Jurists of the Indies: Transmission and Application of Knowledge, Readings and Experiences to the Debates over Affairs of the Indies (16th and 17th Centuries)
Following some of the methodological considerations highlighted by the famed historian of Derecho Indiano, Victor Tau Anzoátegui (Nuevos horizontes en el estudio histórico del Derecho Indiano), this project sought a comprehensive approach to the figures of the lawyers and jurists who labored in the in the so-called Indias Occidentales of the Americas during the first centuries of Spanish domination.
A first focus was an exploration of these men’s academic and intellectual formation, an element which in many cases provided important clues for interpreting the nature of institutional and social reforms that were under debate in the New World. Understanding the comprehensive humanist education the Indies jurists received—in the majority of cases in the universities of Salamanca and Alcalá, and then later complemented by reading works of jurisprudence, theology, and political treatises that circulated widely following the advent of the printing press—proved an important first step for deciphering the activities of Indies jurists and the multifaceted dimension in which almost all of the discussions over “Affairs of the Indies” appeared.
A second element taken into account was the previous experience the Indies jurist brought with him, so to speak, to the Americas. Correcting a widespread trend in studies skewed towards a purely Americanist perspective, my interest was to delve deeper into the professional tasks with which judges, attorneys, and notaries busied themselves on the Iberian Peninsula before sailing to the Americas. It was often the case that such experiences were the very reason that rationalized the selection of a certain individual for a position in the Indies and, in one way or another, said experiences continued to inform the way that such an agent understood and performed the tasks with which he had been assigned. In this sense, even though the New World was both a utopia and a land conducive to innovation, it was also a space in which old institutional schemes and social arrangements forged in Europe were redeposited and translated. Focusing on this binary logic, I intended to explore how jurists acted as translators of a certain kind of normativity, responsible for innovations that were, at the same time, both imitative and creative. This activity led them, in the majority of situations, to adapt principles and preexisting norms to the “context of the land” and “of the time” in which they worked. This second element—of experience—was considered in relation to the academic education such men of the law received, and the legal culture which surrounded them. In a way, the comprehensive humanist education referred to above made it possible for Indies jurists to satisfy the demanding task of translating and adapting the multitudinous normativities for relatively unknown lands during difficult times of constant change.
Although the initial objective of the project was to investigate the aforementioned intellectual concerns, such questions were always contextualized within the frame of the fundamental material circumstances that affected the life and work of each jurist. Aspects such as the social origin of each jurist, the influential figures who formed his worldview, and the interest groups he served, as well as their active participation in the New World’s evolving trade networks were also addressed. As connoisseurs of complex and changing legal and institutional frameworks designed for the American provinces, the jurists were, without a doubt, privileged economic agents who were both well-informed and key agents in networks that regulated the circulation and exchange of political and economic ideas, something which the most recent legal-historical works have increasingly taken into account.
Such a three-pronged approach (recognizing the academic-education profile of the jurist, the previous theoretical and practical knowledge that he brought to the American experience, and his common involvement as a privileged economic actor), supported by the collection of multiple types of information and the consultation of sources often widely-dispersed, provided the opportunity to interpret from a holistic perspective the initiatives undertaken by some jurists in crucial moments for the American colonies. In effect, within the period under study (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), bachilleres and licenciados played important roles in such relevant episodes as the foundation and settlement of the first Spanish cities in the New World and the creation of the institutions of government and the administration of justice in the provinces newly-incorporated into the Spanish monarchy. If, at the local level, Indies jurists appear as essential agents in these episodes and institutional dynamics, at a global level such men of law (thanks to their particular formation) were responsible for major initiatives and projects that would have a resonance throughout the empire’s overseas dominions, and remained in constant contact with the monarch and Council of the Indies through a never-ending series of letters, memoriales, responses, questionnaires, relaciones, and chronicles. The comparative study of these projects and sources was, in sum, the final piece of an investigation meant to understand the Indies jurist from a multidisciplinary perspective and in the context of training, previous experience, and network-based interests.