The Spanish Imperial Archives


Rethinking The Spanish Imperial Archives

There are manifold challenges a scholar faces when studying the political consequences of the intense worldwide mobility of the seventeenth-century Spanish imperial officials, early modern functionaries permanently on the move while serving the King from one region to another, transiting across the whole world. Over the past year I have been digging in several Spanish archives holding documents related to the governance and administration of this far-flung early modern polity: The General Archive of the Indies (AGI) in Seville, the National Archive (AHN) and the National Library (BNE) – both in Madrid – and the General Archive of Simancas (AGS), in Simancas, Valladolid.

Conventional understandings of the Spanish Empire have focused on contemporary nation-states as analytical points of departure, concentrating on colonial “Peru” or Spanish “Italy”. These views have paid little or no attention to the dynamic connections that linked geographically distant parts of a truly global empire. When scholars think of the Spanish Empire they tend to think of Hispanic America, overlooking imperial doings in Asia, Africa, and Europe itself. Something similar happens when European historians ignore or disregard American possessions as critical components of imperial making, a process otherwise presented as solely European. This anachronistic geopolitical approach has also been nourished by the nation-state-based organization of Spanish archives and collections.

The AGI holds documents related to the Spanish Empire in America and the Philippines. There is a fantastic review on this archive and on how research is conducted there ( The AGS has information related to the Councils of Italy, Flanders, and Portugal. Finally, the AHN in Madrid has documentation pertaining to the Spanish kingdoms of Castile, Aragon and Navarre. This seemingly clear administrative organization follows a fictional division of the Empire that reflects to contemporary geopolitical realities while neglecting the polycentric nature of a global monarchy. Back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries all three of these archives were part of one unique imperial repository. In following centuries, this imperial repository became fragmented and organized according to the logic and historical needs of emerging nation-states, disregarding the complex nature and globalizing trends involved in the making of the seventeenth-century Spanish Empire. All three archives hold critically related if not completely similar documentation. The careers of imperial officials were recorded from different posts and in multiple languages, and the documents these careers produced are scattered in all these archives. The problems faced by the Empire and its officials were, in many ways, similar and related to the various regions that constituted the empire — and were expressed in peculiar and equally different ways.

By holistically rethinking the Empire as a whole, my research knits together these atomized sources and the rich historiographies of disparate locations, recasting them as a coherent, integrated and interconnected expressions of a global polity. The challenge is to revisit these archives looking for those interconnections, attempting a hypertextual reading of their documental holdings. This is, of course, no minor task. Archival collections are exceedingly large and they hold a vast amount of documentation. It surely comes as no surprise those thousands of books written solely using the information found in one of these archives. Among the tools available for navigating such a colossal amount of information, Internet has become something indispensable.

The Spanish government has undertaken an outstanding effort over the past years in cataloguing and digitizing its archives. Available resources, and the development of this project, are completely dissimilar for both archives and collections within archives. This project goes by the name of PARES, acronym for Portal de Archivos Españoles (Portal of Spanish Archives). The website ( is the front door of these archives. At first, PARES seems intimidating and fairly hard to follow.  A a useful, new webpage ( helps us understanding and navigating PARES —although it is primarily intended to serve Americanistas researching at the AGI, so I will not expand on this issue. Nevertheless, it is necessary to reemphasize the importance of PARES for conducting systemic studies of the Spanish empire. PARES is, on the one hand, a door for accessing the large —and everyday growing— number of digitized documents, while at the same time providing simultaneous access to eleven archives (including the three largest Spanish archives), covering a great portion of the whole system of Spanish archives. One may focus on just one archive, on a specific section or, instead, may search and look at multiple archives. With enough fortune, the search function will assist you in finding related documents scattered throughout many archives. Furthermore, the Inventario Dinámico provides a fantastic overview of the archival holdings and helps us looking at and getting a grasp of the archives’ internal organization, their information systems, and how diverse holdings and dispersed collections are related. In mastering PARES, a key understanding of archives and archival thinking emerges

Given that the information contained in different archives is connected in many ways, it is possible to track the journey, life, and professional development of imperial peoples – officials, families, and others. The letters of Sebastian Hurtado de Corcuera – Governor of Panamá, Captain General of the Phillipines, Corregidor of Córdoba, and Captain General and President of the Audiencia of the Canary Islands – are found in the AGI, AGS, and the AHN. Other documents related to his will and assets are placed in the small Archivo Histórico Provincial de Alava, and information regarding the familiar juro in the AGS. Documental connections, however, transcend individual names; the production of documents were intrinsically related and remain inexorably linked. Let us think, for example, about the consultas. These are documents produced by the many local councils that enabled the governance of a global monarchy. The geopolitics of councils was diverse.  Some had a territorial scope, such as the councils of Castile, Indies, Portugal and Italy.  Still others corresponded to the geopolitics of an imperial framework, such as the councils of Treasury, War, and State. The consultas were provisions of information and requests for advice and decision-making to the Monarch – ultimately responsible for a final resolution. Though every council had its own organization and dealt with its own issues, consultas produced by all of them are very similar in nature. As they were legal expressions of the same political entity, it should come as no surprise that different and often geographically distant councils addressed common concerns.  The consultas are dispersed throughout many archives; most of the consultas produced in governing the Indies are placed in the AGI, while those from Italy are located at the AGS. However, as I have suggested above, these boundaries and divisions usually do not work well. Insofar as consultas of the Council of Castile are distributed between the AGS and the AHN, it is indispensable to look at both archives. Similarly, imperial issues such as the Eighty Years War or problems related with defending and financing of the Empire and its possessions are found in every single archive. Once again, it is important to rethink of the limitations of these archival organizations and how they model and shape our research, compartmentalizing and distorting a holistic understanding of the Spanish empire.

In overcoming these fragmentations, archivists are sometimes a good source of guidance. While many times they are also blind to documental and archival interconnections, masterfully knowing what lies in their own backyard with a tad bit of a tunnel vision, sometimes they do have a broader vision and can assist you in transiting to other archives and collections.

Finally, I would like to spend a few words on the National Library at Madrid. Although it is not an archive per se, the Sala Cervantes holds an impressive amount of manuscripts and printings from the early modern Spanish Empire. Although it has a disperse and dissimilar collection, it holds documents concerning the globalness of imperial affairs and should be a mandatory stop for scholars, regardless of their particular focus. Online cataloguing and the momentum of digital resources also deserve a separate word. The BNE has a thorough on-line catalog ( and Biblioteca Digital Hispánica provides access to a vast number of digitized books and manuscripts. Accessing these digital and virtual resources has been a pillar of my research.

Adolfo Polo y La Borda
University of Maryland, College Park

Image: Interior of the General Archive of the Indies (AGI). Courtesy of Turespaña.

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