I Found It at the JCB

This month

December 2009

Dividing the Bounty and Passing the Blame:
Trials of a Spanish Official in Seventeenth-Century Hispaniola.
by Juan José Ponce Vázquez



Juan Francisco de Montemayor y Córdoba de Cuenca, Discurso politico historico juridico del derecho y repartimiento de presas y despojos apprehendidos en justa guerra ..., Mexico, 1658.

Image from the collections of the
John Carter Brown Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

When I arrived at the JCB, I was confident that the collection would allow me to place my project on the local elites in Hispaniola during the seventeenth century in a wider Caribbean and Atlantic framework, but I never imagined I would actually find sources dealing directly with important events occurring in Santo Domingo during this time. The John Carter Brown collection surprised me in many ways with amazing finds. This piece is about one of those documents, the Discurso político histórico jurídico del derecho y repartimiento de presas y despojos aprehendidos en Justa Guerra, premios y castigos de soldados. (“Political Historical Judicial Discourse on the Rights and Distribution of Bounty and Spoils Apprehended in Just War; Rewards and Punishments of Soldiers”)

The author, Juan Francisco de Montemayor y Córdoba de Cuenca, is more famous as the compiler of the Laws of the Indies for the internal use of the Audiencia of New Spain in the late seventeenth century (also available at the JCB) during his service as oidor of Mexico. Before that, however, Montemayor’s first appointment in the Americas was as oidor of the remote Audiencia of Santo Domingo, where he arrived in 1651. In 1654, Montemayor became interim governor and president of the Audiencia after the death of his predecessor. He served the office until the arrival of the new governor in 1655.

In December 1655, while still in Santo Domingo, he completed his Discurso político, which he would later publish in Mexico City. As the title indicates, the volume is mainly a treatise on how the bounty of a military expedition is to be divided: how much is reserved for the king, for the captain general who organizes the expedition, and the participating soldiers. In true Baroque fashion, Montemayor provided an abundance of examples from Classic Antiquity (Cyrus the Younger, Alexander the Great) and Biblical sources (Abraham, King David) to prove his point.

But Montemayor’s reasons for writing his Discurso político were not only to show his prowess as a political, military and judicial scholar. As governor of Hispaniola, he sent a military expedition to recover the island of Tortuga, which had fallen in the hands of the French. The expedition was very successful, but there were plenty of irregularities in the organization of the expedition and the division of the bounty among the military leaders. In 1655, when the new governor arrived and it was time for Montemayor to explain his actions in his juicio de residencia, he was accused of  many abuses and misconducts, such as keeping a good portion of the bounty for himself. He was placed under house arrest, and much of his property was auctioned.

Montemayor wrote his Discurso político in the aftermath of these events as a way vindicate himself. In the introduction, he insists on the importance of the taking of Tortuga for the future of Hispaniola and other Spanish Caribbean possessions. This is evident in the accompanying illustration, where an oversized Tortuga looms menacingly above Hispaniola. He also points at his successor and a few members of the local elites, whom he accuses of being behind the false accusations against him. This could be easily misconstrued as petty finger pointing, but the truth is that during his time on the island, Montemayor, just like any other royal official who came to serve in Hispaniola, was introduced to complex networks of patronage that local elites maintained and controlled. During his time as governor, Juan Francisco de Montemayor decided to rule independently from these networks, and this was something that certain members of the local elites did not forgive or forget during his juicio de residencia.
The Discurso político is thus not only a brilliant piece of Baroque scholarship but, placed in its appropriate context, also contains a highly valuable first-person account of social and political experiences of a colonial official in the remote and mostly unknown, but nonetheless fascinating, world of the Spanish Hispaniola in the middle of the seventeenth century.

Juan José Ponce Vázquez, University of Pennsylvania, was a José Amor y Vázquez Fellow in the Fall of 2009.


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