Spanish Court Records from Late Colonial Guatemala Catherine Komisaruk*
HOPING TO WRITE a doctoral dissertation on the history of colonial-era Central America, I went in 1996–97 to the Archivo General de Centroamérica in Guate- mala City (AGCA), the main repository of civil government records from Spanish Central America.1 The colonial-era jurisdiction of the Captaincy General of Guatemala (later the Kingdom of Guatemala) included today’s Chiapas, Gua- temala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The capital city, at its various locations across the colonial period, served as the seat of the Audiencia of Guatemala and was also a seat of provincial government.
I found that the bulk of records in the AGCA are from the capital and its immediate environs, and most are from the late colonial period. Therefore I de- cided to focus precisely on this area and time period. The seat of government was relocated after a ruinous series of earthquakes that struck in 1773; the administra- tive offices and the majority of homes and businesses, as well as the surrounding Indian communities, were re-established over the next decade at a new site some forty-five miles to the east. The pre-1773 locale, which retained some of its population (especially in the indigenous communities), is now known as Antigua Guatemala; the new capital, at first called Nueva Guatemala, is today simply called Guatemala City. The AGCA’s records include those from both locations, mixed together somewhat indiscriminately for the period after the establishment of the new city.
Based on my study of the historiography of early Latin America, I had antici- pated that notarial records would be a major source for my research. However, I was somewhat disappointed in reading the Guatemalan notarial records from the late colonial era. I found that by the late eighteenth century, the overwhelming majority of records kept by the city’s notaries were wills and transactions made by the wealthy Spaniards. Apparently, the normal business activities of non-elite people had become routine and were left unrecorded, while notarized business transactions had become essentially the preserve of the elite.
In contrast, I found the breadth of Guatemalan urban society in the late colonial and early national years to be better reflected in the court documents of that time. Litigation records, including both criminal trials and civil suits, contain petitions by people from a wide range of backgrounds who moved within His- panic society. The hundreds of court cases held in the AGCA include tran- scriptions of oral testimony by ordinary people who sued, pressed criminal charges, or defended themselves in the royal (and later state) judicial system. Court-appointed notaries recorded the testimonies of the largely illiterate populace, often in extensive detail. The colloquial wording in many of the records
*© Catherine Komisaruk 2007. 1I have been told that most of the colonial-era Costa Rican records have been
repatriated to Costa Rica; I suspect there are also at least some colonial-era records from other parts of Central America in the relevant national or regional archives. The research did in fact result in a dissertation, Komisaruk 2000.