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Viceroyalty of New

  • Constanza Toquica,
  • Juan Pablo Cruz
  •  and Anamaría Torres

A jurisdiction of the Spanish Empire in Central and South America that existed from 1717 to 1821. The territory of the Viceroyalty extended over the modern countries of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, Guyana, southwestern Suriname, and parts of northwestern Brazil and northern Peru. The Venezuelan provinces were separated from the Viceroyalty in 1777 and administered under a Captaincy General of Venezuela.

1. First encounters and conquest.

The vast region that would come to be known as New Granada is configured around the Andes, a mountain chain whose altitude fluctuates between 2000 and 5500 meters above sea level, and whose presence delimits the different territories in the region. To the south, in the so-called Knot of the Pastos, the mountain range branches off in three directions and climbs north towards the Caribbean Sea. The easternmost branch contains various high plateaus throughout its path and, before forming the north of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta towards the Caribbean Sea, it branches off and continues its path towards Venezuela. The westernmost branch rises up between the plains of the Pacific Ocean and the valley of the Cauca River, while the central range runs between the Cauca and Magdalena Rivers. To the east, a wide plain extends throughout the foothills and reaches the Amazon Jungle to the south. This last region, together with the tropical jungles located to the northwest of the territory, as well as the semi-desert areas of the Guajira peninsula located in the far north, were the hottest and least populated regions within the territory of New Granada.

Within this geographical context, the different indigenous families that inhabited what would come to be called New Granada were, for the most part, settled in four large regions: the Caribbean Region; the valleys of the Magdalena, Cauca, and Sinú Rivers; the basin of the Cauca River; and the high plateau of the central mountain chain. The Caribes, the Taironas, the Koguis, and the Chimilas settled in the first region. The Sinúes (see Sinú), the Catíos, the Panches, the Quimbayas, and the Pijaos settled in the second. The Paeces, the Guambianos, and the Quillacingas settled in the third, while the most important indigenous group in the country, the Muiscas, settled in the high plateau of the central mountain chain (see also Colombia, §ii).

With a population that fluctuated between 800,000 and 1.5 million people throughout the 16th century, the Muiscas relied upon a stable hierarchy built around the figure of the “cacique,” a group chief who ruled parts of the population. This indigenous group established a wide commercial network that tied them to the communities to the north and south of the territory, with whom they traded primarily in cloth, salt, and emeralds. Regarding religion, the Muiscas developed practices that operated under the mediation of hierarchically positioned priests, combining the adoration of deities and sacred places. Developments in agriculture, pottery, weaving, and goldsmithing enhanced the complex sociocultural panorama that the Spanish encountered upon their arrival to the Caribbean coast.

The individual nuances of each society settled throughout the territory would determine the different relationships indigenous societies and foreigners would establish from the Spanish conquest through the 16th century. Initially, the relationship between the Spanish soldiers and the indigenous communities established itself around the “rescue” of gold and other riches, a factor that set the stage for continuing tensions between both groups. This initial chaos, incited by the plundering of the Caribbean populations, lit a fuse of confrontation that would continue throughout the 16th century and that, together with other factors, would ultimately lead to the decline of the indigenous populations.

The tension between conflicts and alliances with indigenous groups was a constant factor during the conquest of New Granada, as advancing into a wild and completely uncharted territory was no easy task. Conquering not only entailed suppressing people and extracting riches; it was also a continuation of the process of discovery and encounter begun towards the end of the 15th century. In the case of New Granada, after the campaign carried out by Alonso de Ojeda and Juan de la Cosa in 1499, explorers, such as Diego de Nicuesa and Vasco Núñez de Balboa, set out on voyages that would take them to discover a good part of the Caribbean coast, even reaching the Pacific Ocean. In 1501 Rodrigo de Bastidas discovered the Magdalena River, the port of entry to the territory that would become New Granada. After this discovery, other conquering forces would try to advance up the river only to confront both a completely unfamiliar topography and indigenous groups resistant to the advancing Europeans. The most important advance of this period was the expedition by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (1496–1579) in 1536 towards the southern territories, traveling up the Magdalena River.

Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, the conqueror of New Granada, intending to reach the territory of the Muiscas, departed with 600 men organized into land and maritime companies under his command. The journey, which ended in 1538, allowed him to become familiar with a good part of the topography of nascent New Granada, as well as with the indigenous groups settled in the same area. After Quesada established this route, new expeditions were able to reach the southern territories, thereby unifying this route with the conquests that Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of the Incan Empire, had achieved by sea.

Throughout the Spanish conquest, the struggle between the indigenous societies and the Spanish armed forces gradually transformed the territory and established the infrastructures of control over the indigenous populations that would remain in place at least until well into the 17th century: the configuration of new indigenous villages and encomiendas. The construction of new indigenous villages sought to dismantle the pre-Hispanic village model and create settlements configured in the Spanish style, which reduced the indigenous populations to subjects of surveillance and control. Meanwhile, the encomienda delivered a group of indigenous people to a Spanish “encomendero,” who, in exchange for exploiting the group as tributary laborers, would ensure their control and evangelization. Both structures, together with the initial conquest during the first half of the 16th century, served as starting points for the control of the population and the territories that gradually were being discovered.

This initial infrastructure led to the foundation of new cities, first conceived of as points of advance for the Spanish soldiers to continue their territorial conquest and to control the populations already settled there. The Spanish settlement of the territory prioritized the foundation of cities, as exemplified by Santa Marta (1525), founded by Rodrigo Bastidas, and Cartagena (1533), founded by Pedro de Heredia. In this process, some initial settlements disappeared, such as Santa María la Antigua del Darién (1510), while others were relocated for different reasons, such as climatic conditions, the fertility of the soil, and the presence of water and gold mines.

2. The 17th century.

At the dawning of the 17th century, the end of the first chapter of the Conquest of the Americas gave way to the political and religious configuration of New Granada. In 1549 New Granada rose to the rank of Real Audiencia, or Royal Audience, a rank bestowed by the King that granted autonomy in the governance and pacification of the territory. However, owing to the distance and difficulty in reaching the territory, the Audencia was governed only by judges until 1564 when Andrés Díaz Venero de Leiva (d 1578) was effectively named as the first president of the territory. Santa Fe de Bogotá was chosen as the presidential headquarters, a city that in 1540 Emperor Charles V had given the title “head of the kingdom.” The president governed a territory that extended to present-day Venezuela on the east—excepting Caracas—as well as the entire territory of Colombia, with the exception of Cali and Popayán, which remained under the jurisdiction of the Real Audiencia of Quito.

In the midst of this context, the indigenous population suffered a dramatic demographic decline owing to their struggles with the Spanish, together with other factors, such as the heavy burden of physical labor, taxes, changes in the natural environment imposed on them by the Spanish, and new diseases.

For its part, the ecclesiastical administration made itself present in the figure of the Patronato Regio (royal patronage), conceded to Spain in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI. The “patronato” permitted the Spanish crown to appoint the priesthood that would be present in the new world. Additionally, the foundation of diocese and archdiocese, and the construction of cathedrals, convents, and churches fell under royal authority. Under the purview of this system, the diocese of Santa Fe de Bogotá was founded in 1563, and in 1610 the Inquisition Tribunal was founded. The Inquisition established itself in Cartagena with the objective of controlling the entry of heretical books and practices into the new kingdom of Granada and the Caribbean region.

While this occurred on a global level, in the cities, regulated under ordinances dictated in 1573 by Philip II, plots of land were distributed to the Spanish, while homesteads, government buildings for civil and ecclesiastical functions, churches, convents, residence halls, and universities were all constructed under the urban mita, a form of indentured servitude that exploited indigenous labor. When the Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, and Jesuit religious orders arrived in Santa Fe de Bogotá, they built male and female convents and monasteries (Conceptionists, Carmelites, and Clarisses) and founded colleges (the Colegio Mayor del Rosario and the Colegio Máximo de la Compañía de Jesús), which contributed to the education of the elite Spanish and Creole populations. Similarly, movements that widened the Hispanic frontier accelerated. Although interracial marriage increased and the population of biracial children grew throughout the territory, it was the cities that experienced the greatest increase in their mestizo populations, as centers where Spanish, indigenous communities, and African descendants lived together.

These increasingly racially mixed cities contributed to the development of New Granada’s Baroque culture, in which jurists and theologians were educated and spread the Catholic faith through stories, sermons, paintings, literature, and music. Much of this creative production was led by the ecclesiastical institutions that were concerned with the creation of devotional works intended to foster a new kind of royal subject according to the social body configured under the Catholic interests of the House of Habsburg. This religious imprint completely permeated life in New Granada from birth until death. In the cultural sphere, the works of the Mannerist Italian painter Angelino Medoro, who worked in Tunja and Cali at the end of the 16th century, and the Figueroa family, active in Santa Fe de Bogotá in the 16th and 17th centuries, stand out. Additionally, the Santa Fe artist Gregorio Vázquez de Arce y Ceballos (1638–1711) stands as the most famous New Granada painter of the 17th century. Turning to literature, several different works are notable, such as the Elegías de varones ilustres de Indias by Juan de Castellanos (1522–1607), Noticias historiales by Friar Pedro Simón (1574–1628), El Carnero by Juan Rodríguez Freyle (1566–1640), her Vida by the Clarissa nun from Tunja, Sister Francisca Josefa de Castillo y Guevara (1671–1742), Desierto prodigioso, prodigio del desierto by Pedro Solís y Valenzuela (1624–1711), and works by the Jesuit Hernando Domínguez Camargo (1606–1659), among others. Additionally, many anonymous works stand out: works produced in the cities of New Granada by indigenous and mestizo painters, sculptors, carpenters, builders, and craftsmen, who met the demands of the religious and civil institutions, as well as those of its new royal subjects.

3. The 18th century.

On November 1, 1700, Charles II, the last of the Spanish Habsburg kings, died in Madrid at the age of 39. His replacement, Philip V, the former duke of Anjou and grandson of King Louis XIV of France, ascended to the throne, thus inaugurating an era of Bourbon rule in Spain.

This change in ruling house was felt with particular force in the American territories as the newly arrived dynasty sought to extend its control, focusing primarily on increasing taxation in order alleviate the financial crisis of the Empire and to settle debts from continuous wars with England (1739–1748, 1762–1763, 1779–1783, 1796–1802, and 1805–1807) and in revolutionary France (1793–1795). In this way, the Bourbons introduced several reforms in New Granada intended to boost the economy, to insure efficiency in the government and the military, to generate scientific and technical innovations, and to preserve social order, all of this guided by the logic of the Enlightenment, which was oriented toward an ideal of progress.

One of the tools the House of Bourbon used to grow their power in New Granada was the creation of the viceroyalty in 1717. This administrative shift was meant to establish a central authority strong enough to boost trade, to close the doors on smuggling as well as attacks by the British and the Dutch, and to guarantee a stable social order. This first attempt at founding a viceroyalty failed in 1723, but the viceroyalty was successfully established on a second attempt in 1739. After this date, the Viceroyalty of New Granada was made up of a vast territory that encompasses what is today known as Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama, while Venezuela went on to become part of the Captaincy General of Caracas in 1777.

As for the social structure of the viceroyalty, it is important to note that towards the end of the 18th century the mestizo populations were the largest social group in all of New Granada. Likewise, the slave population grew during the first half of the century, only to diminish during the second half when a labor force composed of free black workers replaced them. Additionally, during this century there were several rebellions of individual black communities who fled their places of work in order to form palenques (“palisades”), isolated forts and villages made up of “free men of all colors,” which is to say African descendants, Cimarron Native Americans, defectors, and fugitives, who banded together to form rochelas (areas outside of Spanish control), where members of these marginalized groups gathered. In response, the colonial government implemented violent campaigns to force these scattered populations to acquiesce to State and Church rule.

Once the Viceroyalty was established, the key objectives of the Bourbon reforms were to increase tax revenue and to strengthen commercial trade with the Iberian Peninsula. For this reason, throughout the 18th century, taxes on aguardiente (a type of liquor) and tobacco went up, causing great displeasure among tradesmen. This discontent reached a tipping point when in 1780 the governor, Juan Francisco Gutiérrez de Piñeres, doubled the retail price of tobacco and aguardiente, increased the sales tax, and revived the Armada de Barlovento, a tax established in the 17th century, in order to support the fleet in the Caribbean.

The policies of Gutiérrez de Piñeres affected the rural citizens of Guanentá region (current-day Santander region) particularly harshly. They had already been affected by the taxes on tobacco, and now they were forced to bear the burden of the taxes imposed on the cotton trade. These peasants, known as comuneros, rose up against these tax reforms on March 16, 1781, and by May of that same year, they arrived at Zipaquirá, threatening to take Santa Fe with a force of almost 20,000 rebels. In the face of this danger, Archbishop Caballero y Góngora negotiated with the protesters and signed their demands promising to lower taxes, thereby convincing the rebels to withdraw. However, the treaty failed and the reprisals directed against the rebels were fierce. For example, one of the comunero leaders, José Antonio Galán, was dismembered and his body parts were exhibited in order to dissuade future rebels.

Regarding trade, during the 18th century, commercial trade was prohibited between the Indies, and between these and other territories, such as the colonies in the Caribbean. Additionally, gold dominated all of the exports from New Granada to Spain. For this reason, the creoles advocated for the diversification of exports and their proposals were, in a way, supported by the Viceroys, Pedro Messía de la Zerda (1761–1772) and Manuel Guirior (1772–1775), who went so far as to propose that New Granada be allowed to trade with the Caribbean. This suggestion earned them a strong reprimand from the Spanish crown, which never once considered opening new routes, resulting in the fortification of the smuggling industry.

During the Enlightenment, King Charles III and the Real Jardín Botánico of Madrid commissioned royal botanical expeditions to the American continent in order to learn about the wildlife of the region and to find products they could use to diversify the economy. In New Granada, the standard bearer of this project was the Spaniard José Celestino Mutis (1732–1808), who worked with a group of educated creoles and draftsmen who collected and catalogued an enormous number of plant species. In addition to this interest in botany and medicine, new philosophical ideas circulating in the United States and in Europe, advocating for the liberty of country and individuals, arrived in New Granada and sowed the seed of independence within the creole elite.

Similarly, the 18th century saw the introduction of the first printing press to New Granada, which had been requested by the Jesuits. The Imprenta Real was founded in 1777 by the order of the Viceroy Antonio Flórez (1776–1781). The arrival of the printing press to New Granada enabled the publication of periodicals that defended both scientific innovation and revolutionary ideas. For example, the Viceroy José de Ezpeleta (1789–1797) sponsored the first newspaper in the capital called Papel Periódico de la ciudad de Santafé de Bogotá (1791–1797), led by Manuel del Socorro Rodríguez. In the private sector, Francisco José de Caldas published Semanario del Nuevo Reino de Granada (1807–1810) and a group of creole intellectuals, possibly including Jorge Tadeo Lozano, printed the Correo Curioso, erudito, económico y mercantil de la ciudad de Santafé de Bogotá (1801).

Antonio Nariño (1765–1824) took advantage of the possibilities afforded by the arrival of the printing press in 1793 when he defended the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a declaration that infuriated the Spanish authorities. Nariño was an educated representative of the creole elite, a demographic who, throughout the 18th century, felt that they had been denied positions of power, as the high-ranking viceroy positions always stayed in the hands of European-born Spaniards. These individuals remained loyal to the King despite their dissatisfaction at feeling displaced by the Spaniards. However, when Napoleon captured Spain in 1808 and deposed Ferdinand VII, the vacuum of power transformed their loyalty to distrust. This situation, together with the ideas of the Enlightenment circulating in New Granada that had resonated deeply with the creole population, would eventually ignite the struggle for independence.


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