Cities were one of the building blocks of empire in Spanish America. Their construction mirrored the Iberian past and the ordering ideals of the Castilian state. They also were the place where the aspirations of men and the demands of the American environment met. Ultimately, cities were the locus of political and social power that organized town and countryside alike for its purposes. Whose power was that? Was it the Crown’s and that of its local agents? Or did it belong to a local aristocracy secure in its control of local affairs? This article attempts to answer these questions, not comprehensively but by looking at one town alone. Over the course of several generations, who were the members of this town’s upper stratum, and what positions did they hold? Did they run local affairs, or were they subject to outside control? Was continuity or mobility the hallmark of this stratum; i.e., was it more an aristocracy than an elite?

The particular combination of formal construction and complex reality manifest in the Spanish colonial city has not quite received the attention it deserves. The reasons for this comparative neglect he in the pronounced limitations of the conventional city records, in the disregard shown until recently for the Creole elite and the disproportionate attention paid to the countryside—disproportionate only when compared with the neglect of the cities. The actas de cabildo, the best known town records, are a highly formalized kind of source. To derive from them a formalistic pattern of politics approaching decadence would be as misleading as to deduce from the formulae of land tenure the operational character of fanning. While it is true that Spanish settlers were prone to follow Hispanic patterns in politics, they were also likely to manipulate them and, if needs be, to modify them for their own ends. The actual configuration of politics was usually the result of local conditions and, except insofar as such conditions recur, is not easily subsumed under general categories. The countryside is a constituent part of a Latin American town and does not exist independently of it. This fact may explain why studies focused on the countryside—on the Indians, for instance—frequently seem to leave a gap in one’s understanding of the actual forces shaping rural development. Estates and Indian communities were usually projections of the city dominated by Spanish settlers organizing or reorganizing the country-side for their purposes.

Recently, the political role of the Creole elite in colonial Latin America has become the object of pronounced attention.1 Now we know, as some had suspected earlier, that Creoles not only had a hand in governing New Spain or Peru, but even dominated government at times during the eighteenth century. Bourbon reform thus appears a consequence rather than the cause of Creole assertion. But can we limit this discussion to the eighteenth century? Reforms, after all, were a response to a state of affairs that had its roots in previous centuries. This state of affairs has been viewed in contradictory fashion. One school of thought has perceived the Creoles as the ancestors of today’s oligarchy, while others, following nineteenth-century liberal interpretations, have seen them as the victims of Hapsburg absolutism.2 The reassessment of the role of the Creoles may help to reconcile the opposing views concerning their position. Chinchilla Aguilar, in his valuable study of the Ayuntamiento of Guatemala, called its members the clase capitular, a veritable urban partriciate, but he adduced little evidence for the existence of such a patriciate.3 In similar fashion Julio Alemparte, in his study of the cabildo of Santiago, called the Spanish settlers, in particular the members of the cabildo, the true masters of the Indies, but his evidence was limited to the turbulent period of settlement.4

Even if one takes the existence of a dominant local stratum for granted, empirical investigation is still needed for the questions of how it emerged, what elements of continuity it possessed, and what its dominance was based upon. An older theory tied together the problem of origin, continuity, and control, by postulating a nexus over time between encomienda and hacienda.5 The constituent element of this aristocracy, in all but name, was disposition over labor and control of land. Its character and predominant interests were thus rural, although its members customarily resided in towns.6 More recent investigations have emphasized discontinuity, as regards institutions, positions of control, and recruitment.7 This appearance of discontinuity may have contributed to an alternate perception of the Creoles as essentially powerless. Their political experience was seen as limited, given the restricted role of the cabildos, the consequent lack of interest in holding local office, and, in addition, the small chance for holding higher office in church or state. Ultimately the hiatus between their possession of economic power and the absence of political responsibility was thought to have produced among the Creoles a psychological structure that emphasized ceremonial and formalism and was content with the appearance of things rather than with their substance.8 It may be, however, that the later observer is taken in, as much as were the imperial authorities in their time, since Creole assertion in this context took the form of manipulating the apparatus of government while leaving its appearance intact. Or perhaps the only one deceived is the historian who takes at face value a charade that both parties knew to be such. Whether imperial authority can be described as the thesis in this context—and colonial society, with its pressures, as the antithesis —is perhaps less important than the fact that the resulting synthesis owed more to local conditions than to distant prescriptions.

What were those local conditions? Our setting is the province of Popayán in the seventeenth century, a marginal area of the empire.9 In the initial period of Spanish settlement the province had been characterized by a profusion of towns, founded mainly to take advantage of the Indian population—in order to put it to work in mining—but founded also in response to the disparate groups of Spaniards who were involved in the conquest of the area. Most of these settlements became mere shells of towns as the native populations dwindled. Their inhabitants preferred to live in the countryside and had to be exhorted to hacer vecindad, i.e., to maintain house and residence (caca poblada) in the town. The importance of living in the town was stressed, for instance, when the alcalde of Cartago noted in an exhortation that their king was not a king over fields and pastures but over towns.10

While most settlements declined, the town of Popayán rose to be the administrative and commercial center of the province, replacing Cali as central market place and seat of government. This development had not been automatic. It owed something to a shift in trade routes and gold mining areas and to the consequent decision to locate smelter and the treasury officials in Popayán, but the fact that the town maintained its dominant regional position when the focal areas of mining shifted towards the distant Pacific regions of Barbacoas and the Chocó shows that geography was not the decisive factor in the emergence of Popayán.11 By the end of the seventeenth century a fairly well-defined upper stratum, with strong entrepreneurial elements, had come to the fore in the town. Its claims to consideration in church and state were buttressed by economic strength, notably the possession of slave gangs, which were easily shifted to more promising mining areas.

Each town of the province had initially been dominated by a group of encomenderos and first settlers, who were allotted Indian tributes and services, were given preferred locations to settle near the center of towns, and commonly laid claim to municipal preeminence. They and their descendants were, in a manner of speaking, dependents of the Crown, eager for privileges, grants, favors, and handouts. At the same time they regarded what Crown and Church had to offer as part of their patrimony, something that was owed them.

In Popayán the Velasco family offers an example of continuity between the founding generation and the stratum dominant in the town around 1700.12 Its progenitor, Pedro de Velasco, was a first settler (primer poblador) of Cartago in 1541. In 1559 we encounter him as a vecino of Popayán, in possession of the large encomienda of Coconuco, which was to remain in the hands of the family for five generations. His son, also named Pedro de Velasco, owned two encomiendas, served as governor of the province of Timaná to the east of Popayán, and in 1598 he bought for his son the office of alférez real of Popayán, the most prestigious position on the cabildo. At the same time members of this by now more-extended family obtained positions in the cathedral chapter of Popayán so that for a generation the power of the Zúñigas— the name adopted by the whole clan, after Catalina Moreno de Zúñiga, wife of the first Velasco—became a byword in the town. The alferazgo of Popayán remained in the hands of the family until 1707 when don Diego Joseph de Velasco died as the last of the line there. The family’s estates, among them Coconuco, ultimately passed from the widow into the hands of the Jesuit order.

The case of the Velasco family is atypical. Most of the families dominant in the town of Popayán at the beginning of the eighteenth century descended from later immigrants, at least in the male line. A main reason for this instability was the precarious nature of status and wealth dependent upon encomienda possession, which served less and less as a device to generate income and which at any rate could legally remain in one family only for three generations although extensions through payment of a fee (indulto) were not uncommon.13 In Popayán the fragility of the founding generation was made evident by the arrival of newcomers who, in entrepreneurial fashion, took hold of the opportunities offered in the region. A common pattern was a beginning in commerce, followed or complemented by a switch to gold mining, and crowned by marriage into the established upper stratum and, if possible, the acquisition of an encomienda. The existence of this pattern of mobility can be illustrated in general and specific fashion. The panorama of names and figures that follows does not pretend to statistical precision, but it should exemplify the phenomenon of relative discontinuity and mobility characteristic of the town’s society.

The dominant stratum of Popayán at the beginning of the eighteenth century consisted of approximately twenty families, to whom we must add several newcomers who had not as yet established a secure position in the town. The criteria of belonging to this group include, singly or in conjunction, the possession of an encomienda, the operation of mining enterprises, positions in the local hierarchy of the Church, and the qualification for holding office, in particular that of alcalde ordinario, as judge and magistrate. If we somewhat arbitrarily divide the period from around 1540 (settlement) and 1700 into five generations, with the dividing fines approximately 1570, 1600, 1630, 1660, and 1690, we find that in each generation several newcomers joined the upper stratum, while some of those families belonging to it dropped out, for whatever reason.14

Of the twenty families only one (Velasco) derived in clear and unequivocal fashion from the founding generation, taking as criteria descent in the male line, continuity of encomienda and estate possession, and officeholding. Three families still prominent at the turn of the eighteenth century descended from immigrants who had arrived in the second generation (Cobo Figueroa, Campo Salazar, Mosquera), six families descended from immigrants who had joined in the third generation (Hurtado del Aguila, Daza Ladrón de Guevara, Arboleda, Victoria, Mera Paz Maldonado, Gaviria y Gamboa), and seven descended from newcomers of the fourth generation (Pérez Ubillus, Bonilla Delgado, Fernández de Belalcázar, Prieto de Tóvar, Salazar Betancur, Nieto Polo, Saa, and Morales Fravega). By 1700 two newcomers of the fifth generation (Correa and Torijano) had clearly established positions in the town. A listing of 1706 detailing the names of persons qualified to exercise the function of alcalde ordinario includes members of most of these families; in addition, it names fifteen individuals, of whom all but two are linked through marriage to the established families.15 From the ranks of these fifteen newcomers must have come the contingent of upper-stratum joiners of the fifth and sixth generation.

A few examples may help to characterize the figure of the newcomer. Diego de Victoria—a third generation immigrant—was a merchant from Zamora in Castile, who had fought in the frontier wars of the Pijaos and had obtained an encomienda in Anserma, in the northern part of the province.16 In the late 1610s he settled in Popayán, where he married the daughter of Diego Delgado, doña Luisa Salazar, a widow with two children. Victoria’s marriage linked him to the firstand second-generation families of Delgado and Campo Salazar. His fortune at the time of his marriage amounted to 18,000 gold pesos, one-half of which were the contents of his store. In fact Victoria ran two stores in Popayán, one of foodstuffs (mantenimientos) and another one of merchandise (mercaderías). These pursuits created the appearance of conflict of interest in a later residencia, since in 1624 he had bought from the Crown, for 3,000 silver pesos, the office of fiel ejecutor, with membership in the cabildo. After estabfishing his permanent residence in the town, Victoria continued to trade between Popayán and Cartagena, while at the same time investing in land, mines, and slaves. During his frequent absences the office of fiel ejecutor was served by substitutes whom he appointed but who held no membership in the cabildo. At the time of his death in 1660 neither he nor his son took care to observe the formalities of renunciation, which in return for a fee would have preserved the office as part of the inheritance. Victoria’s estate included mines, which he had developed in cooperation with don Jacinto de Arboleda, another third-generation newcomer, a sugar mill, forty slaves, and com and wheat estancias. His son, somewhat of a spendthrift as the father complained in his testament, inherited most of the fortune. Of the four daughters three entered the local convent, and one married Juan Nieto Polo, a newcomer of the fourth generation.

Other newcomers of the third generation included Alonso Hurtado del Aguila from Toledo and his son-in-law, Diego Daza, from Medina del Campo. Like Diego de Victoria they were long-distance traders who settled in Popayán, where they acquired a fortune and obtained encomiendas. Their sons abandoned commerce and became full-fledged members of the town’s upper stratum. Hurtado twice in succession married cousins, first the niece and then the daughter of Francisco de Figueroa, head of the Cobo Figueroa clan. He also served twice as a governor’s deputy in Popayán, once as corregidor de naturales and several times as alcalde ordinario.17

Not all successful immigrants were merchants. Diego Daza had been a soldier in Callao. The captain Juan de Mera had served as a soldier in Chile before coming to Popayán, where he married the heiress of the encomienda and estate of Ambaló.18 The widowed don Jacinto de Arboleda, who had married doña Teodora de Salazar, a stepdaughter of Diego de Victoria, joined the church after an active life as a mining entrepreneur. He rose to become vicar general of the bishopric and archdeacon in Popayán.19 Don Fernando de Salazar Betancur, who had come to Popayán from Bogotá as treasurer of the cathedral chapter, renounced this benefice when he married doña Elena de Mosquera. In the 1640s he served as a governor’s deputy in the town.20 Common to both men, and perhaps not quite fortuitous, was the fact that many of their descendants chose ecclesiastical careers. Two sons of don Fernando were members of the cathedral chapter at the turn of the eighteenth century, while altogether six Arboledas were then serving the Church in Popayán in various capacities.21

Not all immigrants were successful. Death could always terminate a successful career prematurely. Merchants were in the habit of making their testament before trips to Cartagena. The merchant Juan Germán de Roa, a native of Madrid, who had already served as corregidor and deputy in Almaguer, a neighboring town, left to his eight children an inheritance of only nine hundred pesos, although at his marriage he had declared a capital of 15,000 pesos and his wife a dowry of 5,000 pesos.22 Only two of his daughters were provided for; one of them was married to a merchant whom the father-in-law had set up in trade with merchandise and mules. Two other daughters had entered a convent, one whose dowry was nearly paid up, the other still a novice with her dowry unpaid. After all belongings had been auctioned, debts collected and paid, and expenses deducted, the oldest daughter received 623 pesos—all that remained of her father’s estate— and was awarded custody of the minor children at the same time.

The treasury officials were another group among the immigrants who joined the local upper stratum. Don Bernardino Pérez de Ubillus, a Basque from Guipúzcoa, whose father had come to Cali as treasurer in 1615, served the same post in Popayán until his retirement in 1695. The six children of his marriage to doña Manuela de Velasco (of the Velasco clan) were all well provided for. Two sons rose in the Church, becoming members of the cathedral chapters of Popayán and Quito. Another son established a branch of the family in Quito, while two daughters were married respectively to don Sebastián Torijano (from La Mancha) and to don Sebastián Correa (a Catalan), both fifthgeneration immigrants who had made their fortune as merchants in Popayán.23 In somewhat analagous fashion don Bernardino’s colleague, the contador Juan Leandro de Bonilla, married into a local family and became the progenitor of the Bonilla Delgado clan.24

The examples could be multiplied, but it may be more profitable to offer some general observations and conjectures on the basis of this and other evidence and, in particular, to look at the concrete underpinnings of social status in Popayán. While the founding aristocracy of Popayán was quite fragile, it did transmit a tradition to later generations. Taking descent in both the male and female line one finds multiple ties between the first and succeeding generations of the town’s upper stratum. Links based on descent, and also those established on the basis of marriage, served the practical purpose of supporting claims for rewards such as encomiendas or benefices. For the newcomer they also established a subjective bond with the distant past of conquest and settlement. This vicarious identification may well have had the result of bridging the gap between Spanish immigrants and Creole descendants of earlier settlers.25 For the members of any given generation blood ties may also have served to establish a sense of solidarity and equality on the basis of a shared past. Perhaps the nearly universal adoption of the title of “don” among members of this group after 1650 is an indication of this feeling. For the newcomer marriage involved co-optation not only into an existing framework of families but admission to that past as well. That past was in many ways a subjective affair, consisting frequently more of claims than of realities but useful nevertheless, especially when the material foundations of upper-class status were crumbling.

The region’s poverty and the fragile and unformed character of its upper stratum is nowhere more in evidence than in the town’s appearance. Construction of the cathedral was interrupted for more than two generations for lack of funds. Not until 1681 could it be completed.26 The town had no casas reales to serve as the governor’s residence. He usually took lodging with one of the town’s better citizens. There were no permanent quarters for the cabildo nor was there a secure jail. Instead, a merchant’s tienda had to serve as prison. Stone-built houses with tile roofs were the exception to the rule of simple one-floor construction. Casas principales of two floors, like Alonso Hurtado’s and that of his partner, Diego Daza, were conspicuous affairs.27 In one governor’s view, the town had only four streets worth the name.28 By the standard, then, that buildings and monuments express aristocratic pretensions and achievement, the town was backward. A look at ecclesiastical endowments confirms this view. The convent of nuns, established on a substantial basis in 1591, had fallen on bad times by the middle of the following century. The mortgages (censos) it held on rural and urban properties were by then yielding only a pittance.29 Yet, by the end of the century its fortunes had been reversed; and by then it even had to ask the cabildo for space to expand in order to accommodate its increasing population. This and the rise in capellanías (chantries) may serve as an index of economic improvement translated into status claims.30 The Church offered a unique and unbeatable combination: salvation, a life or career suitable to one’s rank, and reasonable safety of investment.

Poverty was neither a permanent nor a universal condition in the region. Yet how to escape it must have been the greatest preoccupation of Spaniards. When encomienda ceased to be the vehicle to mobilize wealth, its place was not taken by an institution but rather by a series of separate economic activities. While the operation of estates, mining and commerce—alone or in combination—generated the wealth necessary to acquire or maintain social status, none of these activities conferred it automatically, as encomienda had done earlier. This explains why the possession of encomienda continued to be prized, especially since access to it remained limited.

Encomiendas were not pulverized in Popayán as happened in central Chile, an otherwise comparable region.31 Rather, in 1685 the town counted nineteen encomenderos, compared to twenty-three in 1607.32 But the encomienda’s role as the major economic underpinning of aristocratic status was played out when it stopped supplying labor for mining. After 1660, practically no native miners were utilized any more. Their place was taken by imported African labor. In a minor fashion the encomienda remained useful. It could yield a small income, provide labor for agriculture or to operate other enterprises. Its continued utility and the prestige it conferred could produce at times acrimonious competition; for instance, in 1706 when the encomienda of Ambaló was at stake. The governor finally made the award to the captain Juan Alvarez de Uria, a Catalan immigrant, as “benemérito competente.” He had married doña Isabel de Torijano y Ubillus, daughter of don Sebastián Torijano, granddaughter of the treasurer, don Bernardino Pérez de Ubillus.33

The large scale use of imported slaves marks an epoch in the town’s history. It may have begun in the 1580s when bishop Agustín de la Coruña invested in slaves, which he later bequeathed to the convent of nuns.34 Other churchmen also owned slaves in large numbers, for instance, don Francisco Velez de Zúñiga, dean of the cathedral chapter whose gang was run in partnership with a professional miner.35 This slave gang later became the basis for the mining operations of the Jesuits. At the moment of transition from native to imported labor, encomenderos rarely seem to have had the capital to make the switch. Their ability to accumulate funds was affected by the decrease in the number of Indian tributaries.36 They were frequently in debt to merchants or to their own majordomos.37 Squeezed by debts and decfining incomes they appealed to the Crown for credit to enable them to buy slaves. To an extent the Crown obliged, by reducing the mining tax from twenty to ultimately five percent. But since it was the merchants who frequently paid this tax, the measure did not save the encomenderos, although it made the purchase of slaves more attractive. Most of the capital that went into the purchase of slaves seems to have come from the profits of trade. As gold mining became a capital intensive operation, the number of operators dwindled. Litigation about mining claims and water rights also added to the outlays of a mine operator. Only fourteen mine operators were left in Popayán at the end of the seventeenth century, whereas earlier all encomenderos had engaged in mining. By the 1690s the Jesuits, citing its risks and uncertainties, abandoned mining, henceforth to concentrate on agriculture and ranching.38

In theory rural estates should have been a safer and more stable operation than mines. With a reasonable income, a well-defined territorial core, control over the rural population approaching jurisdiction, and expressed in habits of deference, estates could have provided the basis for an aristocracy.39 But only Coconuco of the Velascos seems to have approached these criteria. On the whole, the formation of compact estates in the region was a slow affair. No entails were established that would fink a family’s name and fortune to a particular property. Estate buildings substantial enough to have survived date only from the late eighteenth century. It is no accident that solely the Jesuits had advanced by the turn of the eighteenth century towards development in the region of compact and fairly specialized estates, a large sugar plantation, and a sizable cattle ranch, which supplied a market as far away as Quito.40 It was far less common to own such compact estates than scattered units of harvest and grazing land in various locations, with an estate owner or hacendado holding several while a smaller operator would only have one or two units. The unity of these holdings was entrepreneurial, and their owners could hardly develop a steady relationship with the land and its inhabitants. Whether one should call the various rural properties of Diego de Victoria, alluded to above, an estate thus seems doubtful, although Victoria was clearly a landlord. The same consideration would seem to apply to the case of don Ambrosio del Campo Salazar, to give yet another example.41 He owned wheatland and cornfields in different locations, cattle herds and sheep flocks, a flour mill, and a tannery. He also ran a fairly large mining operation with more than thirty slaves, operated a toll road with Indians from his encomienda, owned two town houses, with stores rented out to merchants to whom he also loaned considerable sums. Rural properties in this case simply formed a part of a large fortune that was held together in entrepreneurial fashion.

Commerce was a vital and permanent feature which connected the town’s life with the outside world. As a regional center the town was at the intersection of long distance and local networks of trade. The framework of trade into which merchants fitted their activities remained basically unchanged during the century, although some change of emphasis in trade flows and trade items occurred. Yet the cast of people who ran trade had at any one time little in common, except their function, with those who had managed it a generation earlier. If there was some continuity, through sons, sons-in-law or nephews, it escapes detection. Commerce in Popayán did not provide the basis for a continuing urban patriciate. There were no mercantile dynasties in town. As we have seen, the merchants contributed their share, and more, to upward mobility into the upper stratum. No son of a successful merchant engaged in his father’s profession. To succeed in commerce meant to abandon it.42 How are we to explain this phenomenon, particularly since trade bore no taint as long as no selling over the counter was involved? Success meant settling down, acquiring a stake in the town, a house, a wife, and branching out into local enterprises, not necessarily in that order. There were always merchants who did not settle down, at least not more than absolutely necessary, and whose resources were the cash they carried, the credit they could expect from partners, and the intervention of saints whom they implored and whose veneration they might endow in their will. Long-distance trade also involved considerable expertise, quite aside from the network of connections one had built up and could rely on. Such expertise was not easily handed on to the next generation. How were sons to be trained, except by sending them back along the route whence their fathers had come? In effect, it turned out to be a one-way street. Despite the importance of merchants then, they had little permanence or cohesion. At times they appear as a group, in making a contribution or handling an assessment. The town’s commercial opportunities were good enough to attract immigrants in each generation, but not strong enough to lead to the development of corporate solidarity and its institutions. When contemplating the future of their children, the choice before merchants was to rise above or to fall beneath their station. Simply remaining there was not an available option.43

Enough has been said to indicate the weakness of any particular kind of enterprise as a foundation of social status in Popayán. The wealth generated by enterprise at any rate was only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for social ascent. Two other elements of status were a name indicating illustrious descent and the holding of office, or at least eligibility for it. As status determinants they were as much a matter of esteem as of objective content. Newcomers advanced as they rebuilt the crumbling economic structure of the region. They were allowed to join the existing framework, but they did not join on their own terms. The continuity maintained in this fashion is manifest in the region’s social patterns and its institutions of government.

Continuity that results in the formation of an aristocracy also may involve the development of patterns of allegiance that join a patriarchal attitude from above with habits of deference from below. In the countryside this development could only take place after the rural population was stabilized and removed from the vagaries of mining and its responsibilities vis-à-vis the estate owners were fixed and ultimately turned into custom. Social consolidation of this kind barely had its beginning before the second half of the seventeenth century. It coincided with the arrival of slaves in large numbers who carried the burden of the expansion of mining, and who gave the region its Janusfaced social reality, which still persists: patriarchal and benevolent on the one hand, exploitative and repressive on the other. The emergence of analogous attitudes in the town depended, among other things, upon its institutions of government and their management by an upper stratum eager to hold office and conscious of its privileges and responsibilities.

Formal institutions of government in Popayán were the cabildo, the governorship, the treasury, and also the Church. The cabildo, in theory designed to represent the interests of the town’s upper stratum in corporate fashion, actually did so only fitfully. It never quite developed the permanence of membership and purpose to serve such a function, and in this way reflected a relative absence of coherence among the town’s upper stratum. Yet this picture is somewhat misleading since it neglects other opportunities possessed by the town’s upper stratum to bring its influence to bear. Either the deputyship, the treasury offices, and the cathedral chapter were held by settlers or their descendants, or these institutions fell under local control in the course of the seventeenth century. Also, in terms of recruitment and performance the cabildo’s contours might have been more clearly delineated if the politics of the region had not been characterized by a tendency to resolve conflicts by arrangement, a propensity reinforced by the dependence of outside appointees on local collaborators.

The cabildo of Popayán was composed of members who purchased a seat on the corporation from the Crown, of three elected officials, the alcaldes ordinarios, and the procurador general—elected annually by the proprietary members and the outgoing officials—and of the governor’s deputy, who usually presided over meetings. During the century under study, the cabildo’s membership had its ups and downs.44 For long periods many elective positions went unfilled, while at other times there was considerable local interest in purchasing office. Also the social characteristics of members changed considerably during this period. In the first decades of the century, its cast was distinctly plebeian. When local offices had been put up for sale in the 1590s, only the alferazgo remained as a bastion of the town’s traditional upper stratum. Most other members of the cabildo then were notable only for their inconsequence in local affairs. By the 1630s, this situation had changed, and the town’s leading families were in command of the cabildo. Yet we note that by then a second generation of newcomers already had been absorbed into local society. Consolidation was neither followed by stability of membership nor by offices remaining in the hands of a family over generations, despite the fact that inheritance of office was easily arranged under the provisions governing the sale and renunciation of office.45 Even the alferazgo, tied to the Velascos for three generations, fell vacant once when the incumbent died. The son bought it back from the Crown after a lapse of years. For a few years elections and other business were handled by a single caretaker regidor, with everybody seemingly content to leave matters in the hands of this superannuated hack.

An assessment of the benefits and burdens involved in membership may provide some explanation for the vagaries of demand for office. The rewards of a seat on the cabildo were mainly honorific, such as prominent participation at public functions. Pecuniary benefits were limited. Some members exercising the specific functions (cargos) of alguacil mayor or depositario general charged fees, according to a set schedule, for the performance of their services. Income of this kind, which had attracted bidders for office earlier, seemed insufficient to elicit interest in later decades of the century. Also, the alcaldes ordinarios frequently had to perform the notary’s functions, apparently for want of sufficient business and fees to attract a proprietor.

The greatest sacrifice members had to make was probably the time they had to devote to cabildo business. In theory the cabildo met twice a week, but insistence on this point was extremely rare. The alcaldes were supposed to be available every day of the week at a determinate place and hour. Since this duty was of limited duration and involved visible public recognition, it was nonetheless not as burdensome as permanent membership. Long-distance traders were excluded in practice because of their extended absences from town.46 Landowners also proclaimed the need to attend to their affairs. The rural dimension of the town made sessions during the summer and harvest season a rarity. A governor or his deputy could put pressure on members, for instance by simply insisting on frequent meetings. Compared with these burdens the price of office was perhaps not a major consideration in the latter half of the century, when the price of a regimiento had fallen to 300 silver pesos, less than the price of a slave. The procedure surrounding confirmation could increase this outlay, sometimes considerably. The price in itself had little to do with determining local interest in office-holding, which depended more on the cabildo’s functions in the context of local society.

The functions of the cabildo of Popayán were quite restricted. One of its main tasks, the provision of good government (policía), coincided with the duty of the governor and of his deputy. The alcalde’s office, too, included administrative functions. The supervision of stores and markets, the care of supplies, the maintenance of roads and bridges, and the provision of labor for public purposes was handled by the governor, his deputy, and the alcaldes, sometimes jointly.47 The cabildo’s function of articulating local interests through advice, petition, or appeal was frequently short-circuited, either through the direct nexus between officials and leading families or through the preference for accommodation over conflict. Bishop, governor, and treasury officials, for instance, agreed before the Council of the Indies in Spain in supporting the labor regime existing in the region.48 Another possible type of conflict, between merchants on the one hand and miners and estate owners on the other hand, did not reach the level of politics, although the frequent election of merchants as alcaldes denotes a recognition of their special interests. The merchants were in a strong position as creditors, but frequent kinship ties between them and other members of the upper stratum, and the fact that merchants quite often were also miners and estate owners, precluded any consistent articulation of opposing interests.

The cabildo’s most important function was to determine which officials could serve in the town. It elected the alcaldes, selected some other minor functionaries, and received and accredited all officials with business in the town. Without this reception, which included the registration of credentials, no official could legally do any business in the town and its district. The cabildo’s duty also included the review of the bond posted by officials. Election and reception were elaborate affairs surrounded by formalities, an indication of the importance of the occasion. Sometimes the formalities could not hide a clash of interests or wills. Usually elections were decided at the nominating level, somewhat analogous to the practice of professional organizations today. The governor also might take a hand in indicating his preference. If this did not work, he might hold up confirmation of an elected slate of alcaldes and have the incumbents continue in office for awhile. Hitches might also develop over accepting a new member, as when a former innkeeper bought a regimiento. The cabildo balked at first, but after lengthy representations, the new member was seated. The review of bond also might give rise to objections. On one occasion, the cabildo -with only three regidores at the time-and the two alcaldes, refused to accept the bond posted by the new contador, holding up his possession for more than three years. The reason, as the contador alleged, was simply the interim Contador’s eagerness to continue serving in the post; of course he also happened to be well connected locally.49

The governors were both the cabildo’s partners and competitors in governing the town; their functions comprised the entire province. Their local duties they often delegated to a deputy. No clear-cut demarcation of responsibilities between governor and cabildo existed. Residencia records reveal that ultimate responsibility in matters of administration and governance lay with the governors. The treasury officials also intervened in local affairs, whether directly as tax collectors or through adjudication of tax farms and long-term contracts. The cabildo, for instance, handled the sales tax by commutation. Treasury officials possessed considerable local leverage since tax delinquency was a permanent and prominent local phenomenon.50

While the treasury officials merged into the local scene over their long period of service, the governors, who usually served only for five years, tended to remain outsiders. Hence the governor’s most important act was probably the selection of a deputy in each of the towns of the province, to serve as an astute intermediary between him and the local establishment. Aside from appointments the arrangements between governor and town included the search for fiadores willing to vouch for him, grants of land and encomiendas, “advice,” and pressures during elections. Later in the century it was customary for a consortium of citizens to split the risk to which a governor’s performance might expose them.51 The most extreme aspect of these arrangements was collusion, which occurred towards the end of the century when governors and miners combined to defraud the Crown. The governor’s inspection of mines and mining settlements offered especially favorable conditions to do this, with the miners pleading to have visitations limited to one only per term.52

The strength of countervailing factors to halt the tendency toward accommodation was minimal. The treasury officials married locally or were even recruited from the town. While they were subject to audit, the procedure used was neither swift nor sufficiently comprehensive. The governor’s shorter term meant that he had less time to recoup the investment made in the acquisition of office, which had become considerable towards the end of the seventeenth century. Since neither of these offices had a permanent staff, no continuity existed beyond the term of an officeholder, except perhaps in a negative sense.

In this situation, described by the relative absence of institutional safeguards of probity and disinterestedness, the residencia was designed to serve as a recurring inquest into an officeholder’s performance at the end of his term. It also covered the cabildo. But in Popayán this device, which was intended to maintain standards of performance, was in fact turned against its purpose. As a rule, a governor’s successor administered the residencia, which in this way acquainted him not only with the frailties of his predecessor and of the officials serving him, but also with the opportunities awaiting the successor. The regular and recurring accusation proffered against residencia judges, of having accepted bribes in return for showing leniency in their proceedings, would seem to show that this was an expected result of the residencia, even if not always a reality.53

Interest in the cabildo revived only at two occasions during the latter part of the century, since government was handled by the governors, the alcaldes, and the deputies on a routine basis. In 1671, it became an arena for status competition when five positions vacant for many years were purchased by local worthies. A political crisis which involved the breakdown of the usual arrangements could also serve to stimulate interest in the institution. This occurred, for example, at the beginning of the eighteenth century when two local factions were pitted against each other, polarized around the town’s two leading families, first in support or rejection of an incumbent governor and then in support of two rival contenders for the governorship. At such a juncture, the cabildo could play a crucial role in either refusing or granting recognition to rival claimants. After both of these had been removed by the Audiencia of Quito, the cabildo, in fact, governed the town for a period on its own authority. Yet the cabildo did not stand above the battle; at first it had been dominated by one of the local factions, and later it was run by their opponents, who obtained control with the help of the Audiencia of Quito.54

The cabildo of Popayán was an extension of an imperial system of government; it was also a corporation which reflected the special position of Spaniards settled in towns within that empire. Ideally, it was both an institution of local self-government (a political subject) and an administrative agency of empire (a political object). The intrinsic difficulty of combining these two roles was compounded in the case of Popayán by two facts: the unfinished and incomplete character of the town’s society and institutions, and the weak position of the Crown’s representatives in the province. While the latter point has already been discussed, it can bear some amplification.

A weak governorship did not necessarily imply a strong cabildo. Given their mercenary expectations and the absence of bureaucratic support and supervision, the governors could hardly make the cabildo into an effective administrative agency. One can go a step further and assert that weak as the office of governor and its incumbents were, they represented an area staked out for state action that the cabildo could not easily invade. While the state lacked the power to substantiate all its pretensions, it nevertheless maintained them. The resulting discrepancy was not overcome by institutional decentralization, widening the sphere of local self-government (the cabildo, for example, could not authorize taxes above 3,000 maravedís, i. e., 12 pesos), but rather by a process that adjusted the rigor of legislation to local conditions. This process combined a series of accepted practices (suplicación, indulto, composición, disimulación), with the accommodation practiced by officeholders, and worked well enough to take care of local interests.55

While the cabildo as a formal institution depended upon its place within a scheme of empire, in a political sense its functioning depended upon its relationship to a local society. The main facts are quickly reiterated. The fluid character of the town’s upper stratum made a consistent identification with the cabildo difficult. No clearly delineated system of stratification existed. Corporate forms of organization remained underdeveloped, among them the cabildo. Sets of families, rather than institutions and corporations, served as the integrating clamp of this society, with such family combinations possessing vertical and lateral dimensions. The former are visible only occasionally, in their effects, as when the Hurtados and Velascos managed to mobilize their respective adherents in the struggle about the governorship in 1701. Lateral extensions were designed to secure positions of power and influence. Towards the end of the century the rivalry between Velascos and Hurtados exemplified this clearly, for instance in the alternation in the office of deputy and in a virtual condominium over the treasury. Co-optation of newcomers, in fact, added a third dimension extending over time designed to preempt the future. The continuing contour of this society in its upper echelons was represented by a changeable congeries of families, around which everything else was arranged, at times in symmetrical fashion.56 The cabildo, in this context, played only a minor role. Although it could handle routine management, its ability to integrate opposed interests would break down in a crisis, as it did in 1701 when the opposed factions were alternately in exclusive control.

While the medieval European town had not been based on an assumption of equality among inhabitants, it did depend on a formally elaborated balance between conflict and solidarity. The oligarchies that dominated most European towns in the early modern period lived off a political capital accumulated in an earlier age. In America the capital had never been accumulated. While the institutional elements of the Castilian town were transferred to the American town, albeit simplified, its corporate organization and social structure were not moved so easily. Whether they would be rebuilt there depended on local conditions. In Popayán these were not favorable to the undertaking.


See D. A. Brading, “Government and Elite in Late Colonial Mexico,” HAHR, 53:3 (Aug. 1973), 391-414, especially the literature discussed on pp. 400-402.


Two polemical and influential works that develop these themes for the history of Colombia and Chile respectively are Indalecio Liévano Aguirre, Los grandes conflictos sociales y económicos de nuestra historia (Bogotá, n.d.) 4 vols., and Alberto Edwards, La fronda aristocrática (Santiago, 1928). For more judicious and positive interpretations of the role of the colonial elite in Chile see Jaime Eyzaguirre, Ideario y ruta de ¡a emancipación chilena (Santiago, 1957) and Nestor Meza Villalobos, La conciencia política chilena durante la Monarquía (Santiago, 1958); also John Preston Moore, The Cabildo in Peru under the Hapsburgs (Durham, N.C., 1954), pp. 282-284.


Ernesto Chinchilla Aguilar, El ayuntamiento colonial de la ciudad de Guatemala (Guatemala, 1961).


Julio Alemparte, El cabildo en Chile colonial, 2nd ed. (Santiago, 1966).


See James Lockhart, “Encomienda and Hacienda: the Evolution of the Great Estate in the Spanish Indies,” HAHR, 49:3 (Aug. 1969), 411-429 for a strong argument in favor of functional continuity.


François Chevalier, Land and Society in Colonial Mexico: The Great Hacienda (Berkeley, 1963) is the classic statement. See especially pp. 220-226, 299-307.


For a recent and vigorous statement see Brading, “Government and Elite,” especially pp. 392-399.


For this view see C. H. Haring, The Spanish Empire in America (1947; New York, 1963), pp. 195-198; also Irving A. Leonard, Baroque Times in Old Mexico (1959; Ann Arbor, 1966), pp. 32-33.


For a discussion of materials on the history of Popayán see Peter Marzahl, “The Cabildo of Popayán in the Seventeenth Century: the Emergence of a Creole Elite,” Diss. University of Wisconsin, 1970.


Visitas del Cauca, Archivo Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá, tomo 2, fol. 904.


Robert C. West, Colonial Placer Mining in Colombia (Baton Rouge, 1952), pp. 7-20 gives an account of these changes.


Peter Marzahl, “Documentos papa la historia social de Popayán en el siglo XVIII,” Anuario Colombiano de la Historia Social y cíela Cultura, 5 (1970), 143; 179-184. The documents, in fact, refer to the seventeenth century. See also Juan Friede, Vida y luchas de Don Juan del Valle, primer obispo de Popayán y protector de Indios (Popayán, 1961), pp. 228-229.


Signaturas 1530, 1871, Archivo Central del Cauca, Popayán (hereinafter cited as ACC), are examples of such extensions.


The main source of data for these statements is the libros capitulares (LC) and the protocolos notariales (PN) in the ACC; the libros are identified sequentially while the protocolos are identified by year (cited hereinafter as ACC, LC and ACC, PN). Listings of particular segments of the town’s population are found in ACC, signaturas 1386, 2221, 2443, 8529; in ACC, LC I, fols. 233r-233v, LC III, fols. 40r-44v; Archivo General de Indias, Seville (hereafter cited as AGI), Audiencia de Quito, leg. 9, visita Armenteros y Henao; Contaduría, leg. 1371, ramo 3, no. 7. A useful source, although not always reliable in detail, is Gustavo Arboleda, Diccionario biográfico y genealógico del antiguo departamento del Cauca, rev. ed. (Bogotá, 1962).


“Memoria de las personas aptas y idóneas . . .,” ACC, LC VII, fol. 36.


ACC, PN 1620, fols. 13-27; PN 1660, fols. 48-66. Gustavo Arboleda, Diccionario, pp. 94, 170.


Marzahl, “Documentos,” pp. 157-159; Gustavo Arboleda, Diccionario, pp. 217-219.


ACC, PN 1619, fols. 18-21; ACC, signatura 2211.


ACC, PN 1671, fols. 30-41; Gustavo Arboleda, Diccionario, pp. 11-12, 24.


ACC, PN 1670, fols. 54-65.


The personnel and the economic position of the Church in Popayán are detailed in listings of a subsidy in 1701 and a donation (donativo) in 1706, in AGI, Audiencia de Quito, leg. 185.


ACC, signatura 8718.


ACC, signaturas 8282, 8477.


ACC, PN 1633, fols. 326-329; Gustavo Arboleda, Diccionario, pp. 46-47.


Despite the importance of immigration from the peninsula, I have encountered no evidence for the proverbial antagonism between Creoles and Spaniards.


Santiago Sebastián, Arquitectura colonial en Popayán y Valle del Cauca (Cali, 1965), pp. 25-28.


Marzahl, “Documentos,” pp. 165-168 for such a casa principal.


Governor Gabriel Díaz de la Cuesta to Crown, Popayán, August 1, 1669, AGI, Quito, leg. 16.


Prioress to Crown, Popayán, September 25, 1662, AGI, Audiencia de Quito, leg. 75; ACC, LC V, fols. 6, 14-15; see also José María Arboleda Llorente, Popayán a través del arte y de la historia (Popayán, 1966), I, 263-270.


Chevalier, Land and Society, pp. 253-258, still gives the best exposition of this topic in its social dimension; for the actual situation in Popayán see the evidence indicated in note 21.


Mario Góngora, Encomenderos y estancieros. Estudios acerca de la Constitución social aristocrática de Chile después de la Conquista, 1580-1660 (Santiago, 1970), pp. 74, 102-112.


The encomenderos are listed in ACC, signaturas 1386, 2221.


Captain Juan Alvarez de Uria to Crown, Popayán, September 23, 1706, AGI, Audiencia de Quito, leg. 148.


José María Arboleda Llorente, Popayán, pp. 263-270.


Marzahl, “Documentos,” pp. 185-188. The dean was a cousin of don Yñigo de Velasco, at the time head of the Velasco clan.


See Marzahl, “The Cabildo,” pp. 27-29 for a discussion of the evidence.


For an example in which an encomienda with its attached operations was, in effect, pawned, see Marzahl, “Documentos,” pp. 171-178.


Juan Manuel Pacheco, S. J., Los Jesuítas en Colombia, 2 vols. (Bogotá, 1959-1962), II, 178-179. Pacheco quotes a visitador that mining was “un género de granjería poco decente a nuestro modo y nada favorable al bien espiritual de los esclavos.”


For a discussion of a flexible definition, see William B. Taylor, Landlord and Peasant in Colonial Oaxaca (Stanford, 1972), pp. 121-126. For a fully developed estate in the Cauca region in the nineteenth century, see J. León Helguera, “Coconuco: Datos y documentos para la historia de una gran hacienda caucana,” Anuario Colombiano de Historia Social y de la Cultura, V (1970), pp. 189-203.


Archivo de la antigua Provincia de Quito de la Compañía de Jesús, Quito, leg. 8, no. 748.


ACC, signatura 8715.


See D. A. Brading, Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico, 1763-1810 (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 211-212.


This interpretation is derived from a reading of wills, inventories, and contracts, many catalogued under sucesiones in the ACC; see also James Lockhart, Spanish Peru, 1532-1560; a colonial society (Madison, Wisconsin, 1968), pp. 77-95 for a discussion of merchants.


The source for these statements are the libros capitulates between 1611 and 1707.


J. H. Parry, The Sale of Public Office in the Spanish Indies under the Hapsburgs (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1953), pp. 28, 44-45.


Diego de Victoria’s function as fiel ejecutor was taken care of by deputies during his frequent absences on business; ultimately this deputizing fed to the practical demise of the office as its functions were abandoned; for a complaint without practical results see ACC, LC IV, fols. 158-159.


Residencia questionnaires provide clues in this matter; for instance the residencia of the governor Antonio Guzmán y Toledo in AGI, Escribanía de Cámara, legs. 647, A, B; 648 A, B, C.


At two critical junctures, point advocacy of the settlers interests by governor, bishop, treasury officials, and cabildo kept the practice of servicio personal intact; it appears that the governors coordinated the campaign designed to defend these interests. “Memorial de la ciudad de Popayán y otras de la gobernación” (1634); governor Lorenzo de Villaquirán to Crown, Popayán, April 30, 1634; governor Gabriel Díaz de la Cuesta to Crown, Popayán, April 12, 1669; Bishop Melchor Liñán de Cisneros to Crown, Popayán, April 4, 1669, AGI, Quito, leg. 18. Contador Juan Leandro de Bonilla to Crown, Popayán, June 28, 1634, AGI, Quito leg. 32.


ACC, LC I, fols. 152-155; LC II, fols. 137-141; LC III, fols. 123-144.


ACC, signatura 1448. At one occasion, three members of the cabildo, the alférez real, the fiel ejecutor and one regidor, were imprisoned at the behest of the treasury officials, ostensibly since they were held responsible for the cabildo’s failure to collect the alcabala, the collection of which the cabildo had compounded with the treasury. The imprisoned members gave another version, alleging that the debt served only as a pretext for a political ploy hatched by the governor’s deputy and designed to control the cabildo. The truth, probably, does not fie in the middle but with the members’ allegation.


ACC, LC IV, fols. 172-176. Governor Miguel de García, for example, had ten bondsmen, each of whom provided a guarantee of 1000 pesos.


The Crown implicitly sanctioned the practice, for instance, when it accepted 2000 doblones from don Gerónimo de Berrío for the reversion of the governorship and agreed to his stipulation of unlimited inspection rights in the mines, in return for which he would draw only one-half of his salary, the other half to come from increased payments of mining tax. See decreto, June 1, 1677, AGI, Quito, leg. 5; Gerónimo de Berrío to Crown, Popayán, November 30, 1682, AGI, Quito, leg. 7.


At the end of the century residencias were piling up; at one time four were pending in Popayán. AGI, Escribanía de Cámara, leg. 951 C, pieza 1, fols. 19-33.


This virtual civil war which engulfed the region was not finally settled until 1707 when a new governor arrived. See Antonio Olano, Popayán en la colonia: bosquejo histórico de la gobernación y de la ciudad de Popayán en los siglos XVII y XVIII (Popayán, 1910), appendix no. 2.


One such indulto was granted to the encomenderos, miners, and dealers of Popayán in 1658. In return for a payment of over 8000 pesos prorated among fifty inhabitants by the cabildo, the Crown dropped all its claims to quintos (mining tax) as yet unpaid. AGI, Escribanía de Cámara, leg. 647 A, pieza 2a, fols. 533-548. See also the discussion of these formulae and their function in Mario Góngora, El estado en el derecho indiano. Época de fundación 1492-1570 (Santiago, 1951), pp. 282-285 and in J. M. Ots Capdequí, España en América. El régimen de tierras en la época colonial (México, 1959), pp. 37-38.


For an analogous situation elsewhere see Jorge Comadrán Ruiz, “Las tres casas reniantes de Cuyo,” Revista Chilena de Historia y Geografía, no. 126 (1958), 77-127. The extreme formalism that characterized elections was designed to minimize the consequences of latent rivalry between families which, if not checked, could easily develop into a struggle of opposed bandos, endemic in many towns. For a Spanish example, see Eloy Benito Ruano, Toledo en el siglo XV. Vida politico (Madrid, 1961) pp. 150-151; see also Meza Villalobos, La conciencia, p. 143. In Valladolid the rivalry itself was formalized since all claimants were incorporated into two lineages that allocated offices and dignities, Bartolomé Bennassar, Valladolid au siècle d’or (Paris, 1967), pp. 407-411.

Author notes


The author is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at The University of New Mexico. This article is a revised version of a paper presented at the November 1971 meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Houston, Texas.