th century combining pictorial representations with written text in Maya and Spanish. To see how the conquistadores used indigenous ways of representation to develop bilingual books destined for confession, see Alonso de Molina’s Confesionario Mayor en la lengua mexicana y castellana (Mexico, 1569). A digitized copy is available online. An copy of the most widespread religious catechism in the Spanish empire, Ripalda’s Catecismo de doctrina cristiana (1604) is available online. For an example of a book of natural history produced by the Jesuits in exile from the Americas that helped to create an incipient creole nationalism, see José Gumilla’s Orinoco ilustrado (2d ed.) (Madrid, 1745). Available online. Much of the periodical press from the late 18th century printed in the Spanish American kingdoms has been digitalized and is available from Google Books, the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, the Hemeroteca Digital of the Biblioteca Nacional de España, and the various national hemerotecas of the Latin American countries. As an example of the publications printed in London during the early years of independence, the Repertorio Americano is available online. As to repositories of books printed in Latin America, the digital book collections of the John Carter Brown Library (especially the Portugal and Brazil collections and the Spanish America collection) offer access to a large number of publications from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Further Reading

Anderson, Benedict: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 2006.Find this resource:

    Burns, Kathryn. Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

      Delmas, Adrien, and Nigel Penn. Written Culture in a Colonial Context: Africa and the Americas, 1500–1900. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.Find this resource:

        Gómez Álvarez, Cristina. Navegar con libros: El comercio de libros entre España y Nueva España; una visión cultural de la independencia (1750–1820). Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Trama, 2011.Find this resource:

          González Sánchez, Carlos Alberto. New World Literacy: Writing and Culture across the Atlantic, 1500–1700. Plymouth, U.K.: Bucknell University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

            Jensen, Larry R. Children of Colonial Despotism: Press, Politics, and Culture in Cuba, 1790–1840. Tampa: University Presses of Florida, 1988.Find this resource:

              León-Portilla, Miguel. Códices: Los antiguos libros del nuevo mundo. México: Aguilar, 2003.Find this resource:

                Leonard, Irving A. Books of the Brave: Being an Account of Books and of Men in the Spanish Conquest and Settlement of the Sixteenth-Century New World. Cambridge, MA, 1949; new improved edition Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.Find this resource:

                  Maillard Álvarez, Natalia. Books in the Catholic World during the Early Modern Period. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014.Find this resource:

                    Medina, José Toribio. Biblioteca hispano-americana (1493–1810). 7 vols. Santiago, Impreso y grabado en casa del autor, 1898–1907.Find this resource:

                      Roldán Vera, Eugenia. The British Book Trade and Spanish American Independence: Independence and Knowledge Transmission in Transcontinental Perspective. Aldershot, U.K.: Routledge, 2003.Find this resource:


                        (1.) José Rabasa, Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You: Elsewheres and Ethnosuicide in the Colonial Mesoamerican World (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011); and Regina Harrison, Sin and Confession in Colonial Peru: Spanish-Quechua Penitential Texts, 1560–1650 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014).

                        (2.) José Toribio Medina, Biblioteca hispano-americana (1493–1910), 7 vols. (Santiago: Impreso y grabado en casa del autor, 1898–1907).

                        (3.) Hortensia Calvo, “Latin America,” in A Companion to the History of the Book, eds. Simon Elliot and Jonathan Rose (Malden, MA: John Wiley, 2009), 138–152.

                        (4.) Pierre Chaunu, Seville et l’Atlantique (1504–1650), 12 vols. (Paris: S. E. V. P. E. N., 1955–1960); and Antonio García-Baquero González, Cádiz y el Atlántico, 1717–1778: El comercio colonial bajo el monopolio gaditano (Cádiz: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos de Sevilla, 1988).

                        (5.) Pedro Rueda Ramírez, Negocio e intercambio cultural: El comercio de libros con América en la Carrera de Indias (siglo XVII) (Seville: Universidad de Sevilla, 2005); Carlos Alberto González Sánchez, New World Literacy: Writing and Culture across the Atlantic, 1500–1700 (Plymouth, U.K.: Bucknell University Press, 2011); Cristina Gómez Álvarez, Navegar con libros: El comercio de libros entre España y Nueva España; una visión cultural de la independencia (1750–1820) (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Trama, 2011); N. Maillard Álvarez, Books in the Catholic World during the Early Modern Period (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014). Pedro Rueda Ramírez, “Presentación del Dossier: Circulación y venta de libros en el mundo Americano en la Edad Moderna: De los circuitos atlánticos a los mercados locales,” Anuario de Estudios Americanos 71.2 (2014): 415–421.

                        (6.) Pedro Rueda Ramírez, “Las redes comerciales del libro en la colonia: ‘Peruleros’ y libreros en la carrera de Indias (1590–1620), Anuario de Estudios Americanos 71.2 (2014): 447–478.

                        (7.) Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991); and Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-revolutionary France (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995).

                        (8.) Roger Chartier, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and audiences from Codex to Computer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995).

                        (9.) Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006); and John C. Chasteen, and Sara Castro-Klarén, eds. Beyond Imagined Communities: Reading and Writing the Nation in Nineteenth-Century Latin America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

                        (10.) Although the number of studies in this field is vast, it is important to mention the one that almost initiated this trend: Francois-Xavier Guerra, Annick Lempérière, et al., Los espacios públicos en Hispanoamérica: Ambigüedades y problemas, siglos XVIII-XIX (México City: Centro Francés de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos y Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1998).

                        (11.) For a state of the art on library research in the New Spain alone, giving an idea of the richness of this field, see Idalia García Aguilar, “Suma de bibliotecas novohispanas: hacia un estado de la investigación.”

                        (12.) Eugenia Roldán Vera, The British Book Trade and Spanish American Independence: Independence and Knowledge Transmission in Transcontinental Perspective (Aldershot, U.K: Routledge, 2003), 14–15.

                        (13.) William Garrett Acree and Juan Carlos González Espitia, Building Nineteenth-Century Latin America: Re-rooted Cultures, Identities, and Nations (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2009).

                        (14.) Antonio Palau y Dulcet, Manual del librero hispano-americano: Inventario bibliográfico de la producción científica y literaria de España y de la América Latina desde la invención de la imprenta hasta nuestro días, con el valor comercial de todos los artículos descritos, 35 vols. (Barcelona: Librería Palau, 1923–1945).

                        (15.) José Toribio Medina, Biblioteca hispano-americana (1493–1810), 7 vols. (Santiago: Impreso y grabado en casa del autor, 1898–1907); Juan Bautista Iguíniz, La imprenta en la Nueva España (Mexico City: Porrúa, 1938); Laura B. Suárez de la Torre, ed., Empresa y cultura en tinta y papel (México: Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José María Luis Mora, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2001); Leandro Sagastizábal, La edición de libros en Argentina: Una empresa de cultura (Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires, 1995); Bernardo Subercaseaux, Historia del libro en Chile (Santiago: Editorial Andrés Bello, 1993); Ernesto de la Torre Villar, Breve historia del libro en México (2d ed.) (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1990); Danilo Sánchez Lihón, El libro y la lectura en el Perú (Lima: Mantaro, 1978); Victor Miguel Díaz, Historia de la imprenta en Guatemala (Guatemala City: C.A. Tipografia Nacional, 1930); Laurence Hallewell, Books in Brazil: A History of the Publishing Trade (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1982); Ambrosio Fornet, El libro en Cuba (Havana: Cuba Letras Cubanas, 1994); and Iván Molina Jiménez, El que quiera divertirse: Libros y sociedad en Costa Rica (1750–1914) (San José: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, 1995).

                        (16.) Hortensia Calvo, “Latin America,” in A Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Simon Elliot and Jonathan Rose (Malden, MA: John Wiley, 2009), 138–152; and Eugenia Roldán Vera, “The History of the Book in Latin America (including Incas, Aztecs, and the Caribbean),” in The Oxford Companion to the Book, eds. Michael F. Suarez and Henry R. Woudhuysen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1:408–417.

                        (17.) Miguel León Portilla, Códices: Los antiguos libros del Nuevo Mundo (México: Aguilar, 2003).

                        (18.) Rabasa, Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You.

                        (19.) Immanuel Wallerstein. The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974).

                        (20.) Enrique Dussel, 1492: El encubrimiento del otro (Hacia el origen del “mito de la modernidad”) (Bogotá: Ediciones Antropos, 1992); Walter D. Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); and Vanita Seth, Europe’s Indians: Producing Racial Difference, 1500–1900 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

                        (21.) See, for example, Frida Gorbach and Carlos López Beltrán, eds., Saberes locales: Ensayos sobre historia de la ciencia en América Latina (Zamora, Mexico: El Colegio de Michoacán, 2008).

                        (22.) See, for example, Eugenia Roldán Vera, “Export as Import: James Thomson’s Civilizing Mission in South America,” in Imported Modernity in Post-Colonial State Formation: The Appropriation of Political, Educational and Cultural Models in Nineteenth-Century Latin America, eds. Marcelo Caruso and Eugenia Roldán Vera (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2007), 231–276.

                        (23.) See, among others, Diogo Ramada Curto, Cultura escrita: séculos XV a XVIII (Lisbon: Imprensa de Ciências Sociais, 2007); Adrien Delmas and Nigel Penn, Written Culture in a Colonial Context: Africa and the Americas, 1500–1900 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012); and González Sánchez, New World Literacy.

                        (24.) See Anthony John R. Russell-Wood, The Portuguese Empire, 1415–1808: A World on the Move (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998); Gabriel Paquette, Imperial Portugal in the Age of the Atlantic Revolutions: The Luso-Brazilian World, c. 1770–1850 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013); John H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492–1830 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Serge Gruzinski, Les quatre parties du monde: Histoire d’une mondialisation (Paris: Éditions de La Martinière, 2004); Michele Bertrand and Jean-Phillipe Priotti (dirs.), Circulations maritimes: L’Espagne et son empire (Rennes, France: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2011); and Bethany Aram and Bartolomé Yun-Casalilla, Global Goods and the Spanish Empire, 1492–1824: Circulation, Resistance and Diversity (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

                        (25.) Karen Racine, “‘This England and This Now’: British Cultural and Intellectual Influence in the Spanish American Independence Era,” Hispanic American Historical Review 90.3 (2010): 423–454; Eugenia Roldán Vera, The British Book Trade and Spanish American Independence: Education and Knowledge Transmission in Transcontinental Perspective (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2003); Juan Luis Simal, Emigrados: España y el exilio internacional, 1814–1834 (Madrid: Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales, 2012); Rueda Ramírez, Negocio e intercambio cultural; Gómez Álvarez, Navegar con libros; Natalia Maillard Álvarez, Books in the Catholic World during the Early Modern Period (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014). Rueda Ramírez, “Circulación y venta de libros,” 415–203.