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date: 03 December 2022

Bourbon Reforms in Central America, 1700–1808free

Bourbon Reforms in Central America, 1700–1808free

  • Jorge González AlzateJorge González AlzateIndependent Scholar


The Kingdom of Guatemala, a neglected backwater of the Spanish Empire under the Habsburgs, figured prominently in the long-term strategic planning of the Bourbon state. Royal preoccupation with this impoverished colony was reflected in the wide-ranging program of reform that the crown sought to put into practice in the isthmus over the course of the 18th century. For Philip V and his successors, the most pressing concern was the crown’s lack of control over the colony’s Caribbean coast (also known as the Mosquito Shore), a swampy and insalubrious region that for decades had been under the effective control of British interlopers and their native allies, the indomitable Sambo-Mosquitos. The main thrust of the reform project was therefore directed at addressing that serious security gap, a situation which, at the same time, severely limited Spain’s capacity to reap the benefits of Central America’s economy and trade. In its initial stages, the effort to implement the reforms proved to be a protracted and frustrating process, hampered by resistance from vested interests, lack of funds and personnel, natural disasters, and above all by recurring military conflict. It was not until the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756–1763) that Charles III, facing the prospect of an even more damaging British attack, resolved to take decisive action and commanded his ministers to expedite the pace of reform. Royal orders were then issued that called for the de-Americanization and overhauling of the civil administration, direct state intervention to stimulate economic productivity and expand maritime trade, the establishment of a modern, efficient, crown-administered fiscal structure, the strengthening of the defense system, and the assertion of royal authority over the ecclesiastical establishment. Initially, the uncompromising manner utilized by the crown in introducing the changes, particularly the reforms to the fiscal system, provoked much unrest and resistance among wide segments of the population. But in the end, the reforms survived and, by the closing years of the century, most of the measures had largely met the crown’s objectives. The fiscal surplus generated by the economic and commercial expansion of the second half of the 18th century enabled the Bourbons to attain their principal strategic objective in Central America, namely dislodging the British enemy from much of the Atlantic coast. Unfortunately, not long after this climatic point, the decades-long effort quickly unraveled as the monarchy began to collapse in 1808. In the end, the reform project proved insufficient; the dream of attaining modernization and preeminent status among European powers remained elusive. As conditions in the mother country deteriorated, so did the economic and political stability of Central America. The kingdom’s provinces were engulfed by increasing political volatility and economic depression. Following the example of neighboring New Spain, Central Americans declared their independence in 1821. Thus, in the end, the Bourbons had “gained a revenue and lost an empire.”


  • History of Central America
  • 1492–1824

Military Reforms

In Central America, the critical issue facing Bourbon policy makers was the crown’s lack of effective control over the territory bordering the Caribbean coastline, an inhospitable region commonly known as the Mosquito Shore. Taking advantage of the Catholic Church’s and the Habsburg kings’ inability to secure a foothold in that strategically valuable region, British traders and colonists had begun to occupy the area, starting in the 1630s. As a result, by 1700, these settlers and their native allies, the indomitable Sambo-Mosquitos, held de facto control over the area. To regain effective military and commercial control over that tropical frontier, therefore, became a priority for Philip V and his successors. For, not only was this situation an intolerable security risk; it also severely limited Spain’s ability to reap the fruits of Central America’s economy and trade.1

The first steps in what proved to be a prolonged effort to address Central America’s security problem along the Atlantic coast were taken by José Patiño, an able naval officer, who came to amass a great deal of influence at the court of Philip V. Soon after becoming secretary of state, in 1733, Patiño named the experienced military officer, Pedro Rivera y Villalón, as Captain General of Guatemala and charged him with the task of developing a comprehensive strategic plan for the defense of the colony. Following a preliminary reconnaissance, Rivera formulated a plan that called for the shoring up of Inmaculada, a fort situated on the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and the establishment of two fortified coast-guard stations, one at the northern port of Trujillo and the other on the southern coast of Matina. This was a proposal that, if implemented, held the promise of greatly enhancing Spain’s defensive posture on the Mosquito shore. But as was often the case in the first half of the 18th century, unexpected events intervened, and the project had to be postponed temporarily. Rivera was instead forced to focus his attention on the looming military emergency precipitated by England’s declaration of war on Spain, in October 1739, the so-called War of Jenkin’s Ear, which lasted until 1748.2

To assist Rivera in pushing the project forward, the Crown ordered the engineer Luis Diez Navarro to transfer from his post in New Spain to Central America, in October 1741. This turned out to be the right decision, as Diez Navarro proved to be highly qualified for the task. He was to remain in the isthmus for twenty-five years, leading the unprecedented effort to address the precarious situation on the coast, a situation that had further deteriorated since Captain Robert Hodgson had formally taken possession of the region in the name of the English monarch in 1740.3

Based on a more systematic survey of the isthmus’s defense system, Diez Navarro concluded that Rivera’s plan would be too costly and, above all, impractical, given the strength of the Anglo-Sambo presence along the coastline, particularly around Black River near Trujillo. He, instead, recommended the construction of a single fort at Omoa, a secure and quiet bay situated on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Honduras, west of Trujillo. Diez saw the construction of this fort as a key component of his long-term plan for the security of the coast.4

But once again, the exigencies of war conspired to halt and delay the completion of the project. By the time Madrid finally authorized construction to begin, in April 1752, the initial design had been sharply downsized and its purpose redefined. Omoa was now expected to serve multiple functions, not only as a military bastion but also as a customs station, as well as a coastguard base. This new design was conceived by Bourbon strategists as part of a long-term strategy that would necessarily be preceded by years of economic and military reforms that were thought indispensable prior to attempting a serious campaign to drive the English from the coast.5

This more restrained approach, which, in fact, characterized the new administration under Ferdinand VI, meant that the outbreak of hostilities between England and France in 1756 found Spain still woefully unprepared to face English military power upon Spain’s entrance into the war in 1761. Construction of the fort had just started and consequently Central America remained as vulnerable as ever. The result was a complete disaster for Spain that included the shocking losses of prized colonies such as Cuba and the Philippines. Thus, the Seven Years’ War ended with British colonists and traders, together with their African slaves and Mosquito allies, still dominant on the Atlantic coast.6

In the wake of the disaster, the new king, Charles III, and his ministers were determined not to allow another humiliating defeat. The desperate situation called for a concerted plan of reform to be carried out as expeditiously as possible. To implement his agenda, the king named Brigadier Pedro de Salazar y Herrera, who acted as Guatemala’s Captain General between 1765 and 1771. A priority for Salazar was the recruitment, provisioning, and training of a disciplined militia. He saw the formation of these forces as a critical component in the long-term strategy against the British, serving as back up support to regular troops and as combat forces in times of emergency. No less critical for the new President was the need to push on with the re-enforcement of existing fortifications and to speed up work on the still unfinished bastion at Omoa. But, once again, unexpected events intervened. As it happened, Salazar would not survive to see his projects completed, for on a tour of inspection of the coast in 1771, he suddenly fell ill and died. For his part, his successor, Martin de Mayorga (1773–1779), was unable to follow up on Salazar’s achievements. He was forced instead to put a halt to the program of military reform and attend to the crisis caused by the earthquakes of 1773, which destroyed Santiago de Guatemala, the kingdom’s capital, and required the erection of a new capital, the future New Guatemala.7

It fell to Matías de Gálvez, brother of Minister of the Indies José de Gálvez, to resume the reforms, a process that now acquired renewed urgency as war yet again loomed in the horizon. As an experienced and competent military officer, Gálvez turned out to be the best man for such an enormous task. Upon arriving on the coast in 1778, he immediately proceeded to take the necessary steps to ready the isthmus for the defense. First, he undertook the customary tour of inspection to assess the state of the defense system and determine what was needed. Next, he proceeded to reorganize the militia, appointing officers and recruiting the required number of troops, and began to design plans for an all-out attack on the coast. Fortunately, for Galvez, Fort Omoa, after more than twenty-five years of effort, had been finally completed and was ready to play a key role in the long-anticipated offensive against the British.8

The war of the American Revolution (1779–1783) erupted on June 16, 1779. To everyone’s surprise, the British struck first and seized Fort Omoa on October 13, 1779. Alarmed by this development, Gálvez expedited his march out of New Guatemala and advanced towards the coast at the head of a thousand-man force composed of a battalion of regulars and several militia companies. They arrived at Omoa on November 26 and proceeded to slowly make their way towards the fort in perpendicular trenches, just out of cannon range. Unable to repel the assault, the British gave up and quietly sailed away towards Jamaica on November 28. The next day Captain General Galvez reoccupied the fort, a historic victory that was followed by other unprecedented triumphs in Nicaragua, Trujillo, and the Bay Islands off the coast, most notably Roatan, which was reoccupied in March 1782. Spain’s tenacious and costly effort had finally brought an end to the long struggle on the Atlantic coast. However, as will be discussed, this crowning achievement of the Bourbons’ reformist agenda could not have been possible without the fiscal surplus that the state’s policies aimed at expanding economic and commercial activities had helped to produce.9

Economic and Commercial Reforms

The Bourbon kings and their reform-oriented ministers had no doubt that the key to realizing their ambitious goals was to maximize the returns from its American possessions. And, to accomplish that goal, colonial production and trade needed to be expanded and then effectively taxed. As discussed above, in Central America, military weakness under the Habsburgs had resulted in foreign encroachment and widespread contraband on the Atlantic side of the isthmus. The English presence there had forced merchants to use alternate routes along the Pacific and overland to the port of Veracruz in New Spain, all of which made the conduct of business not only time-consuming, but also very expensive.10

Unlike their Habsburg predecessors, the Bourbons introduced a more systematic, better-informed approach to the issue of economic development in Central America. In general terms, the crown’s plan involved interventions aimed at securing navigation along the Caribbean shore, eradicating smuggling, and at the same time stimulating colonial production and trade as well as encouraging the importation of Spanish products, all of which would help to greatly expand maritime traffic from the mother country and back.11

It was Secretary of State José Patiño, as part of his overarching strategic project, who set in motion the initial effort to stimulate commercial and economic activity in the isthmus, beginning in the 1720s. His priority was to reinvigorate mineral production in Honduras, a sector of the economy that had endured a long period of decline under the Habsburgs. The tax on production, called the quinto, which had been charged at 20 percent, was lowered by half to 10 percent. The price of mercury, the key ingredient in mining extraction, was similarly reduced by half, from 60 to 30 pesos the pound for ten years. And perhaps more important, the crown made Indian labor more accessible by assigning labor drafts to the mine owners at a minimal cost. These measures were clearly aimed at attracting increased investment by making production costs lower than ever before.12

As a result of these measures, there was a substantial increase in silver and gold yields. Whereas in 1712 there was only one active mine in Honduras, by 1737, there were seven silver and two gold mining zones in Tegucigalpa alone, with a total of thirty-three mines. Comayagua had six sites and at least twenty-five registered mines, and many more unregistered. Similarly, gold panning in the rivers across the province grew in intensity. The mineral boom attracted a new wave of immigrants from Spain as well as other regions of the kingdom, a process that led to new findings and the renewed exploitation of abandoned deposits, and thus to greater yields. According to an official report, a total of 462,655 pesos were mined between 1729 and 1736.13

Building on such auspicious results and to further stimulate the mining sector, the crown ordered the establishment of a mint in Guatemala City in 1733; it also invested 800,000 pesos for the purchasing of silver. Both measures helped expand yields to unprecedented levels by removing transportation and fiscal costs associated with minting, which had been traditionally carried out in Mexico City, and by eliminating the profits lost to the middlemen involved in the process. A greater money supply available for investment led in turn to increased activity in the agricultural and service sectors as well as in the profitable import-export sector of the colonial economy, all of which increased profits for investors and swelled the crown’s coffers with much needed revenues for defraying growing expenses on military defense and administrative reforms.14

The decades following the War of Jenkin’s Ear (1739–1748) saw an unprecedented expansion of industrial, mostly textile, production in England and other countries in Western Europe. The increased demand for natural dyes, raised the price of Guatemala’s indigo to levels not seen before and, unlike previous years, the price stayed at that high level through the rest of the century. In 1756, indigo merchants earned as much in profits as they had in the previous six years. The product was shipped to Cadiz and then reexported to England and other European countries. Indigo became the most lucrative export industry of Central America in the 18th century. Consumers could now afford to import a much larger quantity of European goods than ever before, as profits from the indigo trade accumulated. The urgency to secure access to the Caribbean Sea now intensified, as trade with Spain and other European countries grew exponentially. A backwater for most of the colonial period, Central America in the latter decades of the 18th century began to be fully integrated into the expanding Atlantic economy.15

Following the disaster in the Seven Years War (1756–1763), the reform effort not only continued but also saw marked acceleration. Thus, to further foment economic and commercial growth in the kingdom of Guatemala, the crown granted to the Barcelona Company the exclusive rights to trade with the isthmus. It also authorized the members of the dominant Cinco Gremios investment group to finance cargo shipping, which increased traffic to the Bay of Honduras, with the crown acting as a shareholder in the enterprise. Even more consequential in this context was the enactment, in 1765, of a free trade policy, as part of an initiative aimed at breaking the Cadiz merchants’ monopoly on colonial trade. This historic measure initially allowed unrestricted trade between certain ports in the mother country and selected ports in the Spanish Caribbean islands; but the new policy also authorized ships to sail from Caribbean ports to Central America. In 1778, the free trade policy was fully extended to other American kingdoms, including Central America itself. Guatemalan merchants were now free to deal directly with eleven peninsular ports.16

Another important component of the Bourbon government’s effort to grow the colonial economy and stimulate commerce was the attempt to integrate the Indian population into the money economy by demanding, beginning in 1747, that the tribute be paid in coin, and, in 1751, by legalizing the repartos of merchandise, a form of commerce, often coercive, which provincial magistrates carried out with the financial backing of wholesale merchants based in Santiago de Guatemala. From then on, Indian tributaries, to acquire the money necessary to meet their fiscal obligations to the church and the crown, felt compelled to sell their small surpluses of grain, wool, cloth, liquor, and livestock at local and regional markets. It also forced many others to supplement their earnings by working as salaried laborers on Spanish ranches and farms. And to pay for repartos, which usually consisted of cash advances, farming implements, livestock, and European imports, Indians were impelled to provide Spanish magistrates and merchants predetermined amounts of wheat, cloth, and thread required under the terms of the trade. Thus, both innovations compelled the Indian majority to enter the Spanish colonial market as petty commodity producers, consumers, and wage laborers.17

The War of the American Revolution (1779–1783) forced the crown to focus its attention on the military offensive on the coast. Still, Captain General Gálvez endeavored to keep the momentum of economic reform moving forward. Among the most ambitious measures during those years was the creation of a government-administered fund designed to provide credit to farmers, cattle ranchers, and local merchants involved in the dye industry at better interest rates than those charged by wealthy merchants. The aim was to reduce Guatemala merchant elite’s control of credit while furthering increasing the crown’s leverage of overall economic activity. This fund was underwritten by a loan of one-hundred thousand pesos from the tobacco administration, which was to be repaid with an export duty imposed on each bundle of indigo.18

Between the end of the War in 1783 and the British blockade of 1797, Central America experienced a period of unprecedented prosperity. With the expulsion of the British from much of the Mosquito Coast and with the return of an effective Spanish presence at Fort Omoa, contraband was sharply curtailed and navigation from and to the mother country out of Caribbean ports could finally be undertaken unimpeded.19

Fiscal Reforms

Alongside initiatives aimed at encouraging economic and commercial growth, a major component of the Bourbons’ program of reform was the overhauling of the imperial fiscal structure. In Central America, the Bourbons found a tax-collecting system that was plagued with fraud and inefficiency. Established by their weak Habsburg predecessors, the system effectively allowed the most profitable sectors of the economy to go untaxed. Thus, soon after taking over the reins of government, Philip V directed his ministers to take steps to revamp the existing system so that it yielded a maximum of income for the state.20

Beginning in 1717, the Audiencia conducted a series of inspections, and, as expected, the royal auditors uncovered a host of malpractices and irregularities pervading the administration of tax collection. The chief issue was the lack of control by the government and the powerful role that wealthy, private interests played in the administration of the system. And just as problematic was the lax and fraudulent manner with which provincial and local officials carried out their duties. But, as in the case of other early attempts at reform, all sorts of obstacles stood in the way of carrying out the proposed plans in a steady and methodical fashion. The result was that little was accomplished until the 1760s, when Charles III ordered the reforms to be implemented without further delay.21

At that point, the crown began to appoint a cohort of salaried treasury officials, charging them with the task of modernizing procedures as well as setting up revenue-raising institutions. In Central America, the new initiatives included the establishment of a new customs house in Santiago de Guatemala and the creation of state monopolies over the postal service as well as the production and sale of commodities such as gunpowder, tobacco, salt, ice, and aguardiente (rum). In addition, the crown took direct control and instituted a thorough reorganization of the alcabala-barlovento (sales tax) system, potentially one of the richest sources of royal income.22

Sales Tax Reform

Up to the 1760s, the crown had relied on the native communities as the main suppliers of funds through the tribute system. But population decline had kept revenue levels unacceptably low. To Bourbon officials, it was therefore necessary to tap into non-Indians’ resources, both Spaniards and Ladinos (racially mixed), who together constituted the fastest growing segment of the population in the 18th century, and who paid little or no taxes. And one means of augmenting non-Indian contributions was to enforce in a more effective manner the collection of the sales tax.23

The drive to reform the system was launched by an order issued by Charles III on February 20, 1762. Received in Guatemala in April 1763, this document empowered the colonial authorities to establish what came to be called the General Administration of Alcabalas and Barlovento. Once installed, this institution, under the direction of a general administrator, was responsible for the management and collection of those levies on behalf of the Spanish king.24

Immediately after taking office, the new head of the fiscal administration, Francisco de Valdés, doubled the alcabala and barlovento rates from 3 percent to 6 percent. Complaints from merchants forced the crown to lower the sales tax rate to 3 percent; but later, it raised it to 4 percent, where it stayed for the reminder of the colonial period. Valdés also ordered the sales tax to be charged on products such as meat and aguardiente, which had not paid the tax before. Goods dispatched from Santiago de Guatemala, regardless of destination, were now charged the levy. As part of the effort to broaden the tax base as much as possible, Valdés began to collect taxes from shopkeepers as well as farmers. Merchants were now required to open their crates and sacks and pay taxes based on the value of their merchandise, not on its weight as had been customary before.25

The consolidation of these initiatives took time as the population resisted the changes. An assessment of their efficacy in 1775 revealed that yields did not at all reflect, especially in the interior provinces, the flourishing commercial activity of the times. Thus, to further tighten royal control over the fiscal apparatus and further expand revenue yields, beginning in 1777, the crown ordered the establishment of four sub-administrations, one in each of the provinces of San Salvador, León, Chiapas, and Comayagua. Government-appointed receptores (sales tax collectors) were put in charge of these new fiscal jurisdictions. In the event, these adjustments proved highly effective, as revenues expanded considerably in subsequent years and remained at those high levels through the end of the century.26

Government Monopolies

In addition to assuming control over the sales tax administration, the crown moved, in late 1765, to secure for itself the exclusive right to produce and market a variety of basic commodities, all of which enjoyed a great deal of popular demand. In November, the new President, Pedro de Salazar issued a royal order establishing a government-managed tobacco monopoly. He also directed fiscal officials to take over the manufacturing and selling of gunpowder and playing cards, monopolies that had been traditionally administered by Mexican officials. The tobacco monopoly was to become one of the most lucrative sources of revenue for the crown. Only certain specific areas were authorized to cultivate tobacco and then sell it to the government. The new administrator, in March 1766, raised the price of tobacco to one-half to three reales, depending on quality. In the following decades, whenever an extra amount of revenue was needed, the audiencia raised the price of tobacco to consumers, while paying low prices to producers.27

Then, in October 1766, the crown authorized the installation of a royal monopoly on aguardiente (rum), a popular spirit enjoying a great deal of demand among Central Americans. But within a few months, the King retracted his decision and in February of 1767 issued an edict that prohibited the production and marketing of aguardiente in Central America. The prohibition had been ostensibly motivated by state and clerical elites’ concerns over the ill effects of excessive drinking on law and order as well as morality and public health. Another, perhaps more important, reason for the ban may have been the crown’s desire to protect liquor imports from Spain and Peru. Nevertheless, seventeen years later, in the aftermath of the War of the American Revolution (1779–1783), a dire need for extra revenues led to the relaunching of the aguardiente monopoly. The officers in charge of implementing the measure argued that nearly two decades of trying to enforce the liquor ban had proved ineffectual. Establishing a royal monopoly, they believed, would greatly help ameliorate the pernicious effects of unregulated production and consumption through higher prices and stricter penalties for bootlegging and drunkenness. At the same time, the monopoly would provide the crown an urgently needed new source of revenue in the wake of a costly war.28

Initially, the merchant elite of Guatemala City opposed the implementation of the crown’s initiative. Over the following months, they used all legal means at their disposal to either delay or halt entirely the implementation of the royal order. However, to the patricians’ chagrin, the crown would not budge. To state authorities it seemed clear that the city leaders resented not being able to freely profit from such a lucrative business, as they had been accustomed to doing. Thus, in August 1784, the president of the Audiencia, José de Estachería, finally launched the implementation of the reform by appointing Gerónimo Cos y Ruiz to head the new administración general de aguardiente (general aguardiente administration).29

Administrative Reforms

Bourbon reformers regarded the overhauling of the colonial administrative apparatus as one of the crucial steps toward the realization of their agenda. In Central America, the object of this set of initiatives was intended not only to improve the overall functioning of the system but, above all, to reassert royal control over the colony’s governance structure. Philip V had inherited from the Habsburgs a rather loose and decentralized administrative apparatus, much of it under the control of native Spaniards (Creoles). The roots of this unacceptable situation could be traced to the 17th century at a time when a dire need for funds had led the Habsburgs to sell bureaucratic offices to the highest bidders. Over time, this policy tended to undermine royal authority and to enhance the political status of wealthy creoles. Therefore, an important priority for Bourbon policy-makers throughout the 18th century was the enactment of measures that led to the systematic reduction of creole participation in colonial government, chiefly through the appointment of more experienced and better-compensated peninsula-born civil servants, many of them members of the military, who were also thought to be more loyal to the crown and thus better inclined to enforce the crown’s commands.30

Early efforts to restructure the colonial government were hampered mostly by military conflict. It was not until the restoration of peace in 1748 that the crown was finally able to push its project forward. In 1750, a royal order abolished the pernicious practice of selling offices. From that point on, the crown assumed full control over vacant posts and almost invariably those offices were adjudicated to Spanish-born, qualified individuals. As a result, as the century wore on, the presence of creoles in positions of authority diminished dramatically, a situation that increasingly caused much resentment although, on the other hand, it seems to have markedly improved the effectiveness of Bourbon government.31

In Central America, the new policy had an immediate impact on the composition of the Audiencia (high court). The high tribunal went from having one American judge in 1687 to having a majority of Americans in 1712, all as a result of official appointment to those posts in exchange for a fee. After 1750, almost all vacancies were filled by Spanish-born, university-trained judges, with only a few of the appointments going to candidates from Mexico, Lima, or Santo Domingo. The crown insured that these appointees met the required qualifications by privileging candidates with the best educational credentials as well as solid prior experience. It also instituted a carefully supervised promotion system, coupled with a strictly enforced policy of marriage restrictions, which prevented appointees from settling permanently in their districts as well as from forming deep ties to the local community. As a result, by 1775, the Guatemalan tribunal had no judges with more than five years of service. The predominance of peninsulares and non-native creoles persisted until 1810, when the political crisis in the mother country forced the government to fill vacancies with an increasing number of native and outsider creoles.32

Just as consequential, in this context, was the crown’s decision in 1752 to split the region surrounding Santiago de Guatemala, known as the Valley of Guatemala, into two new alcaldias mayores (county-like jurisdictions). Up to that point, the city’s municipal council had held administrative and fiscal control of the valley, which comprised more than seventy Indian villages. By placing Spanish-born officials in charge of these new jurisdictions, the crown further reduced creole participation in colonial government. Not only did the city fathers lose control over the villages’ substantial labor resources but, even more important, they lost the right to collect tributes from native residents, moneys which they had traditionally used for their own entrepreneurial purposes.33

The Bourbons’ policy of creole exclusion was also extended to the military establishment. The initial steps into implementing this aspect of the reforms were taken by Captain General Pedro de Salazar, soon after assuming office in 1765. As part of his task to shore up the defense system of the kingdom, Salazar acted to reorganize the veteran force stationed in Guatemala City, supplying it with a fresh contingent of peninsular officers and soldiers plus a full complement of arms and other necessary elements of war. Moreover, Salazar initiated the process designed to establish a better trained and more effective militia force. He appointed peninsular officers, with the rank of Ayudante (adjutant), to lead the process of recruiting and training the new disciplined militia units. And to head the newly formed companies, the ayudantes were instructed to give priority to peninsular residents and allow only the most respectable and loyal creole citizens to serve. The result, again, was a marked reduction of participation of creoles at the highest ranks in the new disciplined militia. Salazar’s initial effort laid a strong foundation for the subsequent intervention by Captain General Matías de Gálvez on the eve of Spain’s declaration of war against England in 1778. It was this newly reorganized military force, led by Spanish-born officers, that enabled Gálvez to finally remove the British from much of the Caribbean shore, a quest that had taken more than century to carry out.34

A similar process of de-Americanization was set in motion within all the agencies that made up the royal treasury. Again, Captain General Salazar, as discussed, played an instrumental role in this aspect of the project as well. Beginning in the 1760s, the main thrust of the reform involved removing offices from farm (private) administration and placing them under direct royal control; almost in every case, this usually meant replacing wealthy creole merchants, who had enjoyed official control over these agencies, with experienced fiscal officers from the mother country. The new customs house, the general sales tax administration, the general liquor administration, the royal monopolies over tobacco, gun-powder, playing cards, ice, and the royal postal service administration were all placed under the administration of salaried officials, trained and born in the mother country. The new officials were directed to modernize procedures, expand the tax base, and submit detailed reports of their activities. To ensure that officers carry out their duties as expected; auditors were periodically sent out to examine records and punish malfeasance.35

The capstone of the Bourbons’ campaign to improve colonial administration was the creation of intendancies in 1786. This was an institution of French origin that had already been in operation in the mother country as well as in other parts of Spanish America. In addition to extending Bourbon authority into the countryside, the intendancies were designed to eradicate abuses at the regional and local levels as well as to promote agricultural production and commerce within those jurisdictions. To act as heads of the intendancies, the crown gave preference to Spanish military officers with proven administrative ability and commitment to royal service. In Central America, the crown approved the creation of four intendancies in Chiapas, San Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The province of Guatemala remained under the control of the Captain General, who assumed the title of super-intendant, and alcaldes mayores and corregidores retained their administrative duties in the interior districts. But even here, there was a remarkable improvement on the caliber of governance with the appointment of highly competent military officers to occupy those posts in the years after 1786. Among the most distinguished were José Rossi y Rubi who acted as Alcalde Mayor of Suchitepéquez, Francisco Xavier de Aguirre, alcalde mayor of Totonicapán, both of whom served from 1795 to 1802, and Prudencio de Cozar who served both as Corregidor of Quetzaltenango and Alcalde Mayor of Totonicapán from 1789 to 1811.36

By the end of the 18th century, because of the systematic implementation of these initiatives, creole participation in colonial government had been reduced to a minimum. And judging by the results, the crown had obtained a much more professional, efficient, effective, less corrupt, more productive colonial administration.

Ecclesiastical Reforms

In the eyes of secular-minded Bourbon reformers, the considerable social influence and political power that the Catholic Church had come to wield in Central America represented a major obstacle to the implementation of their absolutist agenda. Even more problematic was the enormous material wealth that the Church had been allowed to accumulate under the Habsburg regime, a structural imbalance that greatly hindered the crown’s ability to carry out its developmentalist project. The Crown sought therefore to pursue a regalist policy designed to reassert state authority over the ecclesiastical establishment and at the same time to take actions aimed at circumscribing the church’s economic power.37

In the Kingdom of Guatemala, the church’s predominant status had evolved as result of the critical role that clerics had played in the conquest and in the ensuing consolidation of Spanish dominion over the indigenous populations. The Habsburg monarchs’ firm commitment to spreading the Christian gospel, together with a chronic lack of civilian personnel, combined to invest the secular and regular branches of the clergy with quasi-official bureaucratic status. Thus, while the crown did retain full control over the administrative aspects of the church, as allowed under the patronato agreement, it was forced to grant the hierarchy a great deal of autonomy in the conduct of its own affairs. As a result, the various branches of the clerical establishment found themselves in a position to accumulate a considerable amount of economic and political power.38

In the numerous Indian villages established after the conquest, the regular clergy came to play a critical dual role as representatives and enforcers of the crown’s agenda as well as religious leaders and defenders of the native communities’ cultural autonomy and material wellbeing. For its part, the secular clergy played a similarly central role in the Spanish cities and Ladino towns, acting as spiritual counselors and providers of financial, educational and social services.39

The church’s ample reserves of social, political, and cultural capital were then gradually converted over the years into substantial amounts of economic wealth, which accrued into the clergy’s coffers from a variety of sources. A steady stream of revenues was generated from the collection of tithes, a contribution of about ten percent of agricultural production paid by non-Indians; additional funds came from a variety of fees that clerics charged for their services, such as special masses and the administration of the sacraments. From the Indian communities, parish priests also received contributions in goods as well as free labor services. Moreover, friars had control over cofradias’ (sodalities) funds and tributes, as well as chantries, and dowries for the support of nuns; the church was, in addition, the beneficiary of numerous bequests in land and money from pious Indians and non-Indians. The hierarchy spent much of its income in the upkeep of churches, monasteries and convents. But a good portion was also invested in loans and mortgages to creole and ladino farmers and merchants. In fact, its control of large amounts of capital enabled the church to become the chief banking institution in Central America. Many individual priests and religious orders invested as well in ranching and farming enterprises and a variety of commercial ventures.40

Not long after taking over the throne, Philip V and his reform-oriented ministers began to take steps aimed at reaffirming and, if possible, further extending the authority of the state over the clerical establishment. In Central America, the crown acted to curtail the corporate privileges that clerics enjoyed, and even more important, it sought to make church resources available for private development and investment. As it turned out, the campaign to strip the clerical establishment of its exalted status had to proceed with caution, as the church, as mentioned, enjoyed a great deal of political and economic power in addition to its traditional spiritual influence among the various segments of colonial society. It was not until the mid-1750s, that the Bourbon reformers felt strong enough to finally mount their campaign against clerical temporal privilege.41

Thus, the first five decades of the century saw the enactment of rather tentative legislative measures. Royal orders were issued limiting the privileges of the religious orders while bolstering those of the secular clergy, restricting admissions into convents, and reducing the number of Indian sodalities. In 1717, an attempt was made to halt the establishment of new convents, but a few years later, the crown retracted the order and authorized the creation of a convent by the Capuchins in Guatemala City. Similarly, in 1732, the crown ordered the secularization of all the parishes in Chiapas, but this proved equally impracticable given the secular clergy’s lack of knowledge of Indian languages and culture.42

The Bourbon offensive was launched in earnest in 1751 by removing from parish priests the right to collect tribute and manage community funds, while empowering royal officials and municipal governments to take over those functions. In one stroke, the religious orders lost control over a sizable source of financial capital, liberating those funds for government projects and private capitalist ventures. An even more consequential reform was undertaken in the mid-1750s. A royal edict ordered the secularization of all the parishes under the control of the regular orders. Under the new policy, all friars that retired or gave up their posts were to be supplanted by secular priests. To ensure the success of the reform, the crown issued another order prohibiting the admission of novitiates in convents, except for a limited number to be employed in the maintenance of the convents. The implementation of these changes continued until 1815, but the bulk of the process was completed by 1760, with the largest number of secularizations carried out between 1754 and 1755.43

To further consolidate his regalist policy, Charles III expelled the Jesuit order from all of Spain’s American possessions in 1767. The Jesuits held ultramontanist views and had always sought to affirm their independence from the Spanish crown, a stance that ran counter to the Bourbons’ absolutist designs. A total of twenty friars were expelled from Central America. The Dominican order, the traditional rival of the Jesuits and supporter of the crown’s regalist policies, took over the educational establishments that had been traditionally administered by the Jesuits. Under the Dominicans, the University of San Carlos, the chief institution of higher learning in the colony, morphed into a flourishing center where enlightenment works and ideas were tolerated and widely discussed.44

This uncompromising attack on the church’s economic power culminated in 1804 with the crown’s consolidation decree, under which all outstanding loans and mortgages held by clerical institutions had to be paid into a government-administered fund. Pressed for funds during the Napoleonic Wars crisis, the Bourbon state targeted the church’s assets as a means of meeting the skyrocketing military costs. In Central America, large numbers of individuals and institutions were adversely affected by this measure: farmers, homeowners, merchants, Indian sodalities, chantries, churches, convents were all suddenly stripped of their assets and financial capital. The secular government was to take over the administration of those financial instruments from that point on. Nevertheless, despite the damaging impact of the policy on the Kingdom’s economic foundation, most subjects, not only remained loyal to the captive king, but stood ready to contribute more funds to the war effort against the French invaders and the liberation of their beloved king.45

The Enlightenment in Spain and Central America

As members of a French dynasty, the Spanish Bourbons and their ministers could not help but be influenced by French practices and ideas. This dynastic heritage, coupled with geographic proximity, made it inevitable that the writings of the philosophes would penetrate and influence Spain in various ways over the course of the 18th century. However, the manner of diffusion was never a flood but rather an irregular trickle. Even more important, the greatest impact of the new thinking was confined to a tiny minority of educated Spaniards. Whether at court or in literary salons, members of this elite, comprised of academics, clerics, bureaucrats and merchants, read and discussed the major writings of the French and British philosophes. But the propositions of this celebrated group of writers were never accepted uncritically. In fact, those works that questioned Christian orthodoxy or the legitimacy of absolute monarchy tended to be simply ignored or rejected outright. As a result, the new currents of thought did not fundamentally change the traditional and orthodox character of Spanish society. What resonated the most, especially in royal circles, was the Enlightenment’s promotion of useful knowledge derived from empirical observation, experience, and rational analysis. The crown encouraged the establishment of periodicals and economic societies that served the purpose of educating the public on current scientific developments and on useful knowledge that could then be put at the service of the nation’s economic and industrial progress. It was, then, this eminently utilitarian and useable aspect of the enlightenment that Bourbon reformers sought to foment as it served to advance their ambitions to strengthen state power and revive Spain’s economic and military standing on the European stage.46

As might be expected, the new intellectual outlook began to radiate out to the colonies, carried over by the succeeding waves of Spanish bureaucrats, army officers, clerics, and merchants who arrived in the region especially in the second half of the 18th century. In Central America, as in the mother country, most receptive to the new intellectual currents were the small number of educated individuals affiliated with the institutions of higher education, the clergy, the bureaucracy, and the merchant elite. As was the case in the mother country, both the press and the economic societies played key roles in the study, dissemination, and practical application of the new ideas and methods in Central America. Among the most influential in the process of promoting the new knowledge was the Franciscan friar José Antonio Goicoechea, who had been educated in Spain and had actively participated in the fashionable literary salons of the time, where he had absorbed a good deal of the current scientific knowledge. Back in Guatemala, he became the leading promoter of Enlightenment ideas and methods at the University of San Carlos, the principal center of higher education, which had evolved into a dynamic forum for the new learning after the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767. Goicoechea was also the chief sponsor of the Gazeta de Guatemala, a periodical he helped revive in 1797, and to which he contributed numerous articles on social and economic issues. No less consequential was his role in the creation of the kingdom’s Economic Society, which, following Spain’s precedents, made its principal mission to conduct research and promote practical knowledge to help the advance of the agricultural and industrial sectors of the colony. Perhaps most important, Goicoechea’s intellectual leadership was instrumental in shaping the intellectual and political mentality of the young generations of Central American merchant and professional elites. Many of these individuals were destined to play central roles in the independence process and the creation of new nation-states in the first decades of the 19th century.47

Resistance to Bourbon Reforms

The absolutist and uncompromising approach utilized by the Bourbons in the introduction and enforcement of their reforms was bound to provoke strong resistance from all segments of Central American society. Suspicious of innovations and fiercely protective of their own cultural practices and economic well-being, Indian and Ladino peasants as well as Creole merchants and landowners, utilized a wide variety of every-day forms of resistance, such as refusal to comply, boycotts, sabotage, and formal petitions for redress; but when those peaceful strategies did not achieve their ends, violent actions were either threatened or carried out.

Initially, the crown was able to avoid conflict by utilizing a rather flexible and gradualist approach to the reform process, an approach that allowed for negotiation with colonial vested interests. But as the pace of reform accelerated in the second half of the 18th century, and the crown began to tighten up enforcement and punish lack of compliance, the potential for widespread popular anger and resistance escalated dramatically. In many cases, to ensure the consolidation of the measures, the crown was forced to yield to the protesters’ demands and grant them concessions. In the mountainous interior, the fear of an Indian uprising led Bourbon agents to take a cautious approach, although, in the end, the viability of the reforms was never seriously imperiled.48

This was precisely what happened in Central America when President Salazar took the first steps to implement the new series of fiscal, military, and administrative reforms in the 1760s. The unprecedented changes to the fiscal structure disrupted customary practices and standards of living, drawing an angry response from just about all sectors of the society, particularly in Santiago de Guatemala, the first population center to feel the effects of the measures and where the stakes were higher. Here the wealthy and powerful merchant elite, accustomed to a high degree of control and influence over the colony’s economy and administration, strongly resisted the authoritarian imposition of a state-managed sales tax administration and the creation of state monopolies on liquor and tobacco as well as other basic commodities. These were all economic sectors of which they had enjoyed control up to that point. And even more resentful than the upper classes were indigenous and Ladino artisans, traders, and farmers; they complained bitterly about the increased taxes and onerous state monopolies, impositions which threatened everyone’s ability to eke out a livelihood.49

Unsurprisingly, in late 1766, the city was in turmoil and rebellion was in the air. A group of artisans wrote a letter to the cabildo expressing their grievances and disgust at the uncompromising impositions, adding that their enforcement would only worsen the already miserable situation. They demanded, therefore, that the president rescind all the measures.50

Fearful of a popular uprising, President Salazar proceeded to issue a series of orders aimed at addressing the populace’s grievances and at the same time preserving order within the city. First, he ordered the Ladino militia to turn in their weapons and cease all military training. To secure public safety, a contingent of regular soldiers was posted in the city’s barracks under orders to move expeditiously to quash any attempt at violent protest. He then dismissed the much-despised official, Sebastian Calvo, who had been in charge of putting the reforms in practice. And to calm the inflamed sentiments, he ordered fiscal officials to stop collecting some of the levies and distribute grain in the poorest districts of the city. In the end, Salazar’s measures appear to have been a success, as no popular uprising ever occurred. The reforms survived with few alterations, and implementation went on without major opposition for the rest of the century.51

Our knowledge of the social and economic impact of the reforms in the countryside is still limited. A recent study of the effects of the reforms on the Maya village of Quetzaltenango, located in the western highlands of Guatemala, offers a glimpse of the reforms’ reception in this remote mountainous corner of the isthmus. Here, the top-down, uncompromising approach of the crown’s agents also caused much discontent and popular animosity. In particular, the much tighter enforcement of sales tax collection, instituted in 1778, provoked widespread resistance, both passive and violent, to the changes. Popular disgust was further exacerbated by the Crown’s creation of a branch of the aguardiente monopoly in 1785. The reform adversely affected the economic status of many Indian and non-Indian residents who engaged in the liquor business. What was worse, the crown granted full control over the monopoly to a highly unpopular clique of wealthy and politically connected Spaniards. As a result, the inflamed sentiments of the populace, further exacerbated by a poor grain harvest, exploded in an outburst of mass violence in 1786. For several days, armed groups of rioters roamed the streets sacking and pillaging government offices and attacking fiscal and liquor officials. At least one Indian resident died and several were wounded. Order was eventually restored by a detachment of regular troops sent from the capital. The ringleaders were put in prison and their assets confiscated. But as popular discontent and passive resistance persisted, the government was forced to negotiate with the protesters a deal that addressed their grievances. Thus, the reforms remained in place, but state agents were forced to substantially modify the crown’s initial design and, in general, revert to a more flexible approach in subsequent decades.52

Thus, the limited evidence available seems to suggest that the Crown succeeded in overcoming popular resistance to the reforms and subsequently was able to put into effect the full package of policy changes, but not without yielding certain concessions to the protesters. This process of implementation and negotiation between Bourbon agents and local populations carried on through the end of the century and up to 1808, when the political and military crisis that engulfed the mother country brought the program of reform to a close.


The Bourbon monarchs’ quest to implement their reform agenda in Central America met with a good deal of success, although in a few areas the results fell short of expectations. Thus, taken together, the outcomes can be characterized as satisfactory but less than spectacular. Among the most successful were the initiatives aimed at maximizing fiscal revenues. As economic and commercial activity expanded in the second half of the 18th century, so did the income from custom duties, sales taxes, and the state monopolies on tobacco and liquor. Sales tax receipts, under the merchant-administered farm, averaged 18,000 pesos a year. In the years after 1780, they consistently averaged more than 100,000 pesos, including the period of economic decline before independence. Revenue from the tobacco monopoly grew more than 300 percent from 1771 to 1819. The liquor monopoly was less profitable. In this case, the prohibitions were difficult to enforce and illicit production was widespread. Between 1812 and 1816, the government’s liquor stores earned an annual average of 44,000 pesos, much less than what tobacco produced.53

The measures directed at improving the quality of colonial governance met with a great deal of success as well. The de-Americanization of the bureaucracy brought to the isthmus experienced military officers and bureaucratic officials that helped the crown achieve its political, strategic, and economic aims. Figures such as Pedro Díez Navarro, Pedro de Salazar, and Matías de Gálvez, were representative of the best administrative talent that the Bourbon century could offer. Exceptional governing ability and ethical integrity also characterized a great many of the provincial magistrates named to govern the peripheral provinces of the kingdom in the second half of the century. Among the best known of these individuals are the intendants Baron de Carondolet and Tomás de Acosta, as well as Alcaldes Mayores Prudencio de Cozar, Francisco Xavier Aguirre, and José Rossi y Rubí, all of them outstanding prototypes of the enlightened Bourbon administrator.54

Equally successful were the economic policies aimed at stimulating mineral and agricultural production, with maximum growth achieved in the second half of the 18th century. In those years, Central America’s silver production flourished, and indigo exports to European markets expanded at unprecedented levels; as the most profitable export commodity, the blue dye became the engine of the economic boom that visited the isthmus up until de final years of the century.55

As the economy prospered and navigation along the Caribbean coast became more secure, commercial activity experienced significant expansion as well. This trend was further intensified by the enactment of free trade policies in the 1760s and then in 1779, when Central American merchants were authorized to trade freely with ports in Cuba and Spain. Maritime traffic from the mother country increased correspondingly.56

However, other initiatives designed to consolidate the state’s hold on the isthmus’s economy failed to meet expectations. Chief among these was a determined effort by President Matías de Gálvez’s to break Guatemala’s merchant elite’s control over credit and commodity prices, an objective that met with utter failure. The indigo growers’ fund, which was established to provide low cost loans to small producers and entrepreneurs, began to experience difficulties by the turn of the century, as many of the loans were not repaid; within five years, the fund went bankrupt. Similar initiatives to assist miners in Honduras and control prices in the cattle fairs suffered the same fate. The intractable problem was that small producers and entrepreneurs depended on the goods, credit, and transportation services supplied by the large merchant houses of Guatemala City. This structural advantage enabled those powerful families to maintain their privilege status over the colony’s economic and commercial activity.57

With regards to the measures designed to curb ecclesiastical privilege and wealth, results were also mixed. In terms of the central piece of the reform, namely the campaign to secularize the parishes administered by the regular orders, many parishes were successfully secularized, but many others, especially in Guatemala’s highlands remained under the control of the friars. The orders’ expertise, derived from two centuries of involvement with the Indian communities, could not be easily replaced. Less than successful as well was the Bourbon state’s effort to curb the church’s capacity to accumulate wealth. While the crown did succeed in taking away the clerics’ control of Indian tribute and community funds, in the end, the church found creative mechanisms to circumvent prohibitions related to its financial operations, and so it was able to retain a good deal of economic clout.58

No doubt the climatic event of the Bourbon century in Central America was the military offensive against the British interlopers and their native allies on the Mosquito shore. Led by Captain General Matías de Gálvez, in 1782, this costly and arduous effort finally brought to an end the long struggle over control of the Atlantic coast, a triumph that was made possible by the fiscal surplus that the economic boom had generated. And yet, even in this case, the results were rather ambiguous. For, although impressive, the Spanish campaign turned out to be less than a rout. In the final days of the conflict, the unyielding British fighters, aided by their Sambo-Mosquito allies, recovered a portion of the coastline known as Black River, just east of Trujillo. This last-minute victory was used by the British as a negotiating card in the final peace treaty signed on July 14, 1786. As a result, Spain was forced to extend woodcutting rights to the British colonists in Belize, a settlement that had by then acquired permanent status.59

Nevertheless, on the strength of these mostly positive achievements, the Bourbon state, by the initial years of the 19th century, could justifiably claim to have largely accomplished its central objectives, most notably reasserting its authority over the colony’s governance and fiscal structure as well as over its quasi-abandoned territory along the Atlantic coast. Unfortunately, these hard-earned attainments proved short-lived, for within a decade, Spain was forced yet again to wage war against its formidable rivals; and quickly thereafter, all that had been gained in the previous decades came undone. Spain’s participation in the Napoleonic Wars (1793–1814) proved to be a disaster. The British commercial blockade of 1797 paralyzed commercial traffic between Spain and its American colonies, leading to widespread contraband by British traders, which in turn caused a devastating drop in fiscal returns at a moment when it was most urgently needed. As the mother country became increasingly crippled by military and political crises, the Central American economy plunged into depression; indigo exports plummeted, and the war of liberation in the peninsula syphoned off large amounts of the already much diminished resources. In 1808, the monarchy collapsed under the combined weight of military and financial disaster. Surprisingly, most Central Americans remained loyal to the bitter end, with even impoverished Indian villages sending donations to the beleaguered mother country. Independence was declared in 1821, prompted by Mexican events; and a few months later, a majority of ayuntamientos voted to join the newly created Mexican Empire, hoping to keep alive the connection to the mother country under the terms of the Iguala Plan. But the empire collapsed, and the Central American provinces had no other option but to declare their absolute independence in 1823.

The historian Peter Gay has observed that “absolutist monarchs were not visionaries; they were intent above all on surviving in the jungle of international relations.”60 The experience of the Spanish Bourbons in the 18th century aptly illustrates this characterization. For it was, indeed, the quest to survive the ruthless struggle for dominance in Western Europe that led the Bourbons to institute reforms. By 1700, Bourbon ministers understood that economic and military decline had reached such extreme levels that, to survive the ever more ominous British menace, Spain had to effect deep socioeconomic and political reforms or face almost certain extinction. So, as the historians Stanley and Barbara Stein have noted, the entire reform effort was indeed a kind of “defensive modernization,” that is, an essentially desperate, and, in the end, ill-fated, attempt by an unreconstructed medieval power to catch up to its far more technologically and economically developed rivals, England and France.61 The implacable logic of this super-power game converted Central America, along with the rest of Spanish America, into an indispensable source of wealth, without which the decades-long drive to make Spain powerful and great again would not have been possible. In the event, the whole effort proved insufficient, too little, too late. As a result, the edifice collapsed in 1808. For Central Americans, the crisis in the peninsula exacted a terrible price. They were left to fend for themselves at a most precarious moment, forced to construct national states with depressed economies, their industries destroyed by British contraband, and their societies divided along socioeconomic, political, and regional lines. The crisis of independence would endure for much of the 19th century.

Discussion of the Literature

The Bourbon state’s program of reform, implemented over the course of the 18th century, was one of the most consequential chapters in Central American colonial history; yet it remains relatively unexplored. While a good number of valuable studies have greatly advanced our knowledge of the period, many aspects still await scholarly examination.

A pioneering attempt at providing a general overview and assessment of the impact of the Bourbon reforms, focusing on the reign of Charles III, is the doctoral thesis of Wilbur Meneray, “The Kingdom of Guatemala during the Reign of Charles III, 1759–1788.”62 The author discusses in detail the major initiatives enacted by Charles III and, based on rather limited evidence, reaches the conclusion that overall the entire effort was largely a failure.

A more systematic and comprehensive examination of the entire Bourbon century, emphasizing the social and economic aspects of the reforms, is the book by Miles Wortman, Government and Society in Central America, 1680–1840.63 Unlike Meneray, Wortman had access to a much larger amount of archival evidence and therefore was able to paint a much more nuanced picture of the reform program, which he believes to have met the crown’s objectives in most areas.

Apart from these general works, the existing literature on the reforms consists of mostly journal articles and a few monographic studies devoted to the examination of specific aspects of the reform program. The best study of the prolonged conflict between England and Spain over control of Central America’s Atlantic region is the monograph by Troy S. Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle for Mosquitia. A more recent study of the same theme, but with an emphasis on the British perspective, is Robert Naylor’s Penny Ante Imperialism: The Mosquito Shore and the Bay of Honduras, 1600–1914: A Case Study in British Informal Empire. The excellent article by Doug Tompson, “The Establecimientos Costeros Of Bourbon Central America, 1787–1800” focuses on the ill-fated attempts by the Spanish state to colonize the Mosquito shore in the aftermath of the War of the American Revolution.64

The best study concerning the Bourbons’ effort at curtailing the corporate privileges and economic power of the ecclesiastical establishment is Adriaan van Oss’s Catholic Colonialism: A Parish History of Guatemala, 1524–1821. The recent book by Christophe Belaubre, Élus de Dieu et Élus du Monde dans le Royaume du Guatemala (1753–1808) sheds additional light on the survival strategies utilized by the clergy in their quest to protect their economic and political capital from the state’s regalist polices.65

The important role of indigo as the most profitable export commodity in 18th century Central America is examined in detailed by José Antonio Fernández Molina in Colouring the World in Blue: The Indigo Boom and the Central American Market, 1750–1810.66

The Guatemala City merchant elite, the principle beneficiary of the indigo boom is the subject of two excellent prosopographic studies by Gustavo Palma, “Núcleos de poder local y relaciones familiares en la ciudad de Guatemala a finales del siglo XVIII” and José Santos. Elites, poder local y régimen colonial: El cabildo y los regidores de Santiago de Guatemala, 1700–1787. Richmond Brown’s biography, Juan Fermin de Aycinena: Central American Colonial Entrepreneur, 1729–1796, is an informative examination of this wealthy entrepreneur’s ascent to social and political dominance in late-18th century Guatemala.67

The reception of Enlightenment ideas in Central America is treated by John Tate Lanning in The Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment in the University of San Carlos de Guatemala. Lanning finds faculty and students at San Carlos University intensely receptive to the new knowledge and fully cognizant of contemporary intellectual developments in Europe. More recently, the work of French Canadian scholar Catherine Poupeny-Hart has furnished important details on this rather unexplored topic: “Las luces centroamericanas en Europa: la ‘Gazeta de Guatemala’ y el ‘Correo mercantil de España y sus indias,’ 1792–1808”; and Ilustrar la nación: La prensa temprana en el mundo atlántico.68

Valuable institutional studies of specific reforms have been published by Héctor Humberto Samayoa, Implantación del régimen de intendencias en el Reyno de Guatemala; Víctor Hugo Acuña, “Historia Económica del Tabaco en Costa Rica: Época Colonial”; Magda González, “El estanco de bebidas embriagantes en Guatemala, 1753–1860”; and Jorge Luján Muñoz, “El establecimiento del estanco del tabaco en el reino de Guatemala.”69

The best biographies of notable government officials, including assessments of their performances are: Ligia Estrada, La Costa Rica de don Tomás de Acosta I; Thomas Fiehrer, “The Barón de Carondelet as an Agent of Bourbon Reform”; Bernabé Fernández, El Reino de Guatemala durante el gobierno de Antonio González Saravia, 1801–1811; El gobierno del Intendente Anguiano en Honduras, 1796–1812; and Timothy Hawkins, José de Bustamante and Central American Independence: Colonial Administration in an Age of Imperial Crisis.70

A recent addition to this body of work on the Bourbon reforms is the compilation of essays edited by Jordana Dym and Christophe Belaubre, Politics, Economy, and Society in Bourbon Central America, 1759–1821. The articles cover themes such as primary education, clerical financial strategies, reform of city government, responses of the commercial elite to Bourbon reforms on trade and contraband, indigenous resistance strategies to fiscal reforms, Bourbon efforts at colonizing the Atlantic coast, the state’s attempts at regulating sexual mores; examination of the administration of President Jose de Bustamante in the final years of colonial period; and a study of internal structures and dynamics of Guatemala City Social elites.71

Finally, one aspect of the Bourbon policies that, up to now, has not received the scholarly attention it deserves is the impact of reforms in the countryside, especially on provincial centers and indigenous peasant villages. A pioneering contribution to filling that gap is the work by Jorge González Alzate (the author of the present essay), La experiencia colonial y transición a la independencia en el occidente de Guatemala, 1520–1825. In addition to shedding fresh light on the nature of the reform process in western Guatemala, the book provides valuable insights into how popular actors (Indian and Ladino peasants) responded to the rigorous implementation of the measures and the negotiation strategies utilized by them to try to secure a more favorable deal from the colonial state.72

In conclusion, while the existing literature has given us a basic understanding of the nature and impact of the reform program, a number of topics remain to be investigated in greater detail. Among the most important are: the effects of the commercial, economic, fiscal, and military reforms on regional and local societies; popular responses to the initiatives; biographies of major figures such as Luis Díez Navarro, Pedro de Salazar, and Matías de Gálvez; the impact of the creation of intendancies on provincial governance; biographies of the most prominent intendants; the reception and impact of the Enlightenment across the isthmus; and the social and political effects of the ecclesiastical and military reforms at the regional and local levels.

Primary Sources

The principal repository of primary documents on the Bourbon reforms is the Archivo General de Centroamérica (AGCA), Guatemala City. Equally important is the Achivo General de Indias (AGI), Seville, Spain. Sources from other Spanish archives can be accessed in PARES (Portal de Archivos Españoles). Documentation on provincial developments may be found at the national archives of each Central American country: Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica (ANCR), San José; Archivo General de la Nación (AGN), Managua, Nicaragua; Archivo Nacional de Honduras (ANH), Tegucigalpa; Archivo General de la Nación (AGN), San Salvador, El Salvador. Primary documentation related to the implementation of the Bourbon reforms in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, is found at the Archivo Histórico de Quetzaltenango (AHQ).

Further Reading

  • Belaubre, Christophe. Église et Lumieres au Guatemala, la dimension atlantique (1779–1808). Paris: L’Harmattan, 2015.
  • Burkholder, Mark A., and D. S. Chandler. From Impotence to Authority: The Spanish Crown and the American Audiencias, 1687–1808. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1977.
  • Dym, Jordana. From Sovereign Villages to National States: City, State, and Federation in Central America, 1759–1839. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.
  • Dym, Jordana and Christophe Belaubre, Politics, Economy, and Society in Bourbon Central America, 1759–1821. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2007.
  • Fernández Molina, José Antonio. Colouring the World in Blue: The Indigo Boom and the Central American Market, 1750–1810. PhD diss., The University of Texas at Austin, 1992.
  • Floyd, Troy S. The Anglo-Spanish Struggle for Mosquitia. Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1967.
  • González Alzate, Jorge. La experiencia colonial y transición a la independencia en el occidente de Guatemala. Quetzaltenango: De pueblo indígena a ciudad multiétnica, 1520–1825. México: UNAM, 2015.
  • Herr, Richard. The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958.
  • Herr, Richard. Rural Change and Royal Finances in Spain at the End of the Old Regime. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
  • Herrera, Robinson, and Stephen Webre, eds. La época colonial en Guatemala: Estudios de historia cultural y social. Guatemala: Universidad de San Carlos, 2013.
  • Lanning, John Tate. The Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment in the University of San Carlos de Guatemala. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1956.
  • Lynch, John. Bourbon Spain, 1700–1808. London: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
  • Patch, Robert W. Maya Revolt and Revolution in the 18th Century. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2002.
  • Stein, Stanley, and Barbara Stein, Apogee of Empire: Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759–1789. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2003.
  • Van Oss, Adriaan. Catholic Colonialism: A Parish History of Guatemala, 1524–1821. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Wortman, Miles. Government and Society in Central America, 1680–1840. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.


  • 1. Troy S. Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle for Mosquitia (Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1967), 18–25.

  • 2. Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle, 74–77. After 1742, this conflict merged with the wider one known as the War of the Austrian Succession.

  • 3. Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle, 68, 78; and Miles Wortman, Government and Society in Central America, 1680–1840 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 118.

  • 4. Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle, 79–80; and Wortman, Government and Society, 154.

  • 5. Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle, 105–108.

  • 6. Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle, 114–118.

  • 7. Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle, 120–127; and Jorge González Alzate, La experiencia colonial y transición a la independencia en el occidente de Guatemala. Quetzaltenango: de pueblo indígena a ciudad multiétnica, 1520–1825 (México: UNAM, 2015), 122–132.

  • 8. Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle, 128.

  • 9. Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle, 138–160; and Wortman, Government and Society, 154.

  • 10. John Lynch, Bourbon Spain (London: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 145; and Wortman, Government and Society, 121.

  • 11. Wortman, Government and Society, 130.

  • 12. Lynch, Bourbon Spain, 90–91; and Wortman, Government and Society, 113–114.

  • 13. Wortman, Government and Society, 114.

  • 14. Wortman, Government and Society, 114.

  • 15. Wortman, Government and Society, 120–121; and José Antonio Fernández Molina, Coloring the World in Blue: The Indigo Boom and the Central American Market, 1750–1810 (PhD diss., The University of Texas at Austin, 1992), 13–69.

  • 16. Wortman, Government and Society, 124, 170; and Stanley Stein and Barbara Stein, Apogee of Empire: Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759–1789 (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2003), 77–80, 164.

  • 17. Wortman, Government and Society, 174; and González, La experiencia colonial, 80.

  • 18. Wortman, Government and Society, 164–165.

  • 19. Wortman, Government and Society, 171; and Fernández, Coloring the World, 50–53.

  • 20. Wortman, Government and Society, 130.

  • 21. Wortman, Government and Society, 102.

  • 22. González, La experiencia colonial, 112–113.

  • 23. Wortman, Government and Society, 140–141.

  • 24. Wortman, Government and Society, 31; and González Alzate, La experiencia colonial, 113.

  • 25. Wortman, Government and Society, 142.

  • 26. González Alzate, La experiencia colonial, 116–117.

  • 27. Wortman, Government and Society, 143–144.

  • 28. Wortman, Government and Society, 144; and González Alzate, La experiencia colonial, 134.

  • 29. González Alzate, La experiencia colonial, 133–136.

  • 30. Wortman, Government and Society, 17–18; and Mark A. Burkholder and D. S. Chandler, From Impotence to Authority: The Spanish Crown and the American Audiencias, 1687–1808 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1977), 17–18.

  • 31. Burkholder, From Impotence to Authority, 89.

  • 32. Burkholder, From Impotence to Authority, 3–4, 59–60, 90, 98.

  • 33. Wortman, Government and Society, 138–139.

  • 34. Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle, 120–122, 154; and González Alzate, La experiencia colonial, 122–132.

  • 35. Wortman, Government and Society, 139–145.

  • 36. Wortman, Government and Society, 149, 166; González Alzate, La experiencia colonial, 161–163, 168; For biographies of Cozar and Rossí, see the Association for the Promotion of Historical Studies in Central America.

  • 37. Wortman, Government and Society, 41; and Adriaan van Oss, Catholic Colonialism: A Parish History of Guatemala, 1524–1821 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 181.

  • 38. Wortman, Government and Society, 41–42; and Van Oss, Catholic Colonialism, 181.

  • 39. Wortman, Government and Society, 41; and Van Oss, Catholic Colonialism, 183–184.

  • 40. Wortman, Government and Society, 43–46; and Van Oss, Catholic Colonialism, 100, 183.

  • 41. Wortman, Government and Society, 132–133.

  • 42. Wortman, Government and Society, 134; and Van Oss, Catholic Colonialism, 90.

  • 43. Wortman, Government and Society, 135; and Van Oss, Catholic Colonialism, 136.

  • 44. Wortman, Government and Society, 136.

  • 45. Wortman Government and Society, 137.

  • 46. Lynch, Bourbon Spain, 73, 254–261.

  • 47. Wortman, Government and Society, 196–199; and John Tate Lanning, The Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment in the University of San Carlos de Guatemala (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1956), 51–53, 67, 84–88.

  • 48. Wortman, Government and Society, 134, 138–140.

  • 49. Wortman, Government and Society, 144.

  • 50. Wortman, Government and Society, 145.

  • 51. Wortman, Government and Society, 145.

  • 52. González, La experiencia colonial, 112–121, 133–149.

  • 53. Wortman, Government and Society, 151–153.

  • 54. Thomas Fieherer, “The Baron de Carondelet as Agent of Bourbon Reform” (PhD diss., Tulane University, New Orleans, 1975); Ligia Estrada, La Costa Rica de don Tomás de Acosta (San José, Costa Rica: Editorial Costa Rica, 1965); and see the website of the Associaton for the Promotion of Historical Studies in Central America for biographies of Prudencio de Cozar and José Rossí Rubí.

  • 55. Wortman, Government and Society, 114, 188.

  • 56. Wortman, Government and Society, 171.

  • 57. Wortman, Government and Society, 164–167.

  • 58. Wortman, Government and Society, 137; and Christophe Belaubre, Élus de Dieu et Élus du Monde dans le Royaume du Guatemala (1753–1808) (Paris: L. Harmattan, 2012), 414–418.

  • 59. Wortman, Government and Society, 154; and Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle, 160–165.

  • 60. Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1969) II: 494.

  • 61. Stein, Apogee of Empire, 351.

  • 62. Wilbur Meneray, “The Kingdom of Guatemala during the Reign of Charles III, 1759–1788” (PhD diss., Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, 1975).

  • 63. Wortman, Government and Society.

  • 64. Wortman, Government and Society; Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle; Robert Naylor, Penny Ante Imperialism: The Mosquito Shore and the Bay of Honduras, 1600–1914: A Case Study in British Informal Empire (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989); and Doug Tompson, “The Establecimientos Costeros Of Bourbon Central America, 1787–1800, in Politics, Economy, and Society in Bourbon Central America, eds. Jordana Dym and Christophe Belaubre (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2007).

  • 65. Van Oss, Catholic Colonialism; and Christophe Belaubre, Élus de Dieu et Élus du Monde.

  • 66. José Antonio Fernández Molina, “Colouring the World in Blue.”

  • 67. Gustavo Palma, “Núcleos de poder local y relaciones familiares en la ciudad de Guatemala a finales del siglo XVIII,” Mesoamérica 12 (1986): 241–308; José Santos. Elites, poder local y régimen colonial: El cabildo y los regidores de Santiago de Guatemala, 1700–1787 (Cádiz, Spain: Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de Cádiz, 2000); and Richmond Brown, Juan Fermin de Aycinena: Central American Colonial Entrepreneur, 1729–1796 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996).

  • 68. John Tate Lanning, The Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment; Catherine Poupeny-Hart, “Las luces centroamericanas en Europa: La ‘Gazeta de Guatemala’ y el ‘Correo mercantil de España y sus indias,’ 1792–1808”, 2015; and Catherine Poupeny-Hart, Aura Navarro, and Georges L. Bastin, Ilustrar la nación: La prensa temprana en el mundo atlántico (Paris: Editions le manuscrit, 2014).

  • 69. Héctor Humberto Samayoa, Implantación del régimen de intendencias en el Reyno de Guatemala (Guatemala: Ministerio de Educacion, 1969); Víctor Hugo Acuña, “Historia Económica del Tabaco en Costa Rica: Época Colonial,” Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos (1978): 279–392; Magda González, “El estanco de bebidas embriagantes en Guatemala, 1753–1860,” (PhD diss., Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, 1990); and Jorge Luján Muñoz, “El establecimiento del estanco del tabaco en el reino de Guatemala” Mezoamerica 41 (2001): 99–136.

  • 70. Ligia Estrada, La Costa Rica de don Tomás de Acosta; Thomas Fiehrer, “The Barón de Carondelet as an Agent of Bourbon Reform” (PhD diss., Tulane University, 1977); Bernabé Fernández, El Reino de Guatemala durante el gobierno de Antonio González Saravia, 1801–1811 (Guatemala: Cigda, 1993); Bernabé Fernández, El gobierno del Intendente Anguiano en Honduras, 1796–1812 (Seville, Spain: University of Seville, 1997); and Timothy Hawkins, José de Bustamante and Central American Independence: Colonial Administration in an Age of Imperial Crisis (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004).

  • 71. Jordana Dym and Christophe Belaubre, Politics, Economy, and Society in Bourbon Central America, 1759–1821 (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2007).

  • 72. Jorge González Alzate, La experiencia colonial y transición a la independencia en el occidente de Guatemala, 1520–1825 (Merida, Yucatan: Unversidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 2015).