A Story of Power, Influence & Madness

María Bárbara Zepeda Cortés tells the story with a wide smile and a touch of disbelief. In 1911, an American graduate student traveled to Spain to learn more about José de Gálvez, an 18th-century administrator for the Spanish Empire. His journey took him to the small town where Gálvez was buried and, shockingly, right into the long-deceased reformer’s marble grave. In one account, the student describes holding the man’s skull in his hands.

Though she digs through centuries-old documents rather than graves, Zepeda Cortés is, in a way, following in that graduate student’s footsteps in her quest to learn more about Gálvez. The grave-digging student’s research was the basis of what has been, until now, the most recent U.S. book on Gálvez’s life—a mere twelve pages published in 1916. Fueled by her belief that Gálvez’s story must be viewed “with modern eyes,” Zepeda Cortés is writing the first-ever biography of this “fascinating” historical figure.

“Biographies, as my colleagues know, are typically a genre that is dominated by senior scholars, usually male, usually white,” she says. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we change that?’ I challenge that dominance as a young scholar from Mexico wanting to talk about a white, staunch imperialist.”

Initially attracted to the more folkloric aspects of Gálvez’s life—including a six-month period of madness one might expect from a fictional character rather than one of the most powerful figures in the Spanish Empire—Zepeda Cortés, assistant professor of history, has examined countless original documents to learn more about his rise to power, as well as how he maintained power despite the harsh disapproval of his critics and that brief descent into madness.

Following a Paper Trail

As a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, more than a decade ago, Zepeda Cortés began studying Gálvez by looking at the more technical aspects of his professional life, focusing on his tendency to appoint friends and family members to significant posts in the colonial administration, and on the accusations of nepotism that arose as a result. She wrote her dissertation on the social networks of patronage around Gálvez. She later discovered unknown aspects of his economic life that raised more questions and prompted her to delve more deeply.

“Towards the end of his life, he was immensely rich,” she explains. “He would write to the king and elaborate on his merits. … He was the best-paid minister of King Charles III, even though, arguably, he wasn’t the prime minister.”

Illustration of hand touching map

Little is known of Gálvez’s early life, a problem that Zepeda Cortés seeks to remedy. A grant from Lehigh’s Humanities Center allowed her in 2016 to visit Paris, where she examined the letters of the French ambassador in Madrid to gain a clearer sense of the early days of Gálvez’s career. Funding from the Lawrence Henry Gipson Institute for Eighteenth-Century Studies at Lehigh as well as two Paul J. Franz Junior Faculty Fellowships allowed her to travel to archives in Spain and Italy, following Gálvez’s extensive paper trail.

“Lehigh has been totally supportive,” she says. “I am very grateful. I’ve been able to conduct dream research.”

Thanks to a prestigious fellowship at The Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., Zepeda Cortés recently spent 10 months studying “The Gálvez Papers,” the largest collection of historical documents related to José de Gálvez in the United States. Mainly official correspondence between Gálvez and the viceroys of Mexico, the Spanish-language documents address expeditions to and the settlement of California, as well as efforts to expand New Spain, defeat the Sonoran and Sinaloan Indians, and remove Jesuit missionaries from Lower California.

The Barbara Thom Postdoctoral Fellowship allowed Zepeda Cortés to spend an “energizing” period of time with distinguished and award-winning historians while advancing her research.
“I felt like if I’m part of this group, I should do something more impactful,” she says.

An Unexpected Trajectory

José de Gálvez was born into a relatively poor family in southern Spain. Somehow, “through circle relationships of patronage with important people in Málaga and that region of Spain, he managed to go to college and study law,” says Zepeda Cortés. He became a lawyer and obtained his first job at the French Embassy in Madrid. When Gálvez was 45 years old he began his role at the colonial administration of Spain when King Charles III (1759-1788) appointed him visitor general for the viceroyalty of New Spain.

This role granted Gálvez immense power—in some cases, more power than that of the viceroy. Gálvez was tasked with enforcing Spanish rule and ending corruption in Spain’s colonies in the New World, which included present-day Mexico. He embraced this role with passion.

“He had to give reports of what he saw there and also produce new ideas of how to improve or make the administration more efficient,” says Zepeda Cortés. “He performed very, very efficiently and very energetically.”

During his career as an administrator, Gálvez pushed forward a series of reforms in New Spain, part of what historians call today the Bourbon Reforms. Spain hoped to expand its empire and increase its own wealth through its colonies as Britain and France had. Named for the House of Bourbon, which ruled over Spain and the Spanish colonies at the time, the Bourbon Reforms were intended to increase the efficiency of the colonial administration and to promote economic, commercial and fiscal development. Gálvez formed new regional administrations with appointees from Spain and helped develop the regions that would later become the federal states of Mexico.

“Gálvez is everywhere in books about the Bourbon Reforms because he was the one who decreed and signed everything,” says Zepeda Cortés. “He was the central architect of these modernization efforts in which Spain was competing with other empires.”

Illustration of monkey with pirate hat

Gálvez’s influence extended into what would become part of the United States. During his tenure, he ordered the establishment of missions, presidios (fortresses) and pueblos (towns) in California. These are the origins of today’s cities of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.

“His life became inextricable from California’s history,” says Zepeda Cortés.

From 1768 through 1769, Gálvez led an expedition to the southern tip of Baja, Calif.—a mission of particular interest to the reformer.

Concerned with the living conditions of the region’s indigenous people following the forced departure of the Jesuits from the missions they’d established, Gálvez decided to dispatch measures to “relieve” them. He organized the missions, requiring a church, a plaza and broad streets—all to strict specifications—for each. Gálvez also had ideas about how poor families should organize, says Zepeda Cortés. For example, each family would have six chickens, two turkeys and one female pig. He required each house to plant one fruit tree and one shade tree. Gálvez worried about their “shameful nudity,” claiming that “they don’t know modesty.” He required separate sleeping quarters for parents and children, as well as a raised bed for each person to free them from the “pestilent diseases that destroy them.” 

Unfortunately, although it appears he wanted to improve conditions for the indigenous, it was the expansion of Spanish colonization in California led by Gálvez that brought new diseases that would exterminate entire indigenous communities.

Beyond the missions, Gálvez sought to expand Spanish rule farther north. Fearing that Britain and Russia sought to take over California (which had already been claimed by Spain), Gálvez convinced King Charles III to provide support for additional expeditions to the unsettled regions of what was then known as Alta, or upper, California. This resulted in Spain’s expansion into that region, which included what is now San Francisco and Monterey Bay. 

Descent into Madness

When Gálvez traveled to the northern state of Sonora in Mexico, where the viceroyalty was waging an unsuccessful war against the region’s indigenous people, things took a turn for the worse.

“The crown is losing. The heat is unbearable. And, according to [Gálvez], he had fevers,” says Zepeda Cortés. “He was probably disappointed that he hadn’t achieved everything he wanted and had a mental breakdown of some sort. …  All of his magnificent decrees were not working in reality. The reality was that the indigenous were winning the war, and he couldn’t do anything about it.”

Gálvez didn’t write to the viceroy for six months, says Zepeda Cortés.

“The only accounts are from disgruntled secretaries, who told the viceroy, ‘I think the visitor is crazy.’ … They started to make an account of what happened, and what they portrayed was that Gálvez went out of his mind.” 

Accounts detail Gálvez claiming to speak with St. Francis of Assisi about the incompetence of the Spanish troops, asking him to send monkeys from Guatemala to help defeat the Sonoran Indians. He declared that he was going to build canals to connect the Sonoran Desert with Mexico City. He removed his clothing in public. He also claimed to be king.

These images of madness shared by Gálvez’s enemies could be perceived as malicious attempts at defaming him. However, says Zepeda Cortés, many of the episodes described are related to reform, which makes them believable: They would make sense in the mind of a reformist.

“Gálvez's other employment, in addition to that of visitor general, was that of intendant of the army, in charge of troop provisioning,” she explains. “Thus the monkeys of Guatemala in uniforms to defeat the indigenous rebels make sense, as efficiency and uniforms were part of his psyche.  There was a canal craze in Europe in the 18th century. Britain was building canals left and right, and they were considered highly modern routes of transportation.”

Somehow, Gálvez recovered, both mentally and politically. After seven years in the colonies and his return to Spain in 1772, he was appointed in 1776 Minister of the Indies—a position of even more power and influence. The reforms he implemented in New Spain were now implemented in the rest of the Americas and the Philippines. As Minister of the Indies, Gálvez established the Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, upon which Zepeda Cortés would rely heavily for her research.

Harsh Criticism

Gálvez had many critics—those who opposed his reforms and modernization efforts, and those who simply didn’t like his methods and style. The critics who wrote about his period of madness were among several who left many invaluable documents for Zepeda Cortés to examine.

Writings about Gálvez claim that his approach, particularly with the Bourbon Reforms, was piecemeal and without ideology. Zepeda Cortés disagrees. In her book, she paints a picture of a mastermind “operating behind the curtains.”

“[He] has an agenda, and throughout his life as a colonial administrator he pushes that agenda,” says Zepeda Cortés. “So, for example, [he had] the idea of creating regions, new jurisdictions that are regional, provincial. There was a viceroyalty and municipalities. His idea was, ‘Why don’t we create an intermediate level?’ Those territories eventually became states in the federal republics. That was very controversial because the viceroys were used to having power [and] the local administrators were used to doing whatever they wanted as long as the viceroy didn’t check on them. He wanted something else that could make both sides accountable.”

Zepeda Cortés’ book describes Gálvez as a strategic and patient political mastermind. His tendency to appoint family members to key positions, she says, also makes sense—nepotism was the only way he could ensure the success of his reforms.

“Ironically, he appointed his nephew as viceroy, while at the same time he was taking a lot of power from the institution of the viceroy,” she explains. “So I say that that’s an example in which we can see a line. Perhaps in this case it’s not an ideology, but it’s not just a piecemeal reform that one day they came up with. You can see a whole evolution and a lot of work into that reform—a lot of strategy in order to pass it.”

Gálvez died in office in 1787. By then, says Zepeda Cortés, he had changed the lives of many people across the globe, for better or worse. Now her job is to uncover and share his story. And although she might not be digging up graves, she says, she still feels a bit like Indiana Jones.

“It feels like an adventure.”

Illustration by Laurindo Feliciano

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