Spain’s American Empire


Alejandro O’Reilly (1722, Dublin, Ireland – March 23, 1794, Bonete, Spain (English: Alexander O’Reilly), was a military reformer and Inspector-General of Infantry for the Spanish Empire in the second half of the 18th century. O’Reilly served as the second Spanish governor of colonial Louisiana, being the first Spanish official to actually exercise power in the Louisiana territory after France ceded it to Spain. For his much appreciated services to the Crown of Spain, he was ennobled as a conde (count), and granted a coat of arms.

Although both Alberoni and Patino are credited with the view that the key to Spain’s revival was to be found in the New World, the Italian adventures of Elizabeth Farnese prevented these statesmen from effecting much change in the American empire. Similarly, if Jose del Campillo y Cossio, Secretary of the Treasury, Navy and Indies (1741—3), drew up a comprehensive programme of reform designed to overhaul the entire system of imperial trade and government, his term of office was dominated by the demands of war in both Europe and the Indies. Only in 1754, with the appointment of Julian de Arriaga as Secretary of the Navy and Indies, was the empire at last governed by a minister with American experience (he had served as Governor of Caracas) who had few other administrative tasks to distract his attention. Until then all the emphasis in ministerial circles had been on Europe: the creation of a new system of government and the provisioning of the Italian wars had absorbed virtually all the energy of the administrative elite.

Yet this preoccupation with the Old World had led to a remarkable erosion of imperial power in America. Indeed, during the first decades of the eighteenth century Spain did little more than rebuff foreign incursions into its territory and consolidate its possession over threatened frontiers. To understand the magnitude of the task it is necessary to return to the bleak years of the 1680s. For it was in that decade that the Portuguese established the colony of Sacramento on the estuary of La Plata and the French pushed southwards from Canada to found New Orleans. At much the same time English and French buccaneers burnt and ravaged their way across the isthmus to raid the shores of the Pacific. Panama City, Cartagena, Veracruz and Guayaquil were all eventually captured and sacked by these freebooters. In New Mexico the Pueblo Indians rose in rebellion and expelled both settlers and missionaries from a province under effective occupation for almost a century. So weak had Spain become that during the War of Succession it was necessary to beg the protection of French warships to escort the treasure fleet home from Veracruz.

As in the last decades of Habsburg rule in Spain, the crown’s power to tap the resources of society was limited by the absence of effective military sanctions. If the new dynasty was to profit from its vast overseas possessions, it had first to recapture control over colonial administration and then to create new institutions of government. Only then could it introduce the economic reforms.

The catalyst of change was war with Great Britain. Spain’s tardy entrance into the Seven Years War (1756—63) brought immediate defeat with the British capture of Manila and Havana. Moreover, if at the subsequent peace treaty, these ports were returned, Spain had to cede Florida to Britain and once more hand back Colonia do Sacramento to Portugal. The acquisition of Louisiana from France was but poor compensation for the loss of that ally’s support on the mainland. It was at this point that the ministers of Charles turned to the reform programme elaborated in Campillo y Cossfo’s Nuevo sistema de gobierno econdmico para la América (1743), a manuscript in circulation since 1743 and published in 1762 as the second part of Bernardo Ward’s Prqyecto econdmico. There they found advocacy for a return to the Habsburg practice of a general visitation, to be followed by the introduction of permanent intendancies. The text also contained warnings about the excessive power and wealth of the church. If his proposals in the political sphere often consisted of the application in America of reforms already introduced in Spain, their implementation proved more drastic in its effects. For the administrative revolution in the empire was inaugurated by soldiers and officials despatched from the peninsula. Small wonder that it has been called the Reconquest of the Americas.

The first step in this programme was the provision of adequate military force, as a safeguard both against foreign attack and internal uprisings. The fall of Havana and Manila in 1761 and the virtual elimination of French power from the mainland signalized the magnitude of the threat from abroad. Once peace was declared, Alejandro O’Reilly, Spain’s leading general, was despatched to Cuba to inspect the defences and to organize a local militia. The following year, an inspector-general, Juan de Villalba, arrived in New Spain, at the head of two regiments sent from Europe, charged with a similar task of raising a reserve army of militia. In 1768 a regiment of regular troops was stationed for permanent duty at Caracas. As a result of this activity, an official report of 1771 estimated there were 42,995 soldiers of different categories stationed across Spanish America, with 4,851 men in Cuba, 2,884 m Puerto Rico and 4,628 at Buenos Aires. Not all provinces were so blessed. In New Granada the comunero rebellion in 1781 surprised the viceregal authorities with only 75 regular soldiers outside the port garrison at Cartagena. Then again, it was only after the Tupac Amaru rebellion in Peru (1780—1) that the crown sent out two regiments for duty in that viceroyalty. Here is no place to describe the history of the colonial army. Suffice it to say that, by the close of the century, local recruitment and transfers meant that the overwhelming majority of the men in the ranks were native Americans and that a good proportion of the officers, from captain down, were Creoles. Numbers depended on local resources. If New Spain eventually boasted an army of 9,971 men, divided into four regiments of infantry and two of dragoons, by contrast Peru managed with a force of 1,985 and Chile had but 1,249 men mainly engaged on frontier duties. It was the circle of fortresses in the Caribbean which still required soldiers from Europe, with the insalubrious port of Cartagena maintaining a garrison of 2,759.

This emphasis on military strength yielded considerable returns. In 1776 an expedition of 8,500 men crossed the Rio de la Plata, took Sacramento for the third and last time, and expelled the Portuguese from the entire east bank province, a victory ratified at the Treaty of San Ildefonso (1778). Soon after, in the War of American Independence (1779—83), another force invaded Pensacola, the coastal strip adjoining Louisiana, an initiative which led to the subsequent British cession of that territory, together with Florida. Similarly, in Central America the fortress of Omoa was recaptured and the British settlements along the Mosquito coast finally eliminated. At much the same period expeditions were mounted in New Spain to ensure effective possession of the northern provinces of Sonora, Texas and California. In this drive to secure the frontiers of its American empire, the Bourbon monarchy at last displayed the expansive enterprise of a true imperial power.

Alongside the recruitment of colonial regiments maintained on a permanent footing went the organization of numerous militia units. Admittedly, at times these forces had more reality on paper than on the parade ground, but, despite criticism and occasional disbandment, they eventually proved their worth. For if the 50,000 men allegedly enrolled in the Peruvian reserve army were rarely to be found in uniform, by contrast the 22,277 troops raised in New Spain were reasonably well-armed and disciplined. Elsewhere in Buenos Aires it was the militia which successfully repelled the British invasions of 1806-7. Equally important, the distribution of military titles and legal privileges was viewed as a decisive means of arousing the loyalty of the Creole elite. Indeed, a traveller observed of the upper classes in Venezuela: ‘At present they seek an epaulette with as much avidity as they did formerly the tonsure.’ Moreover, the existence of the militia provided the colonial state with armed sanctions against popular unrest.


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