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Spanish Legal Documents (15th – 19th Centuries): Briefs

The following is a guest post by Stephen Mayeaux, Legal Information Specialist in the Digital Resources Division at the Law Library of Congress, in collaboration with Dante Figueroa, Senior Legal Information Analyst at the Law Library of Congress.

Brief on behalf Bernardo Roch versus the Imperial City of Saragossa and its “Señores Veinte” [i.e. Twenty citizens], concerning the validity of privileges known as “of the Twenty” [i.e. special right granted to the city to create a Tribunal formed by twenty of its citizens].  [August 31, 1660] 

During this celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we bring you the latest—and by far the largest—update from our Spanish Legal Documents series. For more information about the history of this collection, as well as our ongoing efforts to present the full collection online, see our previous posts describing the Canon Law and Opinions & Judgments subsections.

If you have read our previous posts, you may recall that we divided the collection into six categories:

Our third published subsection is Briefs, which includes 1,463 unique documents, representing nearly 60% of the total Spanish Legal Documents collection. “Briefs” includes writings mostly related to disputes of inheritance and titles of nobility as well as the sale of property, the collection of taxes and debts, and defense in criminal cases.

Although the majority of cases described in these documents concern ordinary disputes between individuals, others deal with serious topics ranging from murder and other criminal charges (such as arson and armed intimidation) to the trafficking of slaves and the election of government officials.

For all its emphasis on local quarrels in 17th and 18th century Spain, the Briefs subsection is not lacking in connections to broader historical events. Take, for instance, this brief describing the Siege of Havana by the British during the Seven Years’ War.

Brief on behalf the Count of Superunda, General Lieutenant and Viceroy of the Kingdom of Perú, versus the Fiscal Prosecutor of the War Council, concerning the defense and surrendering of the city of Havana to the British forces in the year of 1762. [April 28, 1764]

Here, José Antonio Manso de Velasco, a high-ranking Spanish military officer (and former governor of Chile and viceroy of Peru), responds to a series of charges brought against him in a court-martial that followed the Spanish surrender in Cuba on August 11, 1762. In his brief, Manso de Velasco deflects responsibility for the surrender of Havana, attributing it to a number of factors, such as his lack of true decision-making authority and insufficient defenses and troop numbers in the face of overwhelming British forces. He also mentions other reasons related to his old age and poor health. Along with his history of loyalty and service to the Crown, he cites the previous honors and positions bestowed upon him as arguments for leniency, if not exculpation. Sadly, the king had neither in mind, and Manso de Velasco was sentenced to ten years of unemployment, ordered to pay damages, and all his assets were seized. By the end of 1765, he was exiled to Priego de Córdoba, where he lived out the remainder of his life.

The British, for their part, held Havana for only a few months before trading it back to Spain in exchange for Florida as part of the 1763 Treaty of Paris.

From there, we can see how the events described in this brief played a role in American history as Florida continued to change hands over several decades on its eventual path to becoming part of the United States.

We look forward to bringing you more illuminating stories from this collection with every new release. Stay tuned for updates as we share the remaining three subsections in the coming months!

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