This AHRC-funded project explores how early modern empires were built through the experiences, relationships and careers of individuals whose lives were spent in multiple geographical locations. By analysing the careers, networks and writings of  three royal officials  – involved in the design or implementation of reform in the Iberian Peninsula and the Spanish Circum-Caribbean, the project will show that experiencing various sites of empire shaped their understanding of the constituent territories of the monarchy, their views of the empire as a whole, opinions of what needed to be reformed, and of how such reforms should be introduced. The main aim of Trajectories of Reform is to study how ideas, institutions and social structures often associated with the ‘centralising absolutism’ of the early-Bourbon monarchy in Spain were influenced by travel to and contact with different sites of empire across the Spanish world. 

With few exceptions (Stein and Stein 2000; Kuethe and Andrien 2014), studies of the early-Bourbon period have tended to focus on either the Iberian or the American sides of the Spanish world. And in the case of the latter, studies often centre on a single province or kingdom (Pearce 2014). Even collective volumes which include chapters on various parts of Spanish America usually comprise just a synthetic introduction followed by isolated case studies, and so only partially succeed in presenting an integrated view of the period (EissaBarroso and Vázquez Varela, eds. 2013; Escamilla González et al., eds. 2015). This limits our ability to understand the origin, diffusion, and support of, and opposition to, ideas usually associated with early Bourbon reformism in the ‘centre’. Drawing on existing work on the British, French and Dutch empires (Bosher 1995; Lester 2001; Porter 2004; Laidlaw 2005; Wimmler 2017), it intends to move the study of transatlantic networks in the Spanish world beyond the realm of merchants (Lamikis 2010; Crespo Solana and Alonso García 2012; Herrero Sanchez and Kaps 2017) by highlighting the breadth and importance of networks created by itinerant royal officials. Isolated studies looking at the networks created by single individuals in one place (Vázquez Varela 2007; 2011), at the leading figures of a single town or province (Blank 1974; Vázquez Varela 2010) or at one family (Andújar Castillo & Jiménez Carrillo 2011) have been done from this perspective, offering only fragmentary insights.

By analysing the mutual impact of place and subject in their respective construction and transformation, the project will bring new insight, from the thus far understudied Spanish case, into the ongoing debates regarding the construction and transformation of early modern imperial spaces and identities. the project will also engage with the historiography on imperial careering – with its strong influence from the study of life trajectories and the new biography (Clifford 1978; Rhiel and Suchoff 1996; Lee 2005; Fowler 2018). This approach, well developed in the case of the modern (less so for the early modern) British Empire (Mackillop & Murdoch 2003; Lambert & Lester 2006), has had limited presence in the study of the Spanish world (Peralta Ruíz 2006). While embracing and recognising the significance of prosopographical analysis, the project goes beyond this, making a case for studying lives which spanned the Spanish Atlantic as both geographical trajectories and career paths (Daniels & Nash 2004) This project seeks to further our understanding of the transformations experienced across the Spanish world during this period, which compared to the age of sweeping reforms and colonial upheaval of the 1760s onwards, remains significantly understudied. Building on some of the PI’s previous work (Eissa-Barroso 2015; 2016a), the project approaches early-Bourbon reformism as a phenomenon affecting the whole of the Spanish world.

By studying the careers and the familial and the patron-client networks built by three itinerant officials: Alberto Bertodano (b.1660 – d.1736), Antonio de Benavides (b. 1678 – 1762) and Antonio José Álvarez de Abreu (b. 1688 – d. 1759). The project will enhance our understanding of how different parts of the Spanish world contributed to the formation and transformation of institutions and personnel associated with imperial reform. As such, we aim to problematize our understanding of the relationship between sites traditionally described as centres and peripheries. The project will do this by addressing five key questions:

  1. How did itinerant royal officials’ conceptualise the various sites of empire? How did these ideas contribute to the broader construction of a place in the official imagination?
  2. How did career stage and posting influence the ways in which royal officials perceived of
    themselves and their professional and economic aspirations?
  3. To what extent did the views, comments and actions of these royal officials (i) reflect changes in their way of understanding or thinking about the Spanish Empire as a whole, and (ii) correlate with the principles underpinning early-Bourbon reformism?
  4. How did the personal and professional networks contribute to the development of new social groups and institutions strongly associated with Bourbon rule, and through this, to binding together the Spanish Empire?
  5. How did the lives and careers of these itinerant royal officials reflect the creation of imperial reality on an every-day, local level? What, in turn, does this tell us about the complex, hierarchical structures of composite early modern empires?

Trajectories of Reforms challenges our tendency to study ‘composite monarchies’ as sets of bilateral relations between a dominant centre and multiple peripheries, highlighting both the dialogic nature of these relations and the importance of periphery-periphery connections and interactions at the eighteenth-century Spanish World. The project seeks to encourage not only academic audiences to think about Early Bourbon reforms, but it also target non-academic audiences, primarily in the Hispanic world but also in the UK, to change their assumptions about Latin America’s early modern history.


Project team