World History 2 113 - 8.1.1 Social Hierarchy and Bourbon Reforms in Spanish America

By the end of the eighteenth century, Latin American societies had become rigidly stratified. Status was dependent on a number of social markers including education, family and professional ties, race, religion, and wealth. Color was the most obvious and most complicated noneconomic factor that affected social position. Whiteness was more than a mark of economic superiority. It indicated European ancestry, which in turn denoted status as a Christian and thus a degree of presumed social and moral superiority. Furthermore, European males born in the Iberian Peninsula (the peninsula on which Spain and Portugal are located), called peninsulares in Spanish America and reinóis in Portuguese America, considered themselves superior to males of European descent born in the Americas, who were called creoles in Spanish America. In the first centuries of colonization, those born in Europe tended to monopolize the highest positions in church and state as well as the means of production, whereas most of the landed elite (miners, plantation owners) were creoles.

In the decades leading to the movement toward independence, however, Europeans and their descendants in the Americas were struggling to maintain their position at the top of the social pyramid. They had to face the reality that they had imposed an unequal system in which a small group of Europeans and their descendants held power over a much larger group of American Indians and enslaved Africans, as well as a vast contingent of mixed-race people or castas consisting of mestizos (literally “mixed” in Spanish and used mainly for people of White European and Indian descent) and pardos (“brown” in Spanish for someone of part-African descent). This ethnically mixed population dominated urban areas, often working as shoemakers, tailors, and other types of artisans; some mestizo and pardo men served in the lower ranks of the colonial militias.

Beyond the Book

Eighteenth-Century Casta Paintings

The three eighteenth-century images shown here are known as casta paintings and reflect the tremendous ethnic diversity of Spanish America. This diversity was the result of enslaved Africans and their descendants marrying American Indians, and White European men, who faced a shortage of eligible European women, marrying both American Indians and Africans. The Spanish colonists attempted to understand and control this racially diverse society by creating social categories based on skin color, such as mestizos, pardos, and others.

Casta paintings were made to depict these various categories (Figure 8.4), and thus they offer us insight into historical views of the relationship between a person’s skin color and socioeconomic position. As you look at these images, consider the ways in which they depict racial intermarriage, mixed-race families, and life in Spanish America (Figure 8.5).

Image (a) shows a white father with his Spanish Indian wife and their mixed-race daughter. The man wears shirt, vest, and a long coat, decorated with embroidery, and oversized lace cuffs. The mother and child both wear jewelry and dresses decorated with floral embroidery. Image (b) consists of sixteen small paintings. Each painting shows a different racial combination of a man, woman, and child.
Figure 8.4 (a) Miguel Cabrera’s Pintura de Castas (1763) shows a White (Spanish or creole) father and Spanish-Indian (mestiza) mother with their mixed-race (castiza) daughter. (b) Las Castas Mexicanas (1777) by Ignácio Maria Barred depicts the sixteen different racial classifications found in Spanish colonies in the Americas. (credit a: modification of work “De español y mestiza, castiza” by Unknown/WikiArt, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “Casta Painting” by Museo Nacional del Virreinato/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
This is a three-part image. The Virgin of Guadalupe is at the top. Below the Virgin are several images of mixed-race groups. The bottom of the image shows fruits and vegetables.
Figure 8.5 Luis de Mena’s Virgin of Guadalupe and Castas (1750) depicts an image of the Holy Virgin along with various mixed-race people, or castas, and other elements of Mexican daily life. (credit: “Casta Painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe” by Museo de America/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • What do these images of Spanish, American, and Indian people reveal about the relationship between skin color and socioeconomic position in Spanish America?
  • What do they indicate about the success of cultural assimilation to the Spanish way of life?
  • Why do you think the Spanish colonists were so concerned with racial categorization?

At the end of the eighteenth century, the Kingdom of Spain, which had been led by the House of Bourbon since 1700, reorganized its American colonies into four large parts. These were New Spain (in existence since 1521), Peru (in existence since 1542), New Granada (created in 1717 and roughly equivalent to the countries of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela today), and Río de la Plata (created in 1776 with territory corresponding to modern-day Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay) (Figure 8.6). As before, the ruler of each of these viceroyalty units represented the Spanish king. Now, however, local governments within each of the viceroyalties were in the hands of governors, or intendants.

A map of the world is shown. Central America, including Caribbean Islands, and most of present-day United States is shaded blue, representing Viceroyalty of New Spain. Most of the western coast of South America is shaded orange, representing Viceroyalty of Peru. The northern part of South America extending into Panama is shaded pink, representing Viceroyalty of new Granada. The southern part of South America, except the western coast, is shaded green, representing Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata.
Figure 8.6 The map shows the four viceroyalties that made up Spain’s possessions in the Americas in 1790. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

These governors were peninsulares who were appointed by and reported directly to the king, in an attempt to reduce corruption and enforce centralization. They were assisted by other peninsulares, many recently arrived from Spain and far below the creole elite they governed in terms of education, wealth, and culture. This centralization of administration under the intendancy system brought with it industrial and economic development, and new material prosperity for peninsulares and creole landowners and merchants. However, only those born in Spain, the peninsulares, could hold the most important offices in the government. Although creoles could become wealthy under the system, wealth did not translate to social status. The sharp division between them and the peninsular Spaniards fueled creoles’ desire for self-government.

It was during this Bourbon Era that Enlightenment ideas spread across the Atlantic world, including to the Spanish colonies in North and South America. These ideas were rooted in the principle that all people were entitled to take part in their government, and they influenced creoles in Latin America to demand the right to participate more fully in politics and the economy, which was largely controlled by Spain. The aims were revolutionary, but they stopped short of radically changing the social order. The colonial creole elite originally petitioned only that authority be extended to White males of Spanish descent. Native populations and African and mixed-race populations were excluded. The White male creole elites pointed to the hypocrisy of the egalitarian rhetoric of Europeans and questioned the universal ideals linked to the new rights of citizens, but they did so with only themselves in mind.

An important contributing factor in the desire of creoles and other groups for more participation in politics and the economy was the increased availability of books and other printed material. Traditionally, the Spanish American White elite had been literate and educated, unlike the lower social groups of color, which largely relied on oral tradition for transmitting knowledge. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, the circulation of books and manuscripts had greatly increased among the huge mixed-race population, even if these groups did not share in the other benefits accorded to White people. Still, the “dangerous” notions of the Enlightenment were able to spread not only among educated creoles in the colonies but among mixed-race people as well. Those ideas, combined with resentment of the peninsulares, were fuel for late eighteenth-century rebellions.

Their desire for participation added to the creoles’ anger over the creation of the intendancy system. The Bourbon monarchy had also instituted other reforms to strengthen its American empire and its control over it. The colonial militia was expanded, and newly created army units were staffed by men born in Spanish America. This reduced the cost of defending the empire because Spanish troops no longer had to be transported across the ocean. However, like political offices, the highest military positions were reserved for peninsulares, another cause of creole discontent.

Along with changing the political and military life in its colonies, in 1767 Spain followed the example of Portugal and expelled the Jesuit missionaries from its American empire, angering people at both ends of the social ladder. Not only did the Jesuits have a reputation as the most humane managers of American Indian forced laborers, but they had also educated many of the creole elite, and many young creole men had joined the Jesuit order.

Finally, the Bourbons imposed economic reforms, and these were often unpopular as well. The purpose of colonies was to enrich and strengthen the parent country, so the Spanish monarchs wished to make their American possessions as profitable as possible by, for example, more efficiently collecting taxes from the residents and improving “free” trade. Essentially, this meant Spanish manufacturers were free to sell their goods in the colonies, where they competed with local producers and merchants and often drove them out of business. At the same time, colonial producers were still not free to sell their goods to either French or British buyers. A number of monopolies remained in force. For example, the Crown controlled all tobacco production and sale.

Unlike the political reforms that affected primarily the creoles, the economic changes affected people at all levels of Spanish American society, who sometimes reacted violently. Two such insurrections, sparked by an increase in the colonial sales tax, were the massive 1780–1781 Incarebellion near Cuzco in the Viceroyalty of Peru, and the 1781 Comunero (“commoner”) Revolt in New Granada (Colombia). In both these viceroyalties, the basis of Spanish economic activity had evolved from the payment of tribute to the enforcement of systematic forms of labor such as debt servitude. The Great Inca Rebellion was led by José Gabriel Condorcanqui Noguera, a respected local mixed-race leader. Noguera opposed the forced labor the Spanish demanded from American Indians, and to move Indigenous people to rebel, he claimed descent from the last Inca ruler, Túpac Amaru, and called himself Túpac Amaru II (Figure 8.7). Threatened by his mobilization of some forty thousand people from among the Viceroyalty of Peru’s Indian majority, outnumbered creoles joined the Spanish and brutally crushed the revolt, which had threatened to become a rebellion against White, not simply Spanish, rule. Túpac Amaru II and tens of thousands of others were killed.

Portrait of Tupac Amaru II. Amaru has long hair. He wears a long, brown, tunic over a black jacket and knee breeches. He also wears a large medallion around his neck. Mountains are in the background.
Figure 8.7 This portrait of Túpac Amaru II by an unknown artist depicts the Indigenous leader who invoked the legacy of the Inca Empire to inspire people in Peru to rise up against the Spanish. (credit: “Portrait of Túpac Amaru II” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In addition to resisting colonial taxes, the Comunero Rebellion of 1781 rose up against laws that granted the Spanish Crown a monopoly over the production of tobacco and liquor. Calling for the restoration of traditional forms of governance, this revolt spread throughout the mountains, and armed protesters descended on Bogotá. First, the Spanish authorities there decided to negotiate. They agreed to repeal the taxes and end the monopolies as well as give creoles preference over peninsulares in government positions. However, once the comuneros dispersed and the viceroy learned of Bogotá’s concessions, he ordered the rebellion’s leaders to be arrested and executed. These two revolts were warning signs of an ever-growing discontented mixed-race population, and they were followed by immediate legal responses.

In 1795, tensions flared between the creole city council of Caracas in the Viceroyalty of New Granada and the king of Spain, Carlos IV. The Crown had passed a new ordinance that allowed people of mixed Spanish and African ancestry to purchase, at some expense, a royal identification card called a cédula real. This card classified the holder as legally “White,” giving mixed-race people citizenship and the legal status of creoles and allowing them greater participation in public life and increased social mobility, such as pursuing political office or formal education.

Both groups of elites, the Spanish-born peninsulares and the American-born Spanish creoles, reacted negatively to the possibility of upward social mobility for those of mixed race. White people saw themselves as educated, productive members of society devoted to mining, ranching, and plantation activities. They regarded mixed-race people as inferior and ignorant, lost in idleness, unable to prosper, and dishonorable in every way. The city council of Caracas argued that granting upward mobility to mixed-race people would lead to the destruction of society as they knew it.

Peninsulares and creoles worried that mixed-race people were going to take what were then perceived as the “good” jobs away from the upper classes. Many were so wary of mixed-race groups that they avoided working in jobs or occupations associated with them. They also feared the growing military influence and power of mixed-race people after the insurrections in the 1780s, which had paved the way for the current situation. The rebellion by enslaved people in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) that had begun in 1791 also served as a warning to White Spanish Americans of what might happen if people of African ancestry were not tightly controlled. Elites in Caracas contended that the cédula real would make it even more difficult to maintain this control and could very well lead to more insurrections. They believed that keeping the castas subordinated was the key to colonial security and safety. This is the social context in which people were immersed at the beginning of the independence movement in Latin America.

Link to Learning

Read the article “The ‘Pardo Question’: Political Struggles on Free Coloreds Right to Citizenship during the Revolution of Caracas, 1797–1813” by Alejandro E. Gómez. Consider the reaction of the colonial elite to the upward social mobility of mixed-race people.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax