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In 1781, King Carlos III decided to found the AGI at the urging of his Secretary of the Indies, José de Gálvez. The goal was to gather at one site all the documents concerning Spanish administration in the Americas and Philippines. The original documents were to be used as source material for writing a new history of the Spanish presence in the Americas. The new history would respond to some of the histories being published abroad that Spanish officials and intellectuals feared were auguring a new episode of the anti-Spanish “black legend.”6 The move would also free up space at the Simancas Archivo, the central archive of the Crown since the sixteenth century, which was then so overwhelmed it could not offer proper service.

Documentary Holdings

The first shipments of papers from Simancas arrived in October 1785, forming the initial core of the AGI. They would later be supplemented by new transfers, especially from Madrid and Cádiz. Today, the AGI holds about eight kilometers of shelving containing more than 43,000 bundles of original papers.

These documentary holdings are drawn from the metropolitan agencies responsible for colonial administration, primarily the Consejo de Indias (Council of the Indies), Casa de la Contratación (House of Trade), State Secretariats responsible for Indies affairs, and the Consulados (Boards of Trade) of Seville and Cádiz, as well as other agencies.

Organization of Holdings

The AGI was provided with an excellent series of Ordenanzas (ordinances) promulgated by King Carlos IV in 1790.7 Among other functions, these Ordenanzas established what eventually came to be known as the “principle of provenance.” This principle obligated the Archives to keep together all the documents generated by each agency,8 without mixing them with the documents of other agencies.9 Article V of the Ordenanzas reads: “The first division of papers should be into collections corresponding to the remitting offices. Thus, those from Simancas, Vía Reservada, and each of the offices of the Consejo should remain together and be maintained separately from the others.”10 Although this obligation was observed for the most part, trends in the history of the AGI eventually led to the current organization of documents into 15 sections that usually, but not always, hold all the documents of a unique generating agency. More detail on this organization is given on p. 12.

Finding Aids

During the first few years of its history, the AGI made a great effort to organize and describe its holdings in order to create a “general inventory.”11 Although this general inventory was never completed, the AGI today has many guides, inventories, catalogs, and indices that make it possible to control the holdings and facilitate access to the information. Some of the old inventories, painstakingly drawn up at the end of the eighteenth century, have continued to be useful in their manuscript format.

The AGI Building

The AGI is located in the old building of the Casa Lonja de Mercaderes (Commodity Exchange) of Seville, constructed between 1583 and 1646 as a meeting place for dealers who traded between the metropolis and its colonies. The building was renovated to serve as the headquarters of the AGI at the time it was founded. Besides being a Spanish historical monument,12 the site has been declared part of the World Heritage by UNESCO.

Consultation of Holdings

The AGI is visited daily by an average of 50 researchers. More than 900 different researchers visit each year. Half come from outside Spain; almost 40 percent of all researchers come from the Americas. The AGI fills requests for 300,000 to 400,000 copies on paper and microfilm each year and responds to almost a thousand written requests annually.

Restoration Laboratory

The AGI has a restoration laboratory to handle its conservation problems. All papers are more than a century old, and some are 500 years old, with a concentration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The documents have been affected by different storage conditions. Many have also undergone the vicissitudes of a long Atlantic crossing, although great effort was made to ensure optimal packing for shipment. In some cases, the papers and ink themselves have caused degradation. For example, the Philippines Audiencia often used fragile rice paper for documents. In recent years, documents have been excessively handled in the Reading Room.

Microfilm Service

The AGI also contains a small microfilm laboratory which, because of staffing limitations, generally only fulfills researchers’ requests for copies. However, a policy of backup microfilming and microfilm editions has gradually been adopted over the years, so that about two million frames in unperforated 35 mm rolls are currently available.13


5 The General Bibliography lists useful titles about the AGI’s history and holdings.

6 According to Juan Bautista Muñoz, founder of the Archivo: “In order to fulfill these worthy purposes, to silence once and for all our many fiery defamers and rivals and to show their ignorance to be inexcusable, it was necessary to go to the root of the matter, to the sources, and study irrefutable documents, as if nothing [else] had been written and published.” Juan Bautista Muñoz to the Secretary of State of the Indies, José de Galvez, 28 November 1783. Archivo Histórico Nacional, Diversos 29, Doc. 16

7 Ordenanzas para el Archivo General de Indias [Ordinances for the AGI] Article V (Madrid, 1990). See bibliography on the 1790 Archivo Ordinances in the General Bibliography.

8 This principle identifies the “fonds,” an archival concept widely used in Europe. The
ISAD(G) standard defines the term as the “whole of the documents, regardless of form or medium, organically created and/or accumulated and used by a particular person, family, or corporate body in the course of that creator’s activities and functions.”

9 The “principle of provenance” is understood today to include not only the separation of documents generated by each agency but also the conservation of their original order. French archivist Natalis de Wailly first enunciated the principle in 1841 as “respect de fonds.” The Germans then developed the Strukturprinzip, which later became part of the “principle of provenance.” The Ordenanzas clearly expressed this principle in 1790, even though the terms had not yet been developed.

10 Ordenanzas, Article V.

11 Ordenanzas, Article XXVII.

12 The site was declared a national monument by Royal Decree on April 20, 1983, and a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1987.

13 The list of AGI documents available on microfilm through the Document Reproduction Service of the Ministry of Education and Culture is contained in the Boletín de Información del CIDA {Centro de Información Documental de Archivos), n. 1 (1993).

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