Governing the Spanish Empire from a Distance

Is the map the same thing as the territory? Perhaps a trivial question, but O! so important for the Spanish monarchy. In the seventeenth century, imperial knowledge was primarily related to conquest: sea charts, historical, geographical and strategic descriptions, as well as apologies and justifications for conquering. Very rapidly the field of knowledge expanded to encompass the political knowledge enabling the Spanish Monarchy to control and govern its territories.

To understand how these mechanisms were established, we must examine how the Council of the Indies collected the information it needed for to govern (especially for its power of appointment). To illuminate the mechanics of the Empire, I opted for a microhistory approach starting from a minor player: Juan Díez de la Calle (1599-1662), clerk of the Secretariat of the Council, reveals modes of circulation and production in a political space marked by discontinuities and cultural and social heterogeneity. Remember that the Empire was immense: the Catholic Monarchy extended from the Iberian Peninsula to Chile including Mexico, Lima, Potosi, Florida, California, Rio de la Plata and the Philippines in South-east Asia. The Empire was very strongly conditioned by distance and the time for communication to travel: it often took months or even years to send a letter from one part to another, not to mention the vagaries of navigation.

Created in 1524, the Council of the Indies was responsible for carrying out « what We order and will order for the good government of our Indies, and the administration of justice. » In short, everything that concerned the West Indies – that is, Spanish America and the Philippines – was dealt with by this Council, located in the Royal Palace of Madrid. The eight councilors were almost exclusively jurists. They were assisted by two secretaries and around twenty employees.

In this context, my research raises the following question: how does a clerk construct a representation of American and Filipino spaces from Madrid without ever having set foot in the New World? The choice of Díez de la Calle, then, reveals its rich possibilities. A junior officer at the Council of the Indies who, in the words of the time, ‘handled the paperwork,’ he also authored several Memoriales around 1640 that he called Noticias Sacras y Reales de los dos imperios de la Nueva España y el Perú. Preserved in the National Library of Spain along with their drafts, these writings were as much practical tools for government as works tinted with imperialism, identifying and listing the Crown’s civil and ecclesiastical employees in the West Indies.

CC Wikipedia Commons Bourrichon – Carte de l’Union Ibérique 1580-1640

  • Gaudin G., 2013, Penser et gouverner le Nouveau Monde au XVIIe siècle. L’empire de papier de Juan Diez de la Calle, commis du Conseil des Indes, Paris : L’Harmattan.

A Pencil Pusher at the Heart of the Monarchy

CC Pixabay OpenClipartVectors

Employed from 1624 to 1662 at the Council of the Indies, Juan Díez de la Calle managed to insert himself into the small world of West Indies experts. His biography reveals that the family was the foremost institution of the time: it served as an integrator, a regulator and even a training center. In this, family followed the Crown’s prescriptions promoting and encouraging the practices of endogamy and professional reproduction. Díez de la Calle worked successively with his father-in-law, his brother-in-law and then his son and nephews.

Throughout this career, in contact with papers from overseas, he acquired expertise in managing affairs in the Americas and a practical knowledge of the Spanish government there. In Madrid, this clerk was fully part of a sort of geography of solicitations. Despite being his status as a modest scribe, he played an important role in the circulation of knowledge between the high authorities in Madrid and agents in the Americas.

Analyzing letters addressed to Díez de la Calle is an essential point of my research. Most letters are divided into two parts. In the first section, the sender addresses Díez more or less cordially, mentioning the latest news and making requests (such as a promotion). The second part provides information: a description of a territory (such as the Philippine archipelago or the mines of Honduras), of an event (earthquake in Cuzco), the relationship with an institution (the Cathedral of Mexico City), the limits of an ecclesiastical district (the island and the diocese of Puerto Rico, the missions north of New Spain), or a list of miracles and apparitions (Peru). In addition to such letters, the authorities in Madrid had access to another, different kind of source for knowledge about their distant territories: books.

Books: a Major Source of Information about the New World

CC Pixabay DariuszSankowski

One cannot overemphasize the fact that the Early Modern era began with the invention of printing and the discovery of the New World. The court was thus a center of intellectual production: numerous books on the Americas were printed or sold there, as these two discoveries quickly nourished one another because publications on these unknown territories excited the curiosity of the European elite.

For his Noticias Sacras y Reales, Díez de la Calle managed to gather a fairly extensive body of useful documents, such as the Laws of the Indies, compiled by Solórzano and León Pinelo. In all, about ten books constituted this clerk’s everyday reference works, such as the Tablas by Claudio Clemente, the Descripción by Herrera, atlases, and the Sumarios. Some of these books were certainly old, but provided Díez de la Calle with a framework for reading about and understanding the American space: he cites them systematically, even though he also had access to more recent works and unpublished manuscripts.

Moreover, it should be noted that the book knowledge available in Madrid did not cover all the American territories: large urban centers were described in numerous works, which is not surprising, but so too were the border areas that gripped the imagination (such as Chile at war, the Jesuit missions in Paraguay or northern Mexico, the Philippines). Indeed, the territory was a space that was represented primarily to be appropriated or colonized.

Representations of space: quantitative and qualitative

The work of Díez de la Calle well illustrates the instruments of the monarchy’s power in America in the post-conquista context of the seventeenth century. First, it is the result of his needs as a clerk of the Council of the Indies in his everyday work. Second, his vision was free from long theoretical, legal or theological arguments about the New World. His writings were at the crossroads of several genres and reflect the more « common » modes of representing the American space at the Council of the Indies.

CC Wikimedia Commons

To understand this representation and the way to envisage space, I conducted a fine-grained analysis of the Noticias Sacras y Reales. First, I assessed the preponderance of maps in his work: how many were cited, which ones, about what regions, and in what ways Díez de la Calle refers to them. Noting that the map was not a privileged tool for him, I then became interested in the use of lists and itineraries, which better reveal the way in which this clerk represented space. In the same vein, I noted the forms of description and organization of space: the shape of the chapters, the division of the territory into parts and subparts, the mentions of the Atlantic crossing and the transatlantic expanse, the distances between places (their accuracy), etc. Then, I tried to understand the clerk’s interests, that is to say, the topics that were mentioned and privileged in his work: demographics, economy, and finances. I identified the elements that gave shape to Díez de la Calle’s representation of space: first, the imperial vision based on a network of cities, borders to defend and a whole plethora of agents in the service of the Crown; second, the forms of sacred space with the repeated affirmation of Royal Patronage (foundation of churches and convents as well as appointments and remuneration of clerics) and lists of miracles.

Briefly, then, these were the methods of historical analysis applied to the life and work of a minor figure of the Spanish Empire in the seventeenth century. They not only resulted in a social history by reconstructing the career and the socio-professional entourage of the clerk Juan Díez de la Calle, but also a history of administrative practices of the Ancien Régime. Moreover, this study provided a cultural history of the representation of the West Indies by analyzing the works and the sources available to the Council of the Indies. In the end, through a close reading of the Noticias Sacras y Reales, I was able to reconstruct a history of representations, an administrative, ecclesiastical, and territorial description of the West Indies used to serve the Catholic Monarchy. All of these findings together reveals a political history of empires and government at a distance.

  • Brendecke A., 2012, Imperio e información : funciones del saber en el dominio colonial español, Madrid : Iberoamericana.
  • Castelnau-L’Estoile C. de, Regourd F.,2005, Connaissances et pouvoirs : les espaces impériaux, XVIe-XVIIIe siècles, France, Espagne, Portugal, Pessac : Presses universitaires de Bordeaux.
  • Gaudin G., 2014, « La démesure des listes du Conseil des Indes au xviie siècle », Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez. Nouvelle série,no 44‑2, p. 83‑103.
  • Gaudin G., Valenzuela Márquez J., 2015, « Empires ibériques : de la péninsule au global », Diasporas. Circulations, migrations, histoire, no 25, p. 13‑24.
  • Berthe J.-P.,  Calvo T. (dir.), 2011, Administración e imperio : el peso de la monarquía hispana en sus indias (1631-1648), Zamora : El Colegio de Michoacán.

CC Patrick Mignard for Mondes Sociaux

Crédits images à la Une : CC Pxhere et crédits image d’entrée : CC Pixabay OpenClipart-Vectors

Guillaume Gaudin

FRAMESPA (Guillaume Gaudin <

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Guillaume Gaudin

FRAMESPA (Guillaume Gaudin <

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