Corruption and Justice in Colonial Mexico, 1650-1755

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Pacific Historical Review

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Infusing a field with deep new insight represents a major accomplishment. Christoph Rosenmüller injects three fields with significant new research outcomes.

First, his book offers new insights into the Spanish parts of the Atlantic triangle between 1650 and 1750. Against the background of the crown’s 1675 centralization of offices for justices, he convincingly demonstrates how Madrid wrestled power from corporations, caste elites, and the viceroy in the colony. He shows the rearrangement of administrative tendons that linked Spain, New Spain, elites in Madrid and Mexico City, regional administrators of New Spain, and local, indigenous actors as one colonial body. Interestingly, even though dynastic priorities differed in Madrid, Vienna, and Paris, the need to strengthen metropole power unfolded equally under Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties. By the 1720s, crown strength had become strong enough to suspend 13 of 19 of New Spain’s highest judges and 156 subaltern officials, citing others and suspending more without salary. In addition, royal power provided the ability to push through increasingly black-and-white legal concepts and to expand legal notions from the judicial to the administrative realm.

Second, Rosenmüller affords us a deep visit into the colonial experience of the 1720s. His stunning primary source base is the previously unused thirty-five (!) volume collection put together during Francisco Garzarón’s eleven-year tenure (1716–1727) as inquisitor general for Philipp V. Here, Rosenmüller elucidates interactions and value systems on the regional and local level at the beginning of the Bourbon era. He shows the differing understandings of corruption that indigenous actors held and how likely they were to find an open consideration using the legal path. He opens a new window into the practice of Mexico’s audiencia (appeals court) system and the work experience of judges in the provinces (alcaldes mayores). Initially their work traversed the significant gray zones that existed between official colonial norm and expected regional/local conduct. Boundaries between legislators and the legislated, but also between judges and the judged, were not that clean cut. All sides had to pay attention as much to social custom as to abstract law. The successful assertion of royal power shrunk the gray zones between the reality of the countryside and the colonial law. Less and less colonial society could generate norms and approve conduct. Plus, successful insistence on abstract ideals opened spaces of power for the crown and government officials among them appointing administrators based on merit regardless of insufficient social rank.

The book’s red thread, of course, is the theme of corruption. More precisely how we should study corruption, the role of discourse to help us locate positions of concepts, and what the example of Mexico can contribute to similar studies in other parts of world history. Initially corruption’s colonial legal frame of reference was marked by extensive legal pluralism balancing natural environment, Roman law, canonical, and national law. Legal conclusions could be reached traveling down several paths, even contradictory ones. Only between 1700 and 1750 did a lasting expansion of notions of corruption from the judicial to the administrative realm occur.

Only then could Garzarón’s visit accuse regional colonial society with charges of conflict of interests, manipulation of evidence, alteration of decisions (autos), and fraud in the treasury. Changing notions of corruption also dealt with the question of social rank versus merit to qualify for office. At the end of this process, “following custom” had migrated from an accepted practice to corruption. Using discourse analysis does reveal that this development was a slow process, and it needs to be studied separately from dramatic, single political events.

Rosenmüller’s book is a significant contribution to world history and, for years to come, a key text covering Spain and Colonial Spanish America.


© 2021 by the Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association

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