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September 2010


Juan Ortiz de Cervantes, Parabien al Rey d. Felipe IIII. N.S. que da la cabeça del reyno del Piru,
[Madrid, 1621?].
Original in the John Carter Brown Library.

"May I remind Your Majesty…"
On the Rights of Creole Subjects

by Carlos Gálvez-Peña

In Madrid in 1619, the representative of the Peruvian encomendero elite published a leaflet on the rights of the Spanish American beneficiaries of Indian Labor grants. Writing on behalf of the encomenderos of the Cuzco region, the licenciado Juan Ortiz de Cervantes was maybe not aware that he had actually started a new tradition of political participation of creoles in the government of the Indies. The Spanish tradition of arbitrismo which developed first under Philip II, involved a vast cohort of scholars writing to the monarch offering advice on economic and political issues. That tradition of Spanish arbitrismo reached a peak of production under Philip III and in particular, during the reign of Philip IV. Ortiz de Cervantes’s Memorial of 1619 is one of the earliest examples of how peninsular arbitrismo was finally appropriated by Spanish American subjects, who with their projects on Spanish American affairs positioned themselves in an ongoing dialogue with the Crown on matters related to ruling and political rights.

The most salient aspect of Ortiz de Cervantes’s 1619 Memorial, the first of three advocating for the rights of creole elites, was its straightforward tone. In the introduction, the later oidor of the Audiencia of New Granada demanded from Philip III a much more aggressive policy regarding the protection of the native population of Peru. It was not necessarily a concern for the welfare of Peruvian Indians affected by the pressure of colonial economy. As proctor of the almost extinguished encomendero elite, Ortiz de Cervantes demanded the attention of the government on the issue of native depopulation because of Potosi labor draft. The death of the Indians affected by the mine fumes or their fleeing from towns and rural areas in southern Peru to avoid the draft had a huge impact in the revenue of the encomendero class and in general in the consolidation of an agrarian economy of a city like Cuzco. However, the second important aspect of this project is the fact that Ortiz de Cervantes pointed out that the encomienda as one of the pillars of colonial administration could be revamped. A more prosperous encomendero would take care of a larger number of Indians and kept an eye in their economic welfare and their right evangelization. In turn, grateful children of encomendero families would cooperate with the Crown with donations and military aid as well as, reduce costs of Indian administration with the abolition of the post of Corregidor.

A year later, the Parabien al Rey D. Felipe III Nuestro Senor que da la cabeca del reyno del Peru en su nombre el licenciado Juan Ortiz de Cervantes su Procurador General en la Corte (Madrid, 1620) continued with the revolutionary tone of demand of the 1619 Memorial. The Parabien is a novelty not only because of the tone of the request but above all, because of its format. Half congratulatory letter -on the occasion of Philip III’s birthday- and half project, the Parabien starts as a laudatory piece and turns into a very straightforward petition from His Catholic Majesty’s Spanish American subjects. Ortiz de Cervantes requested from the Crown three grants: to look for the welfare of the indigenous population, to reward the descendants of the conquistadors (mostly members of the encomendero elite) with Indian labor and land grants and, last but not least, to give preference to the benemerito class in the distribution of religious and secular positions within the administration of the viceroyalty. It was the first time that a representative of Spanish American elites went to Spanish Court to demand a reorientation of the ruling of the empire and benefits for the children of the conquistadors. It was the second political piece in colonial Spanish America in which a key notion in the creole argumentation, that of “distributive justice” was invoked as the premise for historical rights of Spanish American subjects. In Valladolid in 1609, the Mexican Fray Juan Zapata y Sandoval had printed the Disceptacion sobre Justicia Distributiva – whose original in Latin is also in the JCBL collection-and used the concept ofdistributive justice to ask for the appointment of creoles to religious prelacies. Almost a decade after Fray Juan Zapata, Ortiz de Cervantes made a stronger claim on the need of applying distributive justice as the best way of balancing the rights of Spanish American-born subjects and those of the Crown. The latter could legitimately demand taxes and wealth from his far-distant possessions and the creoles, ask in turn for the King’s generosity. Office appointments and the protection of the indigenous population –vital for the existence of the encomiendas- were the two aspects in which that fair “distribution” could take place.

Far from being content with the effect of the Parabien in Spanish ruling circles, Ortiz de Cervantes published a few months later a much more upfront second piece along the lines of his first work and Zapata’s project. The Informacion en favor del Derecho que tienen los nacidos en las Indias a ser preferidos en las prelacias, Dignidades, Canongias y otros beneficios eclesiasticos y oficios seculares dellas (Madrid, 1620) invoked the notion of justicia distributiva as the premise on which the reciprocity between King and subjects should be based. Yet, the Informacion introduced another important concept for creole political rights: the notion of citizenship. Spanish American citizens (vecinos) stated Ortiz de Cervantes, had seniority over non-locals when it came to appointments for Church-related positions. By virtue of the Royal Patronage, with which the Holy See had entrusted the Spanish Crown, the King should fill any prelacy available in the Indies. However, non-citizens–Spaniards not born in the America–could be considered for those prelacies only when among the ranks of local citizens, no ideal candidate could be found. Citizenship was not necessarily a restrictive category for “naturalized” people could be considered local in time. Citizenship however, was perfected when completed with the condition of benemerito, already explained in the Parabien. Service to the Crown and lineage distinction mattered when considering a member of a distinguished family for an appointment. Besides such an interesting legal discussion on what defined a “deserving” Spanish American subject, two other aspects were certainly revolutionary in this project. First, Ortiz de Cervantes’s discussion on the King’s duty of distributing honors and prelacies among his subjects because that function defined his role as sovereign and second, his emphasis on the legality of the promotion of creoles. Both divine and pontifical law addressed the issue of social and political promotion of creole elites. Therefore, the monarch, as mere administrator of religious prelacies, had to act legally preferring creole subjects.

More than two hundred years after being written and published, Ortiz de Cervantes’s works made their way back to America to find their permanent home in the collection of the John Carter Brown Library in Providence. Few copies of the 1619 Memorial and even less of the 1620 Informacion en Derecho may be found in other collections of rare books and early modern imprints in Latin America, Europe and the United States. As a consequence of this, most scholars refer to the Memorial of 1619 as the only work of the almost forgotten theorist of creole rights. The John Carter Brown Library owns the two works mentioned before and the only copy of the 1620 Parabien, in itself a rare bibliographical treasure. The possibility of having access to all three of Ortiz de Cervantes’ Memoriales and read them in the order they were conceived, allows scholars working on colonial Spanish America the unparalleled opportunity of understanding how the theoretical edifice of creole demands was built.

Carlos Gálvez-Peña, Columbia University, was a José Amor y Vázquez Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library in the winter of 2009.


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