Latin American Civilization: History and Society, 1492 to the Present

By Benjamin Keen | Go to book overview

8
THE BOURBON REFORMS AND SPANisH AMERICA

SPAIN MADE A REMARKABLE RECOVERY in the eighteenth century from the state of abject weakness into which it had fallen under the last Hapsburg kings. This revival is associated with the reigns of three princes of the Houses of Bourbon: Philip V ( 1700-1746), grandson of Louis XIV of France, and his two sons, Ferdinand VI ( 1746-1759) and Charles III ( 1759-1788).

The work of national reconstruction reached its peak under Charles III. During his reign Spanish industry, agriculture, and trade made marked gains. Clerical influence suffered a setback as a result of the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 and of decrees restricting the authority of the Inquisition. Under the cleansing influence of able and honest ministers, a new spirit of austerity and service began to appear among public officials.

In the field of colonial reform the Bourbons moved slowly and cautiously, as was natural in view of the fact that powerful vested interests were identified with the old order of things. The Casa de Contratación, or House of Trade, was gradually reduced in importance until it finally disappeared in 1790. A similar fate overtook the venerable Council of the Indies, although it was not abolished until 1854. Most of its duties were entrusted to a colonial minister appointed by the king. The Bourbons alternately suspended and tried to rehabilitate the fleet system of sailing, but in the end it was abandoned, the Portobello fleet disappearing in 1740, the Veracruz fleet in 1789. The Portobello and Veracruz fairs vanished contemporaneously. In the same period the trading monopoly of Cádiz was gradually eliminated. The success of the "free trade" policy was reflected in a spectacular increase in the value of Spain's commerce with Spanish America.

The eighteenth century witnessed a steady growth of agricultural, pastoral, and mining production in Spanish America. By contrast with these signs of progress, the once-flourishing colonial handicrafts industry declined, owing to the influx of cheap European wares with which the native products could

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