Early America in Español

This week, The Junto will explore, “Archives around the Atlantic.” As research projects frequently plunge early Americanists into far-flung archival settings, over the course of the next five days we will draw from the wide experience of our contributing editors to offer advice for approaching research abroad. It is our hope that this forum and the comments sections below might also tap into the collective expertise of The Junto readership with the common goal of making foreign archives accessible and productive.

Cathedral_and_Archivo_de_Indias_-_SevilleWhile the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla remains the primary destination for scholars working on projects relating the Spain’s colonial empire, the collections infrequently receive the attention they deserve from historians north of the Río Grande. This, despite Kristen Block and Jenny Shaw’s proclamation that, “colonial records in the Spanish archives reveal a wealth of reportage” about moments in early American history for which few extant documents remain elsewhere.[1] In fact, Block and Shaw’s 2011 article, “Subjects without an Empire: The Irish in the Early Modern Caribbean,” forces a reconsideration of the contours of Anglo-Irish relations in the early Caribbean by reading Spanish and English language documents side-by-side. Uncovering the lived experience of Don Juan Morfa—an Irish translator for the governor of Santo Domingo and linchpin in the defense of the island against Cromwell’s Western Design—depended on reading documents housed in the AGI.

Spanning the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries over the entirety of Spain’s imperial territory, the AGI houses at least 80 million folio pages relating to the religious, economic, and legal administration of the colonies. As Spain’s European rivals began to encroach on Iberia’s mare clausum in the sixteenth century, many of these documents touch on issues relating to English, French, and Dutch colonial development. As such, even for research projects not directly related to Spanish colonies, the documents held at the AGI provide a useful vantage point on colonialism and imperialism throughout the early modern Americas.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 11.18.12 PMThe primary search engine for the AGI, called PARES, serves as the portal for all of Spain’s archives. And, while PARES is keyword searchable, there are several glitches in the system.[2] For one, if you click on “Búsqueda Sencilla,” you can search for keywords and limit those results to documents that are digitized or not. Even though the Búsqueda Sencilla offers boxes to limit the date range of the results, that function is rarely reliable. Once you’ve selected a group of legajos based on your keyword search, do not hit the back button to return to your search results—always, always, always click on the yellow “Atrás” key in the upper right of the screen.[3]

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 11.18.44 PMPerhaps the most useful way to get familiar with the AGI’s extensive holdings, however, is to explore the “Inventario Dinámico.” Through this, researchers can explore the archive through each of the various subheadings. However, this also has a glitch worth explaining. After clicking on the “Inventario Dinámico” button on the homepage, you must first select the Archivo General de Indias on the dropdown screen. Once there, the screen will be divided into two sets of search results, the first called “Novedades” and the second called “Caudro de Clasificación.” Always select your archive subheading from the second grouping, the “Cuadro de Clasificación.” For scholars more interested in documents pertaining to English, French, or Dutch actions from the purview of Spanish colonial officials, perhaps the most interesting subheading in PARES is “Gobierno,” which contains all of the papers relating to each of the colonial audiencias in Spanish America.

Beyond the potential to access documents previously unknown to scholars working in the English, French, and Dutch Atlantics, the AGI is situated in one of Spain’s most beautiful cities. Moreover, the archival culture of the AGI is intensely social, with many scholars breaking for coffee en masse during the workday or meeting for wine and tapas on the weekend. The AGI is also within walking distance to the Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, where scholars can access an extensive library complete with highly competent librarians in the hours after the archives close each day. And, with the University of Sevilla and Pablo de Olavide University in the city, scholars are also welcome to partake in a constantly evolving series of seminars and workshops—many of direct relevance to early American research broadly defined.[4]

And, while many of our research projects remain defined by the borders of a particular empire—often reflecting nationalistic tendencies in the ways in which teaching specialties are defined—perhaps it is time to see what documents from a different vantage point might reveal. I can guarantee that it will surprise you.


[1] Kristen Block and Jenny Shaw, “Subjects without an Empire: The Irish in the Early Modern Caribbean,” Past and Present, no. 210 (2011): 38.

[2] Perhaps the most irritating “glitch” at the AGI—especially when compared to its English and French counterparts—remains the rules against cameras in the reading room. However, after spending a significant portion of my dissertation research there, I have come to appreciate the value in “working through the sources in situ” that comes from the necessity of transcription.

[3] While clicking your browser’s back button won’t open Pandora’s Box, it will ruin your search results and you will have to start all over again.

[4] There is a bulletin board in the lobby of the AGI advertising upcoming programs at each of the universities.

5 responses

  1. Thanks for this succinct post! I would like to mention an online guide of the journal Nuevo Mundo, https://nuevomundo.revues.org/. Since 2006 this journal has a section Guía del investigador americanista, https://nuevomundo.revues.org/30473?lang=en, with guides in several languages. For Seville there is a guide in Spanish from 2009 by Alejandro E. Gómez and Frédérique Langue, ‘Guía del investigador americanista: Sevilla’, https://nuevomundo.revues.org/55715. One of its qualities is pointing to libraries and other institutions in Sevilla outside the AGI. Comparing the relevant guides at Nuevo Mundo with the current series of international guides at The Junto is really worth your time.

    Kind regards,

    Otto Vervaart

  2. Pingback: Non-Americans Researching Early America in North America « The Junto

  3. Pingback: Junto Roundtable on Atlantic Archives – Professor Park's Blog

  4. Pingback: Research in London « The Junto


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