- Prudent Deferment:Cosmographer-Chronicler Juan López de Velasco and the Historiography of the Indies
Seventeen years after having been appointed Chief Cosmographer-Chronicler of the Indies in 1571, Juan López de Velasco (c. 1530–1598) had yet to fulfill his duty of writing a general history of the Indies. The neglect of this responsibility was referred to in a letter the Council of the Indies forwarded to King Philip II on September 1588, asking the king to appoint someone else to the office of cosmographer-chronicler. The letter was a response to a petition López de Velasco had made for a royal reward. It noted that the reward could not be justified because the council was not satisfied that López de Velasco was fulfilling the obligations of his post as cosmographer-chronicler. The letter further explained that given López de Velasco’s current responsibilities as secretary of the Council of Finance, it was unlikely that in the future he would be able to meet his duties at the Council of the Indies.1 López de Velasco was not only moonlighting at another government council but he was also successfully eschewing the historiographic duties of his original appointment.
To his credit, however, López de Velasco had diligently fulfilled the cosmographical obligations of his post by completing in 1574 the Geografía y descripción universal de las Indias, and about six years later the Sumario or Demarcación y divisón de las Indias (c. 1580). Why, then, had López de Velasco not met his historiographic responsibilities during the nearly 20 years following his original appointment? Those duties, in fact, remained unfulfilled for the remainder of López de Velasco’s tenure as cosmographer-chronicler of the Indies. Although López de Velasco’s tenure (1571–1591) saw a high point in the accumulation of historical and cosmographical knowledge about the Indies in the office of the chief cosmographer-chronicler, it did not result in the [End Page 27] production of an official history of the Indies. Rather, the structural peculiarities of López de Velasco’s bureaucratic post worked against the fulfillment of his historiographic duties.
To appreciate those peculiarities, I posit that López de Velasco’s reluctance to write an official history of the Indies is best understood by looking at three interrelated factors: the patronage networks at the royal court and their relation to monarchical bureaucracy; the Council of the Indies’ administrative reforms that led to the creation of the chief cosmographer-chronicler’s office; and the climate of secrecy and censorship regarding knowledge of the Indies during Philip II’s reign.2 This article aims at a consideration of the relationship between knowledge about Spain’s American territories and the constraints imposed by monarchical bureaucracy, from the perspective of the royal court in Madrid. This approach, however, complements research into this relationship that is more deeply rooted in a colonial Latin American setting and perspective: in fact, the exchange of information and knowledge between New and Old worlds in the colonial period circulated via the networks of a shared transatlantic administrative space.3
To contextualize the creation of the double office of “cosmógrafo cronista mayor de Indias,” the following paragraphs address the interrelated topics of patronage networks at the royal court and the workings of monarchical bureaucracy.4 They consider these topics in relation to Juan de Ovando’s visita, [End Page 28] or audit, of the Council of the Indies, which was conducted between June 1567 and August 1571.5 Ovando’s arrival as visitador or auditor of the Council of the Indies proved to be a monumental career boost for Juan López de Velasco, who since about 1563 had been toiling away at the council compiling the existing laws of the Indies, and involved generally with “papeles del servicio de su majestad.”6 López de Velasco became one of Ovando’s secretaries during the audit, and, in time, his right-hand man. By the time of López de Velasco’s appointment as chief cosmographer-chronicler of the Indies in October 1571, those with relatives in Spanish America who...