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The Kings Census: 1577

March 2023
1min read

Philip II’s cédula real evoked from his overseas domains vivid picture-maps of life in Spanish America

Throughout recorded history the marks of the empire builder have been a passion tor order and a determination to allow not even the farthest corners of his realm to go unsupervised; the story of Christianity itself begins in the midst of a census decreed for tax purposes by a Roman emperor. To this rule Philip II of Spain was no exception. The 400-year-old maps reproduced here and on the next two pages were drawn in compliance with Philip’s cédula real , or royal decree, of 1577 ordering an enumeration of his subjects in New Spain, which then included modern Mexico and parts of Louisiana, Florida, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Philip had drawn up a list of fifty very detailed questions to be answered by his local officials. In addition to population figures, he requested from each pueblo information on housing; an appraisal of the comparative health of the natives before and after the coming of the Spaniards (it seems to have declined); facts on how conquered and conquerors earned their living in trading, farming, or business; information on whether grapes or olives could be grown; and a progress report on the conversion of the Indians. In these respects the questionnaire of 1577 resembled earlier ones sent to New Spain, but in one important regard it was different. Question 10 requested: “Show by a map the situation of the pueblo whether it be of high or low elevation, or level. Sketch in the streets and plazas and important places such as monasteries. Show north on the map.” The resulting documents—now in the Archives of the Indies in Seville—give us a glimpse of America as it looked just when things were getting started. They are reproduced here in color for the first time.

Of the 135 pueblos that responded to the royal order, relatively few appear to have submitted maps, and those that were received varied a good deal. Some, like the one opposite, were elaborate and painstaking; others were crude and devoid even of place names. They were drawn on coarse agave paper made from the maguey plant. For ink the artists used cochineal, a dye made from the dried bodies of wood lice that infest cactus plants; the colors-crimson, orange, scarlet-were determined by the species of cactus on which the insects fed.

Some of the maps portray graphically one of imperial Spain’s major aims: the attempt to wed native and Spanish cultures. For example, each pueblo shown on the Cuzcatlan map (page 63) combines the name of a Christian saint with that of an Aztec hero, and at the bottom, the picota of San Geronimo faces the pueblo church. Further, the sworn census witnesses often include both Spanish recorders and Aztec interpreters. In such ways these maps are vivid pictures of life in sixteenth-century Spanish America.

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