Spanish cities in the Americas

February 13 2014

[The] practice of diffusing Hellenism in the Roman Empire by means of the foundation of city-states was reproduced in the Spanish Empire of the Indies; and the Medieval Spanish institution which was thus propagated in the Americas in an Early Modern Age of Western history was in truth a renaissance of the Hellenic institution that had originally been propagated in Spain by Roman conquistadores from Italy. [Footnote: See Haring, C. H.: The Spanish Empire in America (New York 1947, Oxford University Press), p. 159.] Like the Hellenic cities planted in the post-Alexandrine Age by Macedonian empire-builders in South-West Asia and Egypt and by Roman empire-builders round all the shores of the Mediterranean, these Spanish cities in the Americas had individual founders; [footnote: See ibid., p. 160.] they were laid out on the rectangular plan that, in the history of Hellenic town-planning, had been inaugurated in the fifth century B.C. [footnote: See ibid., p. 161.] by Hippodamus’s layout of the Peiraeus; and each civitas had a rural territorium attributed to it, to use the Roman technical term. [Footnote reference to an earlier part of the Study.] In the more settled regions of the Spanish Empire these municipal territoria were conterminous [bordered on each other]; and, in the undeveloped regions on the fringes, some of them were of vast extent. [Footnote: See Haring, op. cit., pp. 161-2.] By A.D. 1574 about a hundred Spanish city-states had already been founded within the area of the Incaic Empire’s former domain. [Footnote: See ibid., p. 160, n. 4.]

So is all this about the Viceroyalty of Peru rather than of New Spain?

“The Spanish American provinces, therefore, were in many instances a collection of municipalities, the latter … being the bricks of which the whole political structure was compacted.” [Footnote: Ibid., p. 162.]

If these Spanish colonial city-states thus resembled the post-Alexandrine Hellenic colonial city-states in serving as the cells of an intrusive alien régime’s administrative and judicial organization, they likewise resembled them in enjoying little more than a simulacrum of local self-government; for they had no sooner been founded than the Crown took into its own hands the appointment of the municipal officers. [Footnote: See ibid., pp. 164-5.] Above all, they resembled their Hellenic prototypes in being parasitic.

“In the Anglo-American colonies the towns grew up to meet the needs of the inhabitants of the country: in the Spanish colonies the population of the country grew to meet the needs of the towns. The primary object of the English colonist was generally to live on the land and derive his support from its cultivation; the primary plan of the Spaniard was to live in town and derive his support from the Indians or Negroes at work on plantations or in the mines. … Owing to the presence of aboriginal labour to exploit in fields and mines, the rural population remained almost entirely Indian.” [Footnote: Haring, op. cit., pp. 160 and 159.]

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

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