In our previous post, we began discussing some of the challenges we have encountered in trying to reconstruct the life of our ‘Wally’, Antonio de Benavides. We highlighted some of the issues we faced in separating the aspects of his life that are backed by archival evidence from the myths which, starting in the late eighteenth century, have become associated with his career. We were able to trace some of these myths through a range of digitised texts to a biography written in Tenerife a couple decades after our Wally’s demise. Today we turn our attention to other digital sources, particularly digitalised archival records, looking to shed some light on the lesser known and, to us at least, most interesting phase of Benavides’s career: the years he spend in the governorships of Florida, Veracruz and the Yucatan.

While the on-going pandemic has prevented us from travelling to the Archive of the Indies in Seville and to repositories further afield, digital collections which might not otherwise have been the focus of our research have helped us understand aspects of Benavides’s trajectory of which we were unaware. Based on the (e-)documents from digital repositories, such as the Hispanic Digital Library from the Spanish National Library, this post explores how Benavides’s career and activities while in government fit within a context of transimperial tensions and increased appreciation for ‘useful knowledge’ amongst Spanish authorities.

The first step in Benavides’s Atlantic itinerancy

As we discussed in our previous post, we know that Antonio de Benavides moved among the Canary Islands, Flanders, and the Iberian Peninsula between 1692 and 1714 before sailing to the Americas in 1717, as governor of Florida. From there he relocated to Veracruz (1732), and then to the Yucatán (1743). Although there were significant differences between the three American provinces in which Benavides served, they also had some things in common. All three of them bordered the Gulf of Mexico; and, from the crown’s perspective, they all were among what the minister for the Indies described in 1740 as strategic governorships with ‘ports and shores which may be invaded or along which foreign illicit trade may be practiced’.[1] All these governorships were perceived as ‘frontier spaces’ due to the military and commercial interaction with other European powers, particularly the British, and the central role of  ‘smuggling’ as a source of income for local communities within the Spanish Atlantic.[2] Since at least 1712, the crown had shown a clear preference for appointing to these offices men who, like our Wally, had accumulated extensive military experience, and who were looking for opportunities of promotion.[3]

‘Foir de Porto Bello’ in Nouvelle relation, contenant les Voyages de Thomas Gage dans la Nouvelle Espagne. Amsterdam, 1720. V. 2 P.334 ©John Carter Brown Library.

Following the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, many military officers were left without a command, with their pay slashed, and with few expectations of further career progression. That was exactly the situation Benavides found himself in when the companies of the guardias de corps saw their numbers trimmed down. Thus, hoping to take advantage of the crown’s newfound predilection for designating veteran military officers as provincial governors, he requested an appointment as governor of Portobello in 1714. The terminus of the famed ‘Galeones’, a crucial commercial hub in the seventeenth century, had been in frank decline for decades. A contemporary anonymous document listing all the governorships in Spanish America to which military officers could seek appointment describes Portobello as ‘a brazier where people get charred […] a graveyard for Spaniards, who seek to move on as soon as possible’.[4] Therefore, Benavides’s request to be sent there may be better understood in the context of the mass demobilisation at the end of the war, and the opportunities of reforming local and imperial institutions. It is perhaps not surprising that, when his petition was declined, he decided to leave Madrid and return to Tenerife with his half pay as ‘exempto reformado’.

Benavides was still in the Canary Islands when in 1717 he was appointed to the governorship of Florida[5] –a posting even less attractive than Portobello according to the anonymous commentator cited earlier who dedicated only a couple of lines to it and described it as ‘withered and unappealing’. The one positive thing he had to say about Florida was that it might serve a skilled military officer as a steppingstone on the way to a more attractive destination, such as Cartagena de Indias.[6] Unquestionably, Benavides’s eventual promotion to Veracruz fits this mould. But this was not an automatic progression; not all governors of Florida followed this path. So, what did our Wally do to secure his promotion?

Florida, Benavides, and Spanish Governance

When we started the project, we knew very little about Benavides’s time in Florida; our original plans included filling in this gap through research trips to Seville, Gainesville and St Augustine which the current pandemic has put on hold. Fortunately, digitised archival guides and sources have allowed us to shed some light on this period of our Wally’s life and revealed an aspect of his activities as an itinerant provincial governor that differentiate him from our other subject of study with a military background: Alberto Bertodano.

As part of the University of Florida’s excellent online guide to resources for the study of colonial Florida, the digitised catalogue of the John B. Stetson, Jr. Collection gives an excellent idea of the main issues Benavides dealt with during his time in Florida. [7]  A querulous and factious clergy, frequent delays and shortfalls in the payment of the defensive subsidy the province received from Puebla, and untrustworthy local officials absorbed much of Benavides’s time.[8] But it was unquestionably the British threat out of Carolina, and the complex interactions with native peoples, who skilfully played one European power against the other, that constituted Benavides’s greatest headache.[9] In connection with this geopolitical issue, one place drew enormous attention from Benavides throughout his time in Florida: the province of Apalachee.

Successive governors of Florida had insisted on the need to strengthen Spanish presence in the region stretching between present-day Tallahassee and the Gulf of Mexico, the western edge of Eastern Florida. Better fortifications, more troops and Spanish settlers were repeatedly presented as the recipe to shore up San Marcos de Apalache against first French and then British designs. The documents contained in the ‘Papeles para la historia de Florida’ [Documents for the history of Florida], held at the Spanish National Library, paint a very clear picture of the strategic importance of Florida, as a whole, and Apalachee in particular.

Papeles para la historia de Florida. Tomo 1’, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Mss. 19508

This bound collection of early modern documents, compiled by Spanish historian Pascual de Gayangos in the nineteenth century, covers the whole period of Spanish rule in Florida, with an emphasis on the eighteenth century. Amongst the manuscripts it contains are a letter from Benavides to José Patiño, the first minister at the time, and our Wally’s assessment of the resources and defensive needs of the province of Apalachee. The latter, in particular, reveals an aspect of Benavides’s activities as a governor of which we weren’t previously aware.

The catalogue of the Stetson Collection reveals that Benavides came to understand the importance of Apalachee shortly upon his arrival in Florida, thanks in part to his communications with the captain of the small Spanish garrison manning the derelict fort of San Marcos de Apalache, today’s San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park. From early on, Benavides reiterated the recommendation, made by several of his predecessors, that it would be of paramount importance to send immigrant families from Spain to settle the region: it would help make the royal road from St Augustine to St Marks safer, aid the missionaries’ efforts to convert the indigenous inhabitants of the region, and dissuade the British from trying to take over the land. What set Benavides’s proposal apart from the start, was his recommendation that any Spanish settlers came from the Canary Islands, rather than Galicia as his predecessors had suggested. Benavides argued that transporting Canarian families to Florida would be cheaper and that it would produce results more quickly because farmers from the islands were already used to living and working in a humid, tropical climate.

Plan of Fuerte San Marcos de Apalache- St. Marks, Florida. 1795. State Library and Archives of Florida

Benavides insisted on this idea repeatedly throughout the nearly 15 years he spent in Florida –his tenure was prorogued twice, in 1722 and 1727, despite the fact that since 1719 he had been requesting to be sent elsewhere, citing alternatively the inhospitable climate, his poor health, and his lacking the talent necessary to govern the province. In the end though, what set him apart from other governors of Florida, and finally convinced the crown to heed his advice, was that in 1731, despite his ill health, he became the first governor of Florida to visit the Apalachee region in person, surveying the land and its potential.

Thus, in February 1732, he sent the king a detailed description of the province of Apalachee based on his observations and those of his companions, the military engineers Carlos Blondeaux and José Tantete. It described in detail the region’s abundant natural resources, and the many additional benefits that could be derived from settling a new town with immigrant families from the Canary Islands.[10] Benavides’s ‘Detailed description of the emplacement chosen for the fortress and settlement to be built in the province of Apalachee’, resembles, in a more condensed manner, the better known report written by Bartolomé Tienda de Cuervo in 1734 which served as the basis for the restoration of the viceroyalty of New Granada.[11]

Benavides’s ability to write ‘useful’ texts

Benavides’s ‘Detailed description’ seems to have marked a turning point in his career. It wasn’t long after his report arrived in Spain, that his 1725 request for a new post was finally answered. In December 1732, the king appointed Benavides politico-military governor of Veracruz, making him the first man to hold jointly the offices of corregidor of Veracruz and commandant of the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa.[12] From there, he continued to advise the Crown and the Council of the Indies on how best to strengthen the Spanish presence in Florida, a matter that had become even more crucial following James Edward Oglethorpe’s settlement of the British colony of Georgia in 1733.[13]

In fact, another digitised volume held at the Spanish National Library shows that on 24 April 1738, at the request of the Council of the Indies, Benavides penned a further report on the situation of Florida, restating the importance of sending Canarian families to settle the province. This volume of ‘Papeles varios’ [Assorted documents], was once part of the personal library of another one of our project’s subjects: Antonio José Álvarez de Abreu. The volume contains copies of several ‘consultas’, official recommendations sent by the Council to the king, written by Álvarez de Abreu as a member of the Council. The first of these, dated in July 1739, repeatedly cited Benavides’s report, and provided the basis on which a Canarian colonisation project for Florida was finally implemented.

Antonio José Álvarez de Abreu’s ex-libris, and Council of the Indies to King, Madrid, July 1739. In ‘Papeles varios’ Biblioteca Nacional de España, Mss. 13979

Eventually, Benavides’s expertise in devising plans for containing British expansion and exploiting the natural resources of Spanish America stretched beyond the specific context of Florida. After nine years of service in Veracruz, our Wally’s career as an itinerant provincial governor saw him promoted to the governorship of the Yucatan, where he served from 1743 to 1751. As yet another digitised volume of assorted manuscript sources in the Spanish National Library shows (‘Papeles referentes al Marqués de la Ensenada y otros documentos’ [Papers pertaining the Marques de la Ensenada and other documents]), shortly after Benavides’s return to Spain, the then minister for the Indies, the influential Marques de la Ensenada, asked his advice on the best way to prevent the British from illicitly extracting logwood from the Campeche region. Benavides’s suggestions became an integral part of Ensenada’s ambitious plan to position Spain as the foremost provider of logwood in Europe.

‘Proyecto para establecer el método y práctica de cortar el palo de tinta en la provincia de Yucatán o Campeche’. In ‘Papeles referentes al Marqués de la Ensenada y otros documentos’, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Mss. 1962.

The project came to nothing, partly because of Ensenada’s fall from grace. By then, however, Benavides’s reputation as a adviser on American matters had become well established. It would even accompany him into his retirement in Tenerife where, in 1753, he would become the leading figure in a crown-sponsored attempt to establish a chartered company trading with Spanish America out of the Canarian archipelago.[14]

The seemingly disparate digital archival resources on which this post is based have helped us discover an aspect of Benavides’s American career of which we were previously unaware. The series of reports, assessments and proposals for settling, defending and exploiting the Spanish American territory that our Wally penned throughout his career have led us to think of him as more than just an experienced military officer tasked with a series of provincial governorships. Instead, it is possible to see strong parallels between his career and those of the Spanish American ‘bureaucrats’ studied by Víctor Peralta Ruiz. Although we haven’t had an opportunity to talk about it in detail in this post, Benavides’s career unquestionably benefitted from the patronage and support of influential figures at court (Patiño and Ensenada are obvious examples, but one should not forget the Conde de Salazar, Benavides’s commanding officer in the guardias de corps, who later on became the head of the prince of Asturias’ household and whom Benavides remained in contact with long after he left the guardias).[15] But as was the case with the individuals analysed by Peralta Ruiz, Benavides’s professional progression was also aided by the fact that he was ‘able to produce highly useful texts that served the personal interests of ministers and of the Spanish monarchy as a whole’.[16]

Benavides was very conscious of the importance his work regarding the province of Apalachee had on his career progression. Late in his life, around 1763, our Wally claimed that his role in restoring the fortress of San Marcos had pleased Philip V so much that the monarch had rewarded him with the title of Marqués del Apalache and the hereditary right to appoint the commanding officer of the fort.[17] Although we haven’t found any evidence that this actually happened –and there are some inconsistencies in Benavides’s story suggesting his 85-year old mind might have been playing tricks on him—, the digitised archival resources we’ve been working from have given us a clearer idea of how Benavides’s career progressed, a more compelling and plausible explanation than the supposed eternal gratitude of Philip V for saving his life at Villaviciosa, which Cólogan Fallon proposed in the late 18th century and many of our Wally’s biographers have been repeating ever since. Thus, the intense analysis of e-documents related to Benavides has complicated our original question transforming it from ‘where is Wally?’ to ‘who was our Wally?’. Benavides’s mobility and useful knowledge connected and transformed the Early Bourbon Spanish world, offering opportunities for his promotion, as well as for the development of new projects and ideas of imperial governance.


[1] AHN, Codices, leg. 753, no. 212, ff. 268r-269v and 271v-272r.

[2] (Grahn 1997; Cromwell 2018; Ponce Vázquez 2020)

[3] (Francísco A Eissa-Barroso 2013)

[4] BNE, Mss/1262, f. 3r

[5] BNE, Mss/19508, f. 86

[6] BNE, Mss/1262, f. 11v

[7] We are very grateful to Dr James G. Cusick for his guidance in using the digital resources of the P.K. Yonge Library and for providing us with digitised copies of many documents in their special collections; his help has allowed us to make significant progress on the project despite travel restrictions.

[8] For some references to the role of Benavides on the trial of the Franciscan fray Blas Pulido in Florida see (Arenas Frutos 2014)

[9] (White 2002; Oatis 2004; Bossy 2018)

[10] BNE, Mss/19508, ff. 131r-132r

[11] (Eissa-Barroso 2016a, 236–48)

[12] (Eissa-Barroso 2016b)

[13] (Wilson 2015)

[14] (Morales Padrón 1955, 86–89)

[15] P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History (UFL), Stetson Collection, BND 5243 ‘Benavides to Conde de Salazar, St Augustine, 15 Oct 1728’.

[16] Peralta Ruiz, 2006, p. 253.

[17] AGS, GM, Exps. Pers., L. 7, ‘Benavides to Arriaga, Tenerife, n.d. [ca. 1753]’.


Arenas Frutos, Isabel. 2014. “El franciscano fray Blas Pulido y su informe sobre la Florida (1722): sublevaciones indígenas y martirios.” Semata: Ciencias sociais e humanidades, no. 26: 509–30.

Bossy, Denise I. 2018. The Yamasee Indians from Florida to South Carolina.

Cromwell, Jesse. 2018. The Smugglers’ World: Illicit Trade and Atlantic Communities in Eighteenth-Century Venezuela. Williamsburg, Virginia: Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture.

Eissa-Barroso, Francisco A. 2016.a The Spanish Monarchy and the Creation of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (1717-1739): The Politics of Early Bourbon Reform in Spain and Spanish America. Leiden ; Boston: Brill.

Eissa-Barroso, Francísco A. 2016.b “De corregimiento a gobierno político-militar: el gobierno de Veracruz y la ‘militarización’ de cargos de gobierno en España e Indias durante los reinados de Felipe V.” Relaciones. Estudios de historia y sociedad 37: 13–49.

Eissa-Barroso, Francísco A. 2013. “‘Having Served in the Troops’: The Appointment of Military Officers as Provincial Governors in Early Eighteenth-Century Spanish America, 1700-1746.” Colonial Latin American Review 1: 329–59.

Grahn, Lance. 1997. The Political Economy of Smuggling: Regional Informal Economies In Early Bourbon New Granada. Boulder, Colorado: Avalon Publishing.

Morales Padrón, Francisco. 1955. El comercio canario-americano (siglos XVI, XVII y XVIII). Sevilla: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos.

Oatis, Steven J. 2004. A Colonial Complex: South Carolina’s Frontiers in the Era of the Yamasee War, 1680-1730. Lincoln, NE ; University of Nebraska Press.

Ponce Vázquez, Juan José. 2020. Islanders and Empire: Smuggling and Political Defiance in Hispaniola, 1580-1690. Cambridge [UK] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

White, Andrea Paige. 2002. “Living on the Periphery: A Study of an Eighteenth-Century Yamasee Mission Community in Colonial St. Augustine.” Williamsburg: M.A. Thesis at The College of William and Mary.

Wilson, Thomas D. 2015. The Oglethorpe Plan: Enlightenment Design in Savannah and Beyond. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.