Three Hundred Years of Central American Archives

Now Available on Microfilm

Introduction by
 Dr. John Browning, Professor Emeritus of Spanish at McMaster University

            It is singularly difficult to present a concise, comprehensive account of the scope and contents of this collection's holdings. By way of overview we could say that these holdings consist of official records of matters legislative, judicial, fiscal, economic, religious, military, agricultural and commercial for the Kingdom of Guatemala, an area which, between the Conquest and 1821, embraced Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, as well as what is now the Mexican State of Chiapas. Many of the documents date back to the 16th century. There are, for example, Municipal Government records dating from 1540, Reales Cédulas (Royal Letters Patent) from as early as 1548, Autos judiciales (judicial proceedings) from 1572, Bienes de difuntos (inventories of the possessions of deceased persons) from 1574, tariff and tax records from 1577 and hospital records from 1579. Significantly more documents date from the seventeenth century, once the Spanish imperial administration had expanded and solidified.
            The assembly and preservation of these documents was not, however, accidental or easy by any means. McMaster University's involvement with the Archivo General de Centroamérica began very shortly after my first journey to Guatemala in June of 1968. This visit marked the start of a lifelong fascination with a country to which I have returned more times than I can count, irresistibly drawn by its turbulent history and its physical beauty. In 1968 there was a doctoral thesis to be written requiring extensive research into the late colonial period, and very soon after my arrival in Guatemala City I made my way to the Archivo. Within minutes I was standing before the index, an imposing phalanx of some 18 card cabinets each with 60 drawers, and I began to browse. It was an extraordinary experience; virtually every drawer I opened presented me with a cornucopia of material suggesting years of fruitful research ahead. Within a matter of days, I met Rigoberto Bran Azmitia, Director of the Archive, who shared with me the preservation risks facing the documents. The originals had survived the same history of human events that they described, and were deteriorating at an alarming rate. The problems of high temperature and humidity, as well as the atmospheric pollution of Guatemala City were no help.
            I returned to Canada in time for the autumn semester and sought an early meeting with Will Ready, University Librarian and Professor of Bibliography. I told him of what I had seen and heard in Guatemala. “Well, perhaps we could microfilm the Archive for them,” said Ready, much to my surprise and delight. A letter to Bran Azmitia was drafted, outlining our proposal. His reply came swiftly--an outpouring of enthusiasm and gratitude. I well remember its conclusion, where Bran expressed sentiments to the effect that it was miraculous that Canada, being so vast, could fit into the heart of Guatemala.
            With Bran Azmitia's approval of the project secured, we had to face the question of funding. “I'm used to being rejected,” Ready said to me. However, we prepared a proposal describing the importance of the undertaking and submitted it to the Donner Canadian Foundation which, Ready's wry pessimism notwithstanding, recognized the value of what was proposed and, to get the project started, awarded us the necessary resources, a considerable sum at the time.
            At this point my involvement with the project was essentially at an end and librarians, archivists, business managers and others took over. Camera operators in Guatemala microfilmed documents more or less in the same order in which the manuscripts were arranged in the Archivo stacks and did the very best they could with the fragile material and sometimes faint ink they had to photograph and the equipment available at the time. The quality of the imaging was the best achievable under the circumstances, and we must bear in mind that the purpose of the exercise was to rescue manuscripts before they deteriorated any further. Sometimes the camera operators warn us of páginas manchadas or páginas en mal estado, or of material that is completamente ilegible. Sometimes they don't . Be that as it may, the fact is that between 1969 and 1978, some 4,000 reels of microfilm arrived at McMaster's Mills Library containing a staggering 6,000,000 pages of primary source documents from the colonial period. The original documents, of course, remained in Guatemala, as well as copies of all the films produced. The documents are classified under four very broad categories (sections):
A1: documents of the Superior Gobierno (legislation, edicts etc., originating from the Central Government);
A2: documents of the Capitanía General de Guatemala (judicial, military and economic matters);
A3: Real Hacienda (exchequer documents, fiscal matters, currency, taxation and court and criminal records); and
            B1:  documents of the National Period.
The documents are then identified by the number of the bundle, or legajo ('leg' for short); then usually by expediente ('exp' for short), or individual document number. These designations were created at the time of the original filming and were previously found on several thousand pages in a half dozen thick ring binders that announced nothing more tempting or enlightening than Asuntos varios or Asuntos económicos as the subjects of the reels. By and large the user of the McMaster microfilms had to be prepared to browse, but the patient browser would almost always be richly rewarded. The data in the looseleaf binders, however, has now been converted into a searchable database, which gives topical-level access to each document and indicates its reel location. The researcher is able to browse and search by the presently available subject terms (650 in all) and also by limiting searches by date ranges, legajo, etc. Ross Publishing will be expanding this information with further indexing to make each record more useful and will provide a free copy to every customer of one or more reels.
            If we are to bring the collection to life and to savor something of the existence in colonial Guatemala we need to visit some of the individual documents. Very often the communication of an individual to the authorities can reveal a great deal about the society of the day. In December 1641, for example, Diego Ordóñez writes to the government describing his desperate plight (A3, leg 2804, exp 40580, reel 2502A). In brief, Ordóñez has six daughters, some of them approaching marriageable age. If they are to marry, they need dowries. No dowry, no marriage, and the convent was where the dowryless young woman usually ended up. Ordóñez therefore pleads for an allowance for his daughters, and for himself an encomienda (a grant of authority over groups of Indians, which theoretically entailed an obligation to Christianize and protect them in exchange for their labor or tribute). As the document reflects, Ordóñez fully believes himself entitled to such state largesse, not by virtue of his own merits, but in recognition of those of his ancestors, for Ordóñez is a descendant of conquistadors. Many of these descendants of conquerors had become seriously marginalized by this time and many, like Ordóñez, were suffering significant hardship.
            Travel within the Kingdom of Guatemala was very slow, communications were difficult, and authorities in the capital were often frustrated in their attempts to impose their will. A case in point involved Gerónimo de la Vega Lacayo (A3.5, leg 71, exp 1359, reel 1567A). Vega seems to have been a colorful character. For three years he had been alcalde mayor (magistrate) of Tegucigalpa. In 1772, the Audiencia (the High Court of Justice, which also performed some administrative functions) in Guatemala began to demand that he come in person to Guatemala and submit receipts and other documentation relating to sales taxes for the years he had been alcalde. Vega pleaded ill health as a reason for not being able to travel, boasting initially (rather like Ordóñez) of his forebears' great services to the Crown and claiming in the end that problems in his groin area made riding to Guatemala almost impossible. He eventually fled to Nicaragua (groin problems cured, it would seem) from where the authorities in Guatemala never managed to extract him. This is an interesting case study of how the provinces could thumb their nose at Guatemala, and of how limited was Guatemala's authority over the more distant areas.
            A further instance of this emerges in A3.6, leg 2443, exp 35813, reel 2361A, where we find Juan Ortiz de Letona, Judge of the Cattle Fair, investigating livestock disappearances in El Salvador in 1793. Despite the colonial government's policy prohibiting sales of cattle while the herds were being driven from Honduras and Nicaragua to the cattle fair in Chalchuapa, significant numbers of animals failed to reach the destination. Ortiz discovered that in the vicinity of the Río Sucio, and from there westwards, there were large numbers of people waiting to buy cattle, “openly handing over money for a number of head at a time, which, with threats of violence, they forced the cattlemen to sell to them . . .”
            The collection has a wealth of customs documents, Registros de barcos (ships' manifests), and these have their own tales to tell. In March 1794, the frigate Santísima Trinidad, otherwise known as the Galga, dropped anchor in the port of Omoa on the Caribbean coast (A3, leg 2443, exp 35812, reel 2361A). Among the merchandise it brought from Spain was a box containing books, such as the Psalms of David, the Epistles of Saint Paul, Letters of Clement XIV, a Life of Carlos III, the Childhood of Jesus Christ-in short, nothing likely to upset the Inquisition (although subversive writings were undoubtedly being smuggled in at this time). The rest of the cargo is perhaps even more interesting, for here we find amongst other items stockings, hats, handkerchiefs, ribbons, velvet, mirrors, thimbles, razors, scissors, padlocks, wire, steel, brandy, olive oil, cups, pitchers--in brief, countless items of everyday use that had to be imported, there being so little industry in Guatemala. Another document on this same reel (exp 35814) is equally informative. Here we have the frigate Nuestra Señora de los Dolores preparing for the journey back to Cadiz. But its cargo consists almost exclusively of bales of indigo, along with a small quantity of cigars, an even smaller quantity of cacao, some bottles of balsam, and several thousand silver pesos--graphic evidence of the monolithic nature of Guatemala's economy.
            Another very valuable resource in the collection is the Bienes de difuntos (inventories with valuations of the possessions of deceased people). Doña Micaela Barcena, for example, who died in the first years of the nineteenth century, seems to have been a lady of some means. The inventory of her possessions allows us an almost uncomfortably close look at her domestic and personal life (A1, leg 2727, exp 23354, reel 870A). On her walls were displayed 15 paintings of Our Lady (valued in pesos at 22.50). In her closet hung a dress the color of mother-of-pearl (valued at 6 pesos), and across her bed was a damask coverlet (valued at 1.40). On her hand shone a gold ring set with a pink diamond (valued at 22 pesos). About her neck would have been two rows of pearls (valued at 43 pesos), and from her ears hung a pair of pearl earrings (valued at 19.80).
            In 1799, the Ayuntamiento (City Council) of Guatemala was discussing the contribution to public drunkenness of chicherías--bars where hard liquor or chicha is served (A3, leg 2901, exp 43299, reel 2532A). Public order had been a source of grave concern for some decades. Widespread unemployment brought with it inevitable social ills, of which alcoholism was but one, and there had been hope that a Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País would remedy this alarming situation by diversifying the economy and creating opportunities for work. These patriotic societies were centers of enlightenment thought and experimentation in the Spanish-speaking world in the latter part of the eighteenth century. On reel 1190A we find a collection of documents (A1, leg 4640, exp 39593) relating to the formation of such a society in Guatemala in 1796. The Guatemalan Sociedad prospered briefly but apparently displeased Madrid by being too successful and too radical in its proposals for reform. In November of 1799, a Royal Order was signed instructing the Sociedad to suspend forthwith all its activities (A1, leg 1904, exp 12573, reel 588A). The closure of the Society generated intense and enduring resentment towards Spain.
            Juan Bautista de Irisarri was an immigrant from Navarre and the leading merchant in Guatemala in the final years of the eighteenth century and the first of the nineteenth. Reel 2361A contains A3.6, leg 2445, exp 35835, concerning the arrival in Omoa in 1799 of a schooner from Baltimore chartered by Irisarri. In 1797, to relieve the hardships caused by the war with Britain, Madrid had allowed inhabitants of the Indies to trade with neutral nations using ships flying neutral flags. Irisarri was swift to take advantage of this, but before the ships he had chartered reached their destination, the neutral nations’ dispensation was revoked, and Irisarri thus found himself with a shipful of merchandise of now dubious legality. An interesting detail is that the vessel in question here carried a quantity of subversive pamphlets, denouncing Spanish restrictive mercantile policies. The pamphlets apparently circulated quite widely, to the consternation of the authorities. This document provides very interesting insights into both trade policies and into subversion at the end of the colonial period. Irisarri died in 1805. His causa mortual (A1, leg 2728, exp 23378, reel 870A) is a fascinating document listing the extensive possessions, including the contents of the library, of one of Guatemala's wealthiest citizens. The Archive has causas mortuales and bienes de difuntos covering several centuries, and these shed a great deal of light on social and other kinds of history.
            Here we have highlighted a mere eleven documents from the Archive, yet they provide a wealth of information and portray a vivid picture of life in colonial Guatemala. In these documents, we see a vast, detailed, and candid portrait: a neglected colony with a seriously underdeveloped economy; a pattern of wealth being generated only through exploitation of the indigenous population; the stifling of trade opportunities with other parts of the Indies and elsewhere, either by imperial policies, an exceedingly narrow range of exportable products, or by a want of infrastructure; unemployment leading to a multitude of social ills, and a government increasingly concerned over a breakdown of civil order. We observe how Madrid's handling of the colony is increasingly repressive and insensitive over the documented period, and that within Central America itself Guatemala is similarly insensitive in its treatment of the provinces, with hostility towards the colonial government growing apace. El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua in particular learn that they can often disobey with impunity the increasingly disliked Guatemala. Small wonder, then, that very shortly after the coming of Independence in 1821, a federal republic would be born whose brief existence would be doomed to violence and chaos, and whose eventual disintegration would be virtually a foregone conclusion.
            The documents comprising the Central American Archives are unique, both as individual primary sources and in their assembly in the present collection. They afford us at once a first-hand glimpse into the minutiae of a lost society and, in the aggregate, are a vast database documenting the many facets of its workings.
John Browning



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