Lehigh University
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Acumen Spring 2014

Corruption in the Spanish Empire

BARBARA ZEPEDA CORTÉS, assistant professor of history, conducts research into political culture, corruption, state reform, political social networks, nationalism and identity formation, and U.S.-Caribbean relations.

The Bourbon Reforms of the late 18th century were a set of legislative and economic reforms intended to re-establish the power of the Spanish crown during a period of empire modernization and expansion. The work and influence of José de Gálvez, a prime figure behind the reforms, is the center of research by Bárbara Zepeda Cortés.

Gálvez, visitor-general of New Spain and then head of the Spanish colonial office, was the principal state agent behind Spain’s efforts to modernize its colonial policies. Yet, while railing against corruption in the Spanish American bureaucracy, he became renowned for appointing family members, friends and people from his hometown to offices in the colonial administration. Zepeda Cortés, assistant professor of history, argues that nepotism and patronage became necessary instruments of governance for Gálvez in a political setting in which many on both sides of the ocean stood against reform. While in Mexico, he complained of corruption at the local level, but at the same time he was trying to reform the system, he became the very thing he combated. Corruption was a curse and a blessing for him, says Zepeda Cortés.

“It’s contradictory. On one hand, you are trying to build stronger state institutions, but at the same time, you’re manipulating them to advance reform. In those moments, corruption goes up because the men in charge have more opportunities to line their pockets or put members of their family in power.”

Through Gálvez’ efforts, imperial trade and mining production expanded and more revenue found its way into royal coffers, yet his influence advanced the fortunes of his brother, Matías, and his nephew, Bernardo, both of whom became viceroys of New Spain.

“He had this contradiction in his own life,” says Zepeda Cortés. “How can you be so ambitious and expand the empire’s reach without the help and support of the people you trust? Reforms involved political strife. There was so much opposition, but in order to fight it, you have to create your own group. He squeezed the system like nobody had done before.“ 

Story by Robert Nichols

Posted on Thursday, June 26, 2014

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