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Colonial Legal Heritage: Adrian Masters' "We the King" and the Influence of the Hispanic World


Adrian Masters. “We the king. Creating Royal Legislation in the Seventeenth-Century Spanish New World”. Cambridge University Press, 2023, pp. 1-319, $ 110.00. Link: We king creating royal legislation sixteenth century spanish new world | Latin American history | Cambridge University Press




Historians have long been fascinated by archives as a source of evidence about the social and cultural experiences of individuals that find their place in European and non-European territories. These collections contain a wealth of histories that tell of the grassroots social and cultural efforts of people to communicate with those in power. Archival documents such as court records, petitions, letters, and memoirs, however, go beyond the mere identities of their authors and recipients. Each document contains various details such as choice of ink, transportation, and personal circumstances. Adrian Masters’ book “We the King. Creating Royal Legislation in the Sixteenth-Century Spanish New World” shows the complexity of this process. The very first sentence of the title, “We the King”, is the author’s manifesto against the formula “I the King”, which focuses on the monarchy as the only central figure. This leads us to consider the multifaceted process by which colonial legislation was shaped and reshaped by a variety of human and non-human actors in the Hispanic world.

The book explores the world of legal history to examine the authors of Spanish royal decrees issued between 1492 and 1600 during the reigns of five Spanish monarchs. Masters’ primary focus is on the petition-response system, which he methodically examines by comparing the petitions with the royal decrees, while conducting extensive research in numerous European and American archives. In this way, the author shows the extent to which petitions influenced royal decrees and introduced local social categories into imperial law. As a result, Masters challenges the notion of law as a top-down enforcement of the will of Spanish monarchs. We discover that law emerged not only through a dialog between the center and its colonies, but also through attentive listening to the subjects by their rulers. Moreover, Masters emphasizes that both human and nonhuman factors played a role in shaping petitions and decrees across the Atlantic, based by the actor-network theory of equal agency.

The monograph is divided into a prelude, an introduction, 6 chapters, a conclusion, a glossary, a bibliography, and an index. In the prelude, we are introduced to the story of Francisco Rengifo, a descendant of a Spanish conquistador and an Indigenous woman from Peru. In 1585, he delivered various petitions from Peruvian citizens to the Spanish court. His story serves as the background of the book and the other threads are revealed in subsequent chapters. The deeper we delve into the book, the more we are encouraged to reflect on the circumstances of Renjiro’s journey and consider the variables that may have either aided or hindered his attempts. Chapter by chapter, the book offers a detailed account of the early modern legislative process, exploring the human, material, and contextual elements that shaped its development.

Chapter 1 deals with the initial stage of petitioning - drafting a written document. The author attempts to balance the contributions of humans and non-humans at this stage. This includes a look at the people who participated in the process, such as non-Hispanic male and female petitioners and high- and low-ranking officials. The writing process also required the assistance of various intermediaries, as well as their knowledge, time, and labor. In addition to human factors, materials such as paper and ink were also needed, as well as a clear idea of what the petition was about. The text itself had to follow a specific formula, linguistic structure, and pattern. Once the petition was completed, it had to be sent to the monarch in Spain.

The next steps are described in Chapter 2, where the author details the petition process and highlights its complexity. It actually functioned like a network in which every aspect was interconnected and part of a larger framework. A successful petitioning required the cooperation of individuals from all walks of life and was highly dependent on various factors such as logistics, geography, climate, and social and political circumstances. However, it was often challenged by external factors and sabotage, which further complicated progress.

As described in Chapter 3, the emerging early modern imperial rule and the late medieval patrimonial administration clashed at the Spanish court. Because of the rapidly expanding bureaucratic model, it was challenging for intermediaries to find a way to engage with the elite and influence the monarch’s relations with subaltern vassals, in part because there was a great geographical and status distance between them. All of this occurred in an atmosphere fostered by networks of privilege, bribery, rumors, and the exchange of gifts, and nurtured by distrust, apprehension, and fear.

Chapters 4 and 5 analyze the management of documents before and after the establishment of a permanent royal court in Madrid in 1561. The author discusses the interaction between the accumulation of documents in the emerging depots and colonial power. In addition, he examines how knowledge of colonial power influenced decision-making. The author examines the effects of what he calls “technologies” on the petitioning process. These relate to a range of factors, including administrative, conceptual, textual, human labor, and ceremonial elements, and their influence on the overall outcome of decisions.

And finally, we come to Chapter 6, in which the author examines how petitions submitted by vassals were transformed into laws. The focus is not only on the legislative process itself, but also on how subalterns shaped royal legislation and how it in turn shaped their lives. This chapter encourages us to ask whether legislation created social categories or whether vassals appropriated the discourse of legislation to make their voices heard. Indeed, we discover that the declaration “I, the King” in the royal decree conceals a variety of elements of colonial power.

“We the King” makes an important contribution to the ongoing discourse on the ways in which colonized peoples influenced the shaping of colonial law from the bottom up and challenged the absolutist narrative of the early modern Spanish empire. It is worth noting that these insights come from the research of a Costa Rican scholar whose “Place of Speech” (Ribeiro 2019) offers a unique perspective on colonized societies. Masters integrates the voices of a previously unheard groups and gives them the opportunity to finally be recognized. The book encourages us to reflect on the complex nature of empire-building, where inclusive politics are critical to gaining, seizing, and maintaining power.

Does the Spanish case represent an exception? Further research is needed to determine whether Catholic monarchs were forerunners of such a vision of empire building. The Spanish colonial empire had unique characteristics, but also integrated Western European maritime expansion and European countries that excelled in early globalization. For this reason, the insights presented in this book can be inspiring not only to those studying colonial history but also to those seeking to understand the legacy of colonialism in the global South.



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