The Eighteenth Century in Spanish America | The Nobility in the Viceroyalty of Peru | The Bourbon Reforms in Peru | A world of letters

The Eighteenth Century in Spanish America

Map of Peru, 1659
Map of Peru, 1659. Image courtesy of the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut.

The eighteenth century, scenario of this collection of letters, was a time of profound change in the Spanish empire. After a long War of Spanish Succession (1701-1713), the Bourbon dynasty ascended to the throne in Spain and sought to renovate an unwieldy empire that was threatened by the competition of rising economic powers in Europe. This positioned Spain in a constant state of war. The Bourbon kings also fought against the prevailing notion that viewed Spain as a backward and second-rate power. Instead, it sought to replace this negative notion with an image of a reorganized and thriving empire. This general reorganization of the empire became known as the Bourbon Reforms, consisting of the adaptation of administrative, fiscal, commercial and military policies that had proven to be effective in rival European powers. In practice, the reforms were conceived from the top of the imperial administration in order to reaffirm the crown’s authority and control over affairs that had been in American hands. In effect, with the beginning of Charles III´s reign in 1760 royal policies attempted to limit the political autonomy that the American elites had enjoyed by restricting their access to government positions and by enhancing Madrid’s control over colonial trade.

The Nobility in the Viceroyalty of Peru

The Limeño elite, a select group of powerful families linked together by marriage, social, and economic affinity, was directly affected by these changes. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, members of this elite collaborated with the crown to establish effective control over the American territory. They had been appointed in key administrative and political positions, engaged in diverse business ventures, and many of them had acquired noble titles. The practice of intermarriage and their shared economic and political interests created strong social networks that connected both sides of the Atlantic. These social networks operated under a tacit agreement in which they strengthened the king’s authority and reinforced the loyalty of the American elites. This fruitful trans-Atlantic association became endangered during the mid-eighteenth century with Madrid's turn to regalism and the implementation of reforms in the bureaucracy and administration of the viceroyalty.

The Bourbon Reforms in Peru

Map of Peru, 1785
Map of Peru, 1785. Image courtesy of the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut.

An earthquake that destroyed most of Lima and El Callao in 1746 was perceived as an opportunity by political thinkers and policy makers in Madrid to rebuild and reform the city of Lima. Viceroy José Antonio Manso de Velasco, Count of Superunda, who was in charge at the time the earthquake hit, devoted his best efforts to rebuild the city. He had to negotiate with Lima’s powerful elite, however, in order to carry out any type of reforms in the city. The Church also opposed the crown’s plans because they attempted to limit the Church’s physical presence in the city. In the end, the conflict ended in a stalemate, but not before Viceroy Superunda forged friendly ties with members of the local elite who served the Viceroy as an advisory group. The following Viceroy, Manuel Amat y Junient pressed the Limeño elite further to limit their power by reforming the Audiencia [high court] and by promoting Spaniards to take positions as oidores [associate justices] instead of then dominant creoles. Viceroy Amat was very successful in this endeavor although the changes were not welcomed by the local elite as the letters between the members of the Carrillo de Albornoz family show.

The Tupac Amaru or Great Rebellion that shook the viceroyalty between 1780 and 1783 represented a watershed moment for both the Spanish crown and the Limeño elite. Although the rebellion was suffocated and its leaders were executed, the fear of an Indian insurrection lingered. Changes to the military organization of the viceroyalty helped noble families, like the Carrillo de Albornoz, to forge new ties to the Spanish crown by occupying the highest positions in regiments throughout the viceroyalty, particularly in Cuzco, Arequipa, and Trujillo. The succession of rebellions at the beginning of the following century cemented that relationship before two invasions, one in Spain in 1808 and one in Peru in 1820, would break it.

A world of letters

The eighteenth century marked a turning point in the communication system between Spain and America. Traditionally, the Flota de Indias, an armed convoy fleet made the trip from Spain to the ports of Veracruz, Cartagena, and Portobelo in America transporting people and goods twice a year. From Portobelo the Spanish Armada of the South Sea, a galleon fleet, would continue the trip to Peru to retrieve the silver from Potosi. In the eighteenth century a series of international wars and the necessity of improving the commercial relations between Spain and America led the Spanish crown to reform the fleet system. After the destruction of Portobelo in 1739, individual navíos de registro and navíos de aviso were allowed to connect the Viceroyalty of Peru with Spain through Panama or the Cape Horn. While these vessels were smaller than the galleons they were also faster, allowing the correspondence to arrive every two or three months instead of every six months.

To avoid the dangers of maritime travel that included imperial wars, shipwrecks, and corsairs, merchants and elite families implemented new practices that could help in the delivery of correspondence. In some cases they sent several copies of the same letter in different vessels. In other cases they copied significant parts of a letter into another letter directed to relatives or friends. This would insure the information reached their addressees even if one letter was lost. Moreover, since letters were traditionally read out loud among members of a family and/or very close acquaintances, the information contained in the letters was not private, and it could reach a wider public beyond the family. Finally, as is the case with the Montemar letters, many times the letters were numbered, signaling that individuals kept record of how many letters they were sending and to whom. The greater speed and frequency of correspondence would have a significant impact on the contents of the letters.