Spain's colonies in the New World were, legally, the personal patrimony of the king, and he held absolute control over all matters in Ecuador. Colonial administration at all levels was carried out in the name of the monarch. The king's chief agency in Madrid was the Council of the Indies, which devoted most of its energies to formulating legislation designed to regulate virtually every aspect of colonial life. The House of Trade, seated in Seville, was placed in charge of governing commerce between Spain and the colonies. In America, the king's major administrative agents were the viceroyalty, the audiencia [court], and the municipal council [cabildo].
Between 1544 and 1563, Ecuador was an integral part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, having no administrative status independent of Lima. It remained a part of the Viceroyalty of Peru until 1720, when it joined the newly created Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada; within the viceroyalty, however, Ecuador was awarded its own audiencia in 1563, allowing it to deal directly with Madrid on certain matters. The Quito Audiencia , which was both a court of justice and an advisory body to the viceroy, consisted of a president and several judges [oidores]. The territory under the jurisdiction of Quito considerably exceeded that of present-day Ecuador, extending southward to the port of Paita in the north of present-day Peru, northward to the port of Buenaventura and the city of Cali in the south of present-day Colombia, and well out into the Amazon River Basin in the east. Quito was also the site of the first [founded in 1547] and most important municipal council within the area comprising modern-day Ecuador. It consisted of several councilmen [regidores] whose extensive responsibilities included the maintenance of public order and the distribution of land in the vicinity of the local community.
The borders of the Audiencia [or kingdom as it was also known] of Quito were poorly defined, and a great deal of its territory remained either unexplored or untamed throughout much of the colonial era. Only in the Sierra, and there only after a series of battles that raged throughout the mid-sixteenth century, was the native population fully subjugated by the Spanish. The jungle lowlands in both the Oriente and the coastal region of Esmeraldas were, in contrast, refuges for an estimated one-quarter of the total native population that remained recalcitrant and unconquered throughout most or all of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Despite Orellana's harrowing journey of discovery, the Oriente remained terra incognita to the Spanish until its settlement by Jesuit missionaries beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, and it continued to be largely inaccessible throughout the remainder of the colonial period.
The coastal lowlands north of Manta were conquered, not by the Spanish, but by blacks from the Guinean coast who, as slaves, were shipwrecked en route from Panama to Peru in 1570. The blacks killed or enslaved the native males and married the females, and within a generation they constituted a population of zambos [mixed black and Indian] that resisted Spanish authority until the end of the century and afterwards managed to retain a great deal of political and cultural independence.
The relative autonomy of this coastal region nearest to Quito enhanced the effect of the Andes in isolating the Ecuadorian Sierra from the rest of the world during most of the nearly three centuries of colonial rule. Behind these barriers a social system was established that was essentially a replica of the Spanish feudal system at the time of the conquest, with the peninsulares [Spanish-born persons residing in the New World] being the ruling, landed elite and the Indians being the subject people who worked the land. Although a few towns, particularly Quito, Riobamba, and Cuenca, grew along with the administrative and Roman Catholic bureaucracies and the local textile industries, colonial Ecuador was essentially a rural society.
The most common form in which the Spanish occupied the land was the encomienda . Settlers were granted land, along with its inhabitants and resources, in return for taking charge of defending the territory, spiritually indoctrinating the native population, and extracting the crown's annual tribute [payable half in gold, half in local products] from the encomienda 's Indian population. By the early seventeenth century, there were some 500 encomiendas in Ecuador. Although many consisted of quite sizable haciendas, they were generally much smaller than the estates commonly found elsewhere in South America. A multitude of reforms and regulations did not prevent the encomienda from becoming a system of virtual slavery of the Indians, estimated at about one-half the total Ecuadorian population, who lived on them. In 1589 the president of the audiencia recognized that many Spaniards were accepting grants only to sell them and undertake urban occupations, and he stopped distributing new lands to Spaniards; however, the institution of the encomienda persisted until nearly the end of the colonial period.
Land that was less desirable was never distributed, but rather was left to traditional Indian communities or simply remained open public land. In the late sixteenth century, the estimated one- quarter of the total native population on such public lands was resettled into Indian towns called reducciones in order to facilitate the collection of the Indians' tribute, their conversion to Christianity, and the exploitation of their labor.
Outside the encomienda, Indian labor was most commonly exploited through the mita , modeled after the Inca institution of the same name. All able-bodied "free" Indians were required to devote one year of their labor to some public or private Spanish concern, be it constructing a church, road, or public building, or working in a textile mill. Although mitayos were paid for their labor, the amount was extremely meager, often less than debts accumulated through purchases from their employer, thus requiring the them to continue working, sometimes indefinitely, after their assigned period of service. In this way, the mita system disintegrated into debt peonage. Debts were commonly passed on to ensuing generations, in which cases the mita was, in effect, slavery. Black slaves, in comparison, were extremely expensive and were thus used almost exclusively in the lowland plantation culture along the hot, humid coast, where the Sierra Indians proved unable to adapt. Black slaves numbered some 60,000 by the end of the colonial period.
The best estimates of the size of Ecuador's native population at the time of the conquest range between 750,000 and 1 million. Diseases imported by the Spanish, particularly smallpox and measles, virtually wiped out the indigenous coastal population during the sixteenth century and also decimated the Sierra population, although not as thoroughly as in the Costa or many other areas of Latin America. Despite a succession of deadly earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the native population increased steadily during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries except in the 1690s, when an epidemic of smallpox and diphtheria was reported to have killed one-third of Ecuador's population.
Ecuador's Indians probably owe their relative prosperity during the colonial period to the audiencia 's lack of mineral resources. The hardships of working in the silver and mercury mines of Peru cost the lives of millions of Indian mitayos ; Ecuador, in contrast, had only small deposits of gold and silver in its southern provinces of Cuenca and Loja, and these deposits were depleted by the end of the sixteenth century. Its serrano economy was based, instead, on agriculture and textiles. Cotton, grown on the eastern slope of the Andes in Quijos Province, and wool, from imported merino sheep that thrived in the high Andean valleys, provided the raw materials for high-quality textiles that were manufactured in hundreds of sweatshops, called obrajes , and exported throughout Latin America. Indian mitayos , who commonly worked from dawn to dusk chained to their looms, provided the labor. As appalling as were the preindustrial working conditions in the obrajes , most historians agree that they were more bearable than those found in the Peruvian mines at the time.
The coastal economy revolved around shipping and trade. Guayaquil, despite being destroyed on several occasions by fire and incessantly plagued by either yellow fever or malaria, was a center of vigorous trade among the colonies, a trade that was technically illegal under the mercantilist philosophy of the contemporary Spanish rulers. The guiding principle of mercantilism in the New World was that the colonies existed to serve the commercial needs of Spain. Since trade among the colonies would not enrich Spain, it was banned. In addition to textiles and other light manufactures from the Sierra, hardwoods and cacao from coastal plantations were exported from the port of Guayaquil to points all over Spanish America, while a wide variety of items were imported, including foods and wines from Peru. Guayaquil also became the largest shipbuilding center on the west coast of South America before the end of the colonial period.
The Ecuadorian economy, like that in the mother country, suffered a severe depression throughout most of the eighteenth century. Textile production dropped an estimated 50 to 75 percent between 1700 and 1800. Ecuador's cities gradually fell into ruins, and by 1790 the elite was reduced to poverty, selling haciendas and jewelry in order to subsist. The Indian population, in contrast, probably experienced an overall improvement in its situation, as the closing of the obrajes commonly led Indians to work under less arduous conditions on either haciendas or traditional communal lands. Ecuador's economic woes were, no doubt, compounded by the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 by King Charles III. Missions in the Oriente were abandoned, and many of the best schools and the most efficient haciendas and obrajes lost the key personnel that made them outstanding institutions in colonial Ecuador.
The Bourbon kings were best known for their economic and administrative reforms, which, like the expulsion of the Jesuits, were designed to enhance the flagging power of the crown in Spanish America. As a result of those reforms, the Quito Audiencia was transferred in 1720 from the authority of the Peruvian viceroyalty to the newly created Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada, whose capital was in Bogota. In the process, the Quiteno authorities gained jurisdiction over their own political and military affairs, while the audiencia 's southern and eastern boundaries were delineated more specifically and retracted. A royal decree [cedula] in 1802 further shrank the area of the audiencia by transferring the provinces of Quijos and Mainas in the Oriente to Peru. Another decree by Charles IV in 1803 transferred the port of Guayaquil to Peru, but resistance by port citizens led to its being returned to the jurisdiction of Quito in 1819.
Between 1736 and 1745, a French scientific mission with some of the best minds in Europe resided in Quito and contributed to the development of ideas in Ecuador. While carrying out their scientific mission - measuring the earth's circumference at the equator - the members of the mission disseminated the message of the Enlightenment, which stressed nationalism, individualism, and a questioning of authority and tradition. Works of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Paine, introducing such revolutionary concepts as equality and freedom, managed to elude the censors of both the Inquisition and a languishing political authority, and penetrated Ecuador's historical cultural isolation. The most famous Ecuadorian intellectual of the age, Eugenio de Santa Cruz y Espejo, was a physician and a writer who advocated emancipation from Spain and a republican, democratic system of government. Honored today as the precursor of Ecuadorian independence, Espejo was imprisoned for his ideas and died in jail in 1795.
The coming of independence was also foreshadowed by the numerous civil disturbances that rocked the Ecuadorian Sierra from the 1760s until the end of the colonial era. In 1765 the Quiteno white and mestizo or cholo [a person of mixed white and Indian ancestry] population revolted against reforms in the colonial tax system. Potentially more serious was a subsequent series of Indian rebellions in Latacunga and Riobamba. Although clearly of a political nature, calling for the overthrow of the Spanish regime and the expulsion of all the whites from the land in addition to putting an end to the odious mita system, these uprisings never led to such large-scale insurrections as occurred in Peru at the same time. Ironically, the passing of the colonial era, according to most historians, occasioned a worsening of conditions for the indigenous population.