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The Council of the Indies, officially, the 'Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies' (In Spanish "el Real y Supremo Consejo de Indias"), was the most important administrative organ of the Spanish Empire, both in the Americas and in Asia, combining legislative, executive and judicial functions. The Crown of Castile incorporated the new territories into its domains when Queen Isabella withdrew the authority granted Columbus and the first conquistadors, and established direct royal control.

The evolving structure of colonial government was not fully formed until the third quarter of the 16th century; however, their Catholic Majesties designated Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca to study the problems attendant on the colonization process with Christopher Columbus. Rodríguez de Fonseca effectively became minister for the Indies and laid the foundations for the creation of a colonial bureaucracy. He presided over the Council, which contained a number of members of the Council of Castile (Consejo de Castilla) and formed a Junta de Indias of about eight counsellors. Emperor Charles V was already using the term in 1519. The Council of the Indies took up its powers on August 1, 1524. The king was informed weekly sometimes daily of decisions reached by the Council, which came to exercise supreme authority over the Indies at the local level and over the Casa de Contratación founded in 1503 at Seville as a customs storehouse for the Indies. Civil suits of sufficient importance could be appealed from an audiencia in the New World to the Consejo, functioning as a court of last resort.

Scandals in Peru and the untiring efforts of Bartolomé de Las Casas resulted in Charles' overhauling the structure of the Council in 1542 with a series of "ordenanzas" or ordinances.

The terms of trade between the far-flung colonies and Seville, the port through which all trade flowed, was controlled by the existing Casa de la Contratación at Seville, which was authorized (1503) to control colonial commerce, emigration, and maritime enterprise.

Decisions by the Council and Crown legislation for the Indies were formally codified in 1680 in the Recompilación de las Leyes de Indias.

With the ascension of a new dynasty at the start of the eighteenth century, a series of administrative changes, known as the Bourbon reforms, were introduced. In 1714 Philip V created the a Secretariat of the Navy and the Indies (Secretaría de Marina e Indias) with a single Minister of the Indies, which superseded the administrative functions of the Council, although the Council continued to function in a secondary role until the nineteenth century. Fifty years later Charles III set up a separate Secretary of State for the Indies (Secretarío del Estado del Despacho Universal de Indias). During the Peninsular War, the Cádiz Cortes abolished the Council, but it was restored upon Ferdinand VII's restoration. The Council was finally abolished in 1834, a year after Ferdinand VII's death and after the loss of most of Spain's American empire.

The archives of the Council, the Archivo General de Indias one of the major centers of documentation for European history, are housed in Seville.


Further reading

  • Burkholder, Mark A. Biographical Dictionary of Councilors of the Indies, 1717-1808. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1986. ISBN 0313240248
  • Sch√§fer, Ernesto. El Consejo Real y Supremo de las Indias: Su historia, organizaci√≥n, y labor administrativo hasta la terminaci√≥n de la Casa de Austria (University of Seville) 1935.


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