Spanish Colonial Bureaucracy

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The system of government in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial period was established and controlled through a bureaucracy that was for most of the time led and administered by the Mexico-based viceroyalty of New Spain, who governed the territories on behalf of the king of Spain. The viceroy then appointed a governor-general who would autonomously govern the country, asserting the crown’s authority and sovereignty by collecting taxes, meting out justice, maintaining public order, and establishing policies for governance of the population. The Catholic Church, through its role in the Christianization of the country, exerted significant influence in the affairs of the government.

Early Years

In the early years of the Spanish colonial period in the Philippines, the maintenance and administration of a distant colony proved challenging as barangays were composed of scattered groups of extended families and friends governed by datus. Through the policy of reduccion, local groups were grouped into larger villages. To alleviate the deficit problem of the colony, the encomienda system was implemented. It was an economic system where the King of Spain granted land and tax collection privileges to loyal Spanish subjects called encomenderos until its abolition in 1721. This provided cheap labor to the encomenderos as all adult males between the ages 18 to 60 had to pay tribute through labor. In return, the encomendero should provide protection and baptism to the locals.

Spanish colonizers used the existing political structure of the local elite, the datus and rajahs, to reduce the likelihood of resistance and reduce the need for too much administrative control. Also, the latter were authorized to collect taxes from the people under the encomienda. To add, the Spanish made treaties and agreements with the datus, rajahs, and other local elites to assert Spanish dominion over the land in exchange for the maintenance of their elite status as well as exemption from taxation and labor.

The local elites became the principales, the government officials of the “lowest echelons of a Spanish-controlled colonial bureaucracy.” While the local elites were transformed into local magistrates, the colonial government in the Philippines was formed, and the colony was divided and subdivided.

Most of the positions in the national government were only open to Spaniards: King of Spain, Consejo de Indias (Council of the Indies), Viceroyalty of New Spain, Captain General, Audiencia, and Residencia.

The Spanish were also in control of the provincial government: alcaldes mayores or alcadias mayores, and corregidors. The alcaldes, who governed the provincias (provinces), depended on the influence of the friars on the local population. The corregidors on the other hand governed corregimientos (provincial districts).

Selection of Local Leaders

The Spanish opened electoral participation to the locals in the level of local government. Each provincia was subdivided into pueblos under the administration of gobernadorcillos. They descended from the precolonial datus and rajahs. Pueblos were subdivided into barangays, an independent polity united by blood and lineage and composed of 40 to 50 families. They were headed by cabezas de barangay.

The Ordinances of Good Government of 1642 were the first formal attempts of the Spanish government to regulate the selection of local leaders. Ordinance No. 27—which covered the four jurisdictions of Tondo, Laguna de Bay, Bulacan, and Pampanga—provided instructions for the electoral process in the mentioned areas which experienced difficulties during the annual gobernadorcillo elections. Pursuant to the ordinance, the elections were to be held on the assigned day where 12 cabezas de barangay, the retiring gobernadorcillo, the alcalde mayor, and the barangay priest convened. The group elected three qualified male residents whose name were written on a sealed paper sent to the governor and captain-general of the islands. It will be sent to the in Manila. He was to choose among the three names who would hold the position of the gobernadorcillo. The gobernadorcillo held an elite status that diluted the political power given by the Spanish to the hereditary datus. The old principalia was displaced by a new provincial elite composed of wealthy Chinese mestizo landowners and merchants.

In 1786, the position of cabeza de barangay was made elective. The gobernadorcillo and a council of other cabezas chose a name and presented to the governor-general for appointment. The cabeza would serve for three years before being qualified to the office of the gobernadorcillo.


Despite a number of reforms to the Spanish political system, it was still corrupt and graft and patronage politics abounded. On 19 May 1893, the Maura Law was promulgated. It was authored by Antonio Maura y Montaner, the Minister of Colonies. The law was intended to bolster the efficiency of local government by reorganizing it. Some positions were changed and new electorates were introduced.

The provincia was put under the jurisdiction of provincial governor assisted by the junta provincial (provincial council). Provinces were divided into municipios (formerly called pueblos), administered by the tribunal municipal (municipal council), headed by a capitan municipal (municipal captain).

The capitan municipal was equivalent to the gobernadorcillo. His council—composed of the municipal captain, chief lieutenant, lieutenant of police, lieutenant of fields, and lieutenant of livestock—was in charge of the municipality administration and affairs. During elections, all its five members were to be elected by a plurality of vote through secret balloting.

The electorate was expanded to include the residents of the municipios. The provincial governor, parish priest and outgoing municipal captain designated twelve residents of the municipality to serve as the electorate. Six were from the former cabezas de barangay or former municipal captains, three from former municipal captains, and three from the principal taxpayers.

The following residents were banned from being appointed to the electorate:

  • prosecuted and imprisoned in the past
  • disciplined for bad conduct
  • went under corporal punishment/disqualification
  • subject to civil interdiction or vigilance of authorities
  • debtors to public treasury
  • had contracts with the government
  • had suits against the government

Results and protests (if any) of the election were forwarded to the provincial governor to determine validity in the presence of the provincial council. These were then submitted to the governor-general.

However, even after the implementation of the Maura Law, the problem of graft and corruption was never resolved. This became the root of abuse heaped upon the Filipinos. This eventually resulted in the Philippine Revolution.

Spanish Colonial Bureaucracy

Level of Government Head Description/Duties
Spanish Empire Monarch of Spain Civil and spiritual authority
Council of Indies
  • with 6 to 10 appointed royal councilors
  • had legislative power to govern all Spanish colonies in the King’s name
  • served as the colonies’ court of appeals
Central Government in Manila Captain General
  • initially served as governor (executive), president of the Audiencia (legislative and judicial), captain general (military), and vice patron (ecclesiastical powers).
  • the office became governor general by 1821 or 1875
  • appointed by the king with the advice of the council
  • balanced by the Audiencia
Archbishop of Manila
  • as military Vicar General of the Islands, had full authority over the army and navy
  • advised the captain general in matters concerning the governance and provisioning of the church
  • ecclesiastical governor of the suffragan dioceses, headed by bishops
  • appointed dignitaries or staff of a diocese
Real Audiencia de Manila
  • functioned as the Supreme Court and advised the captain general
  • initially composed of four oidores (judges), an attorney-general (fiscal), and a constable, with attached advocates for the accused, a defender of the naturales (natives), and other minor officials
  • took charge of the government upon the death of the governor (mayor)
Local Government
Provincia/Alcaldía Mayor Bishops of Suffragan Dioceses
Alcalde Mayor (for Provinces)
  • exercised executive and judiciary powers in the provnce
  • collected tribute
  • had the privilege to engage in indulto de comercio (trade) until the mid-19th century
Corregidor (for Districts)
  • in a large provincia, the alcalde mayor had a corregidor to administer over corregimientos (provincial district)
  • exercised executive and judiciary power
Junta Provincial (1893–1898)
  • assisted the alcalde mayor
  • composed of public prosecutor, finance administrator, treasurer, vicars forane, provincial doctor, and four principles of the capital
Pueblo/Municipio Gobernadorcillo
  • administered over a pueblo
  • The position was initially restricted to local married men of the elite but by 1768, it became elective.
Capitan Municipal (1893–1898)
  • equivalent to gobernadorcillo before implementation of Maura Law
  • head of tribunal municipal
  • elected by residents of the municipio
Tribunal Municipal (1893–1898)
  • composed of the municipal captain, chief lieutenant, lieutenant of police, lieutenant of fields, and lieutenant of livestock
  • members elected by residents of the municipio
Barangay Cabeza de Barangay
  • administered 40 to 50 families
  • collected tribute of the barangay
  • position was initially hereditary among the local elites but made elective in 1786
  • after three years of service, he was qualified for election to the office of the gobernadorcillo




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