Manuel Torres Aguilar. Corruption in the Administration of Justice in Colonial Mexico. A Special Case. Madrid: Dykinson, 2015. 170 pp. EUR 15.00 (paper), ISBN 978-84-9085-507-2.
Reviewed by Christoph Rosenmüller (Middle Tennessee State University)
Published on H-Law (August, 2016)
Commissioned by Laurent Corbeil
This is an interesting book on a native lawsuit against a corrupt alcalde mayor, or district judge, in New Spain (colonial Mexico). The author, Manuel Torres Aguilar, makes the exciting proposition to discuss the conflict between natives and their alcalde mayor within the broader history of legal ideas, and by doing so, he reaches some valuable conclusions. The alcalde mayor, Don Joseph Ignacio Fernández de Córdova, served in the jurisdiction of Xochimilco, located just south of Mexico City, until 1769. Allegedly, he mistreated about 447 natives and some Spaniards, jailing and shackling them, putting them in stocks, and torturing some until they paid him money. When the locals complained about him, the audiencia (high court) sent a receptor (agent) to inquire into the matter. The receptor gathered testimony against the alcalde mayor, and the audiencia suspended the alcalde mayor with the provision that he stay at least five leagues away from Xochimilco. When the alcalde mayor replied by jailing the receptor, the audiencia sent five soldiers. They arrested Fernández de Córdova and brought him to the palace jail in Mexico City, where the warden took him into custody. The audiencia then released Fernández de Córdova on bail, and sure enough the suspended alcalde mayor quickly returned to Xochimilco, where he once again donned the vara (staff) of justice. The audiencia ordered him back to jail to take his deposition, and he delayed as long as he could, but ultimately the alcalde mayor was again arrested and taken to prison. Then the audiencia called on the attorney Francisco Fernández de Hugo to question Fernández de Córdova. The interrogation lasted nearly twenty days, and Fernández de Córdova denied all charges. Finally, he admitted that he took a share of the fines that his subordinates levied from the Indians because of his paltry salary. We do not know for sure what happened in Xochimilco, argues the author, as some of the indigenous depositions against the alcalde mayor were exaggerated. Yet the abundant testimony demonstrates either that Fernández de Córdova was guilty or that the Indians neatly coordinated a successful campaign against him, according to Torres Aguilar.
The prosecutor, Bernardo Cervantes, demanded that if the charges “do not merit the death penalty, they do at the very least deserve an incredibly severe corporal punishment” (p. 139) for the culprit. Yet the audiencia postponed a ruling, and as Fernández de Córdova’s health suffered in jail, the court released him temporarily to recover in “the baths of Atotonilco” (p. 142). Then the case took an unexpected turn. Fernández de Córdova wrote that he had a decree from the visitador general—probably José de Gálvez—reinstating him to his office. The audiencia ordered him to present the document for verification. A year later the court still had not seen the decree, and it once more sent armed guards to detain Fernández de Córdova. The bickering went back and forth until the defendant died at the end of 1773. The audiencia never passed a verdict on the alcalde mayor.
This is a brief story of a bitter lawsuit at the end of the eighteenth century. The account is part of a growing research trend in Spain on historical corruption, which includes authors such as Francisco Andújar Castillo and Pilar Ponce Leiva. In the United States, legal history is also coming back, mainly as ethnohistory, and so are fraud and corruption, as scholars such as Kris Lane show. In this sense, Manuel Torres Aguilar will find a ready audience. He draws on this knowledge of legal ideas to analyze the operations of the case. These interpretive passages are among the best in the book, such as the discussion of Juan Pablo Forner’s view on early modern prisons (pp. 26-27). Torres Aguilar considers the justice system deficient, too slow, and the judges poorly paid.
A few arguments of this kind are debatable today. Torres Aguilar maintains that under “these circumstances, from the first moments of the incorporation of the Indies under Spanish rule, ‘todo lo concerniente a la función jurisdicional siguió las pautas marcadas desde hacía siglos en la península’ (‘everything related to the judicial process followed the centuries-old guidelines from the peninsula’)” (p. 14-15). Yet it is not clear that everything in New Spain followed Spanish tradition, as Indians, jurists, and theologians translated the various legal and moral norms into the American context. The natives, for instance, had their own alcaldes and justice traditions, and they did not conform to Castilian concepts. Similarly, the author argues that in New Spain “the officials themselves responsible for judicial activity were in legal and technical terms less qualified than their counterparts in Castile” (p. 15). That may be the view from Spain, but such an assertion is at least worthy of discussion.
In addition, readers will need to acquaint themselves with some of the book’s conventions. For example, the book is translated into English, while the quotations in the text remain in Spanish, with the translation following in parentheses (see quote above). These transitions sometimes make for a hard read. In addition, the four-page bibliography consists of books mostly written by legal historians from Spain and the Southern Cone, which may well be customary in Spanish legal studies. At the same time, it is not the author's aim to follow all US practices of writing analytical narratives, and Torres Aguilar has met his goal of discussing the Xochimilco corruption case in a stimulating way.
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Christoph Rosenmüller. Review of Torres Aguilar, Manuel, Corruption in the Administration of Justice in Colonial Mexico. A Special Case.
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