H. M. (Henry Marie) Brackenridge.

Voyage to South America, performed by order of the American Government in the years 1817 and 1818, in the frigate Congress (Volume v.1) online

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governor Portalis, and threw him into prison. This
finally led to a change in the policy of establishing new
cabildos, and occasioned the powers of those already
established to be curtailed.

The cabildo, however, is far from being a popular
assembly, according to our ideas. It is not properly
elective, popular elections having ceased in Spain
before the introduction of these corporations into


America. But they are connected in interest with the
people, from the nature of their composition, none
but native Americans, or Spaniards long settled in
the country, being eligible. The places of regidor are
sold by the king, but under the conditions before spe-
cified. The regidors annually elect the two alcaldes,
de jjrimer and segundo voto, who are very important
magistrates in the local administration. This is the
only semblance of election under the Spanish system
in America. The number of the regidors varied in
different cities, but the chief magistrate of the place,
is always the honorary president of the cabildo. These
municipalities have been compared to the Roman
dicuriones, established in their distant provinces.
Although not elected by the people, they are regarded
as their representatives, and are connected with them by
ties and interests, which the viceroys and oydores are
not allowed to form, or entertain. I scarcely know an
instance in which they have not taken side with the peo-
ple. They have been uniformly the organ through which
their sentiments have been expressed. In the present
contest, the cabildos have generally taken the lead in
casting off the royal authority, and we are informed by
GueiTa, that in Mexico, on account of this well-kno^vn
inclination, they were for a time suppressed. These
municipal bodies, intended at first to oversee the details
of the police, had a constant tendency in America, to
acquire greater importance and influence with the peo-
ple, on account of the variety of circumstances suffi-
ciently obvious to the reflecting mind ; while at the
same time, similar institutions in Spain were every
day becoming of less account. While in America, there
existed a state of things favourable to liberty, in the
facility of obtaining subsistence, and the absence of
comparatively oppressive exactions from the state, and


the owners of fiefs in Spain, the people were ground
and oppressed by tax-gatherers, landlords, and the
clergy, and at the same time assailed by the ills of po-
verty and want.

These are the leading features of the civil govern-
ment. The only popular branch was possessed of
very limited powers compared to our local legisla-
tures ; and from the maimer in which legislative, exe-
cutive, and judicial acts, are blended in all despotic
governments, it is not easy to specify the boundaries
between these difierent jurisdictions. I question much,
whether any but an American or an Englishman, can
accurately comprehend the difierence ; I never met with
any other who had a clear notion of it in practice. To us
who are accustomed from infancy to the operations of
free government, it appears no way difficult to distin-
guish what is properly a legislative, executive, or ju-
dicial act, but this is far from being the case with others,
as I had frequent opportunities of remarking in the most
intelligent Frenchmen or Spaniards. The cabildo is not
intended as a check on the viceroy or audiencia, but
probably to save them trouble. The members are not
sufficiently numerous to acquire an extensive influence
over the commimity, which they doubtless w ould do, if
all the different mmiicipalities were united into a nu-
merous legislative body. The cabildo caimot pass
laws, but may do many acts, that with us, who have
been bred under a government of laws, would imply
extensive legislative powers. The laws of the Indies
are the code of the colonies, together with such new
decrees as from time to time emanate from the king in
his council, and promulged by the viceroy. But inde-
pendently of these, the viceroy issues his own decree,
by hando or proclamation, often embracing the sub-
jects, which under our colonial government, could only


proceed from the provincial legislature, ot the King of
England and parliament. It is therefore in vain to seek
for the exact boundaries which separate the authority of
the viceroy, of the audiencia, or of the cabildo. The
king in his council of the Indies, is absolute as respects
America ; that is, he unites in himself the three great
branches of government. The viceroy, so far as he is
not directly controlled by the council of the Indies,
possesses a similar power over all departments below
him. The audiencia is the supreme court of judicature,
and the council of the viceroy ; while the cabildo is ab-
solute with respect to those things under its control, and
yet acts in obedience to the viceroy, when he thinks
proper to interfere. From these elements, some idea
may be formed of the kind of governments established
on the expulsion of the Spanish authorities. It is na-
tural to expect, that the new establishment must partake
more or less of the character of the old. To visionary
theorists, it may appear an easy matter for a people to
shake off their old habits, and to unlearn at once;
but experience and good sense forbid us to form any
such expectations.* Heretofore in Spanish America,

* I have heard it expressed by persons of some pretensions, that
nothing is necessary but the introduction into any country, of the
forms of free government, and that the people Avill at once be free
as a matter of course. This is a great mistake. A people must be
educated and prepared for freedom. It is true that despotic forms-
will soon extinguish the flame of liberty; but a different kind of go-
vernment, such as we enjoy, would be useless and inoperative among
a slavish ignorant people. All that can be expected is to give them
the best that circumstances will allow, and set to work to prepare them
for a better by education and the diffusion of knowledge. The pro-
gress of the South Americans is more rapid than their most sanguine
friends had any right to expect; that they should at once establish a
gofcrnment such as ours, surely ^ought not to be required. :


no specilic rights of the citizen were exactly defined
or acknowledged ; and lyhere the law is uncertain and
vague, there can be no security for person or property,
however circumstances and situations may for a time
afford a kind of freedom from oppression.

The colonial govermnent had been gradually acquir-
ing a singular complexity by the addition of a great
number of offices to each of the principal departments.
The greater part of these offices were sold at fixed prices,
and formed no inconsiderable item in the royal revenue.
Every new office that was created, required afterwards
a dozen others to watch over it ; the miserable refuge of
a govei-nment which is conscious of the worthlessness of
all its agents, and which sees that its greedy and insa-
tiable exactions, justify the endeavours of all to defraud.
In those departments connected with the royal revenue,'
this complexity is chiefly remarkable. In the customs,
and in the mine districts, there are checks upon checks
without end. But they generally seem to combine in
one object, that of plundering both the king and his
American subjects. So certainly did any kind of office
lead to fortune, that they were often solicited >vithout
salary, and many passed to the colonies merely as ex-
pectants ; about every office there were at least half a
dozen of these hungry creatures, watching for the death
or resignation of the incumbent.

The ecclesiastical hierarchy formed a part of the
colonial government, and contributed perhaps more to
the support of the royal authority than even the military
force. Spanish America exhibits a singular excep-
tion to the authority exercised by the Popes over the
Catholic Church throughout the world. Pope Alex-
ander VI. by his bull of 1501, transferred to the kings
of Spain all jurisdiction which he and his successors
might have claimed, over the churches to be established


in the new world. The King of Spain became the head
of the church in America, almost as completely as
Henry VTII. of the church of England. The nomination
of all bishops, and to other benefices of the church of
America, is therefore a royal prerogative, although they
are presented to the Pope for his sanction. But his
holmess can hold no communication with the church in
America, excepting through the council of the Indies.
All briefs, bulls, and dispensations must be sent to Spain,
and be sanctioned by the king before they can reach
America. The tythes, the ecclesiastical first fruits, and
the profits of vacant benefices, belong to the crown in
consequence of this concession. The Popes have in
vain endeavoured to get back the extensive authority
they had thus parted with ; but it has been found of too
much importance in a political point of view ever to be
restored. An attempt was even made by one of the
kings of Spain to establish a patriarch in America, so
as to be entirely independent of the church of Rome.
" The Spanish policy has reduced the political autho-
rity for the purpose of increasing that of the king, which
has become in the Spanish Indies the centre of power,
and the source of every favour, of every employ, either
civil or ecclesiastical. The consequence is, that what-
ever profession a Spaniard embraces in America, his
hopes are always dependent on the king. From the
lowest officer to the viceroy, from the door-keeper to
the chiefs of justice, from the meanest notary of the
administration to the intendant, from the porter of a
cathedral to a bishop, all are nominated by the king. In
the distribution of this infinity of employs, of dignities
and honours, consists the grand bulwark of the royal
power in America."

Vol. I. E



The Catholic church in America was placed in a
singular situation by the revolution. It became a ques-
tion whether the Pope should be regarded as the head
of the church, or whether the local authorities should
exercise the same jurisdiction as was possessed by the
king. The Bishop of Quito assumed the pontifical au-
thority at once, and when the Pope fulminated his ex-
communication against the insurgents, the bishop gave
them a dispensation. At Buenos Ayres, after a great
deal written, pro. and con. the following question was
put by the junta to several of the most distinguished
ecclesiastics : whether the right of presentation (real
patronata) appertains to the king personally, or as an
incident of the sovereignty which he exercises ? Ano-
ther question was proposed, properly a corollary of the
foregoing, whether the jimta had any right to interfere
in ecclesiastical affairs ? The learned clergy gave their
opinions at large, founded upon much curious reason-
ing, and, as might have been expected, in conformity
to the wishes of the junta. The government of Buenos
Ayres is therefore the head of the church, which has
been made use of with considerable success, in pro-
pagating republican doctrines amongst a people always
accustomed to pay the greatest deference to the in-
structions of their priests. The American clergy engage
in this work heartily and sincerely ; not so with the
higher dignitaries of the church, who are, however,
sufficiently compliant in favour of the party which
happens to be uppermost. The congress of 1815 passed
a resolution requiring the director to send an envoy to
the Pope, for the purpose of regulating their spiritual
affairs; one was actually sent, but his holiness had
espoused the cause of Spain, and fulminated an ex-
communication against the patriots. This thunderbolt.


once so terrible, fell perfectly harmless at Buenos Ayres.
The only effect it had was to put a stop to the sale of
bulls and dispensations, so injurious to public morals,
and so gross an imposition upon the common sense of
the people. Yet so slowly do men give up old fixed
habits, that it was thought necessary, during lent, to put
a general notice on the door of the cathedral, that all
persons who thought proper might eat beef, which could
only be done before, with a safe conscience, by a special
dispensation procured at the expense of six or eight
rials. I read this notice myself. Beef is the common
food, and the poorer classes would find it difficult to
subsist without it ; hence a considerable revenue was
formerly raised from this sale of dispensations. I am
not to be understood to convey an idea, that the people
are not, when viewed with the eyes of a citizen of the
United States, superstitious; they are only somewhat
less superstitious than formerly. It is however a sin-
gular fact, that the catholic church in South America is
more independent of the pope than even that of the
United States, or Ireland : and it appears to me, that the
inevitable consequence of the independence of South
America, will be its independence of the papal hier-

The subject of the royal revenues is one of the most
curious in the system of govermnent adopted for the
Indies. It is roundly asserted by Herera, that the king
contributed nothing towards the magnificent conquests
effected by his enterprising subjects ; but these were no
sooner accomplished, than not satisfied with the domi-
nion and the advantages of trade, he became the master
and owner of every thing. The royal portions of gold
and silver, and of every other metal, the avails of the
customs, the appointments to office, and the numerous
other incidents of supreme authority were not sufficient;

E 2


but after imposing all the taxes and burthens to which
the metropolis was subject, many others were devised
exclusively for the Indies. The king set up various
oppressive monopolies ; the popes granted him the eccle-
siastical tythes ; he exacted tributes from the unfortunate
natives ; he introduced the odious alcavala, or tax on sales
and purchases; and, in the early periods of the conquest,
he was not ashamed to claim a portion of the spoils
taken from unoffending nations, attacked and butchered
with no other pretext that that of possessing their

In noticing these different sources of revenue, I shall
begin with the royal fifths of gold and silver, as the
most important branch. There was, in the first instance,
a duty paid for the privilege of working the precious
metals ; but the duties at present received by the crown
are, 1st. one and a half per cent. cohoSj or old esta-
blished duty to the king ; 2d. six per cent, real diesmos,
or king's portion of the tythes ; 3d. the derechos de fun-
dicioiiy to defray the expences of smelting and refining ;
and lastly, one rial for every mark of silver, to pay the
salaries of the officers of the tribunal of the mines : the
whole amount, is about fourteen per cent, upon all the
precious metals extracted from the mines. The profits
of the crown derived from the monopoly of quicksilver,
without which the mines cannot be worked, is very con-
siderable. The diminution of the produce of the mines
during the last ten years, is thought by many politicians
to be one of the causes of the commercial embarras-
ments throughout the world. Those of Mexico, during
that period, it appears, from the official documents, have
scarcely produced a third of the annual amount drawn
from them formerly. The mines of La Plata, it is pre-
sumed, have produced still less ; but it is probable that
those of Lima have undergone no sensible diminution.


The quantity of the precious metals >\ithheld from cir-
culation, by the troubles of America, has never been
ascertained with accuracy ; what may have been the
effect of this on the commercial world, is still more dif-
ficult to conjecture. It is well known, that there were
immense quantities of gold and silver in Spanish America,
which were called into circulation, and probably contri-
buted to make up the defect produced by a partial fai-
lure of supply from the mines.

The next branch of revenue I shall notice, is the alca-
vala, than which a more vexatious exaction could not
well be contrived.* It is a duty varying from one to
four per cent, on all sales and purchases, mth the ex-
ceptions in favour of the church and of paupers. Every
merchant, shopkeeper, and tradesman, was compelled to
deliver, on oath, an exact account of his purchases and
sales. The same thing was exacted of every private
family, and even their provisions purchased at market
were not exempted. Although this harassing and trou-
blesome tax, in the course of time, was rendered less
vexatious, it is evident that the Spaniards are still far
behind the other nations of Europe, in the science of
taxation, if I may so express myself. To draw the
greatest revenue in the manner least vexatious or op-
pressive to industry, is a subject of so much moment
to every civilized community, that it deserves to be
classed among the most important sciences. The alca-
vala was generally commuted for a fixed sum ; and at
present, it is little more than a species of indirect tax

• It originated ia Spain during the struggle to expel the Moors ;
it M-^as an extraordinary contribution to enable the king of Spain to
maintain the contest, and was afterwards continued when the reason
ceased, and was introduced into America contrary to every principle
of justice.



on retailers. It differs from the duties collected at the
custom houses in the interior, called puertos secos,
or dry ports, where goods paid transit duties in nature
of the alcavala, and which amounted to a very high
per centage.

But the most considerable source of revenue next to
the royal portion of the precious metals, was that de-
rived from the customs. The duties on merchandise
amounted to about thirty -four per cent, exclusive of the
transit duties so frequently paid in the interior. It is
stated by Arispe, in his memoir on the provincias inter-
nas of New Spain, that European merchandise had to
pay duties thirty times before they reached the town of
Coaquila, where he resided ! The maritime duties con-
sisted of the almoxarifasgo, which was collected only
on what was shipped or landed ; that is, on entering and
clearing. The next was the armada and armadilla;
the intention of which was to defray the expense of light
vessels, employed to defend the coast against the incur-
sion of pirates, at a period when they were much in-
fested by them ; although this had ceased long ago, the
tax is still continued. There were also duties of con-
sulate and anchorage, in order to defray the expenses of
the officers employed. These duties yielded a consi-
derable revenue to Spain, in those provinces which had
been the seats of the revolution. The revenues derived
from New Grenada, Venezuela, La Plata, and Chili, from
these sources, have been lost to Spain ; their amount
probably exceeded even the produce of the mines ; not
to speak of the deprivation of trade to these countries,
a deprivation which is fast sinking Spain herself to
wretchedness and poverty, staggering as she is, under
the weight of burthens which have not been diminished,
in proportion to the diminution of her strength.

The king, as head of the church, derives also con-


siderable revenues from that source. The principal is
the tythes, from which nothing is exempted ; and their
collection is so rigid, that, according to the laws of the
Indies, no one can change his residence without having
first obtained a certificate of having discharged them.
They are collected by the the king's officers, but depo-
sited in a distinct treasury. In some instances, how-
ever, they were collected by the clergy, who retained all
but the king's portion. According to the ordinance of
Charles V. at Madrid, 1539, they were divided in the
following manner; one fourth was assigned to the
bishop of the diocese, another fourth to the dean and
chapter, and other officers of the cathedral. The other
half was divided into nine parts, two of which, los dos
novenos, were transmitted to the king. The other seven
parts, were appropriated to the support of the parochial
clergy, and to other pious uses. The hull de criisada,
a tax upon the piety of the people, is also productive.
It is a papal dispensation, issued every two years, and
«old to the Americans at certain prices graduated by the
purses of the buyers. There are other bulls, the most
remarkable of which was that of composition, enabling
a thief or scoundrel to retain with a clear conscience,
the property of which he had cheated his neighbour. The
messada and primer annata, were revenues derived from
the first fruits of civil and ecclesiastical offices. The
first was a portion of the income of the benefices, gene-
rally equal to a month's salary, but not exacted until
after four month's enjoyment. The latter is one half of
the year's salary exacted before entering upon the office,
civil as well as ecclesiastical. The vacantes mayores
and minor es were incidents of the church revenues. The
proceeds of all vacant benefices^ according to the laws
of the Indies, must be paid into the royal treasury ;


jfnd the confiscated property of the Jesuits amounted to
a considerable sum.*

The sale of offices was also considered a source of
public revenue. With few exceptions, the colonial
offices were exposed to sale, and it is not improbable,
that this may have been one cause of their extraordinary
multiplication. The author of Gil Bias can hardly
be accused of exaggeration, in his description of the
manner in which offices are bought and sold, or intrigued
for at the Spanish court.

A revenue of no trifling amount, was derived from
the monopolies of tobacco, salt, and quicksilver, as
well as from the excise on spirituous liquors, where
circumstances did not forbid their distillation. These
are generally so high, and exacted in so arbitrary a man-
ner, as to be exceedingly oppressive. Stamped paper,
or papel sellado, considering its extensive uses, is
also a lucrative branch. Every public act or private
agreement, must be upon stamped paper; and consi-
dering the immense quantity consumed in law suits,
where every thing is reduced to writing, the evidence,
pleas, statements, arguments of the parties and their
counsel ; the decrees, interlocutory or final, of the judge ;
it must constitute a very important branch of revenue.
Every document obtained from the government and its
different branches, must be written on it ; the price is
also enormously high, varying from twenty-five cents to
a dollar for every sheet. There was also a duty on the
importation of slaves, which amounted to about thirty
dollars a head ; although the Spaniards did not engage

* These two items are at present of great importance in estimating
tlje resources of tlio patriot government.


in the slave trade, they willingly gave it sanction and

The worst part of the Spanish exactions, was that
which fell on the Indians. In the first instance, these
unfortunate people were held by the conquerors as
slaves, and treated with a degree of cruelty unexampled.
They were parcelled out into repartimientos,* of greater
or less extent, according to the dignity of the person to
whom the grant was made. The Indians were consi-
dered as belonging to the king, not as subjects, but as
slaves ; and he thought it right to reward the conquerors,
by allowing them their services for certain periods. It
was not imtil the year 1542, that through the energetic
remonstrances of Las Casas, and the rapid diminution of
the Indians, this wicked and cruel oppression was
compelled to give way to a substitute in theory at least,
of a milder character. The incomiendas were established,
by which a certain number of Indian families, were pre-
sumed to be placed under the protection of some person
of virtue and humanity, thus creating, as was supposed,
the relation of the Roman client and patron. The Indians
were declared free, and in lieu of the taxes and dues
paid by other subjects, a poll tax was imposed upon
all, from eighteen to fifty, amounting to about five
dollars each. This tax, and the vexations practised by
the incomenderos, who perverted their trusts, left the
Indians in a situation but little better. It was not until
the gradual extinction of those estates, that their situa-

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Marie) BrackenridgeVoyage to South America, performed by order of the American Government in the years 1817 and 1818, in the frigate Congress (Volume v.1) → online text (page 5 of 29)