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Les ingénieurs militaires espagnols de 1710 à 1803

Martine Galland-Seguela



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1The corps of military engineers created by the Bourbon dynasty came to be a species of model embodying the reforming zeal of the new monarchs. The military engineers constituted one of the only technical corps available to the powers that be with which to impose a centralised monarchy, dominate their territory and control its development. It was thus a vital and innovative force in 18th-century Spain. The strength of this group lay in the forging of a link binding the person, his skills and his function. Members of the corps were at once soldiers and scientists –in a word, a new kind of military. The identities of the individuals who made up this group, their origins, their skills, their labours and their capacities to develop the corps, to make themselves a place in society, to belong or to form an elite –it is essential to know all these things if we are to understand not only the military milieu but also the workings of the Spanish state and 18th-century society.

2The time-frame (1710-1803) is determined by the institutional history of the corps and not political history, thus allowing for a measure of unity in the population concerned. The year 1710 belongs to a period when the Flemish engineer Georges-Prosper Verboom was drawing up proposals for a set of general regulations for all engineers, thus laying the groundwork for a corps structure. For its part, the year 1803 marks a new phase in the history of the corps when its duties were finally restricted to the military sphere. In spatial terms the study encompasses Spain and its overseas possessions; this allows us to gauge the scale of the engineers’ activities and of the networks of relationships that they forged. This very much broadens the territorial scope, and the objectives as regards the study of the American possessions and the Philippines are restricted accordingly.

3By examining the personal, professional and family details of 787 engineers, it has been possible to track the way in which the group developed and its particular nature. This book adopts a threefold approach:

  1. an institutional study of the corps through relevant statutes, their place in a broader military and political context, the reactions of engineers to their status, and their influence on the corps;

  2. definition of an engineer in terms of his geographical and social origins, of his training, and of his professional context as a versatile, scientifically-trained element of the army; thus, all facets of these engineers are scrutinised;

  3. and finally, the private and social environment of engineers is traced within a more general context through their relationships, to place them more precisely in the society of their time.

4The institutional study of the corps of military engineers places emphasis on a number of points: namely the innovative or precursory aspect of the corps, its evolution and how this was influenced by the men that it produced. Its creation was a product on the one hand of the Bourbon resolve to modernise the Spanish army by insisting on the need for military training, for strict instruction of troops and for rational management of task demarcations, and on the other of the access of Georges-Prosper Verboom, an engineer versed in the Flemish and French models to the corridors of power. When Verboom founded the corps in 1710, he did so with three overarching ideas in view: the need for an autonomous corps free from the tutelage of the artillery and with an acknowledged position in the army; such acknowledgement entailed an obligation to endow the engineers with a dual hierarchy of military rank / engineering duties identifying them as one of the intellectual services; and finally, as part of the process of Spanish modernisation, recruitment should be based on criteria of scientific training acquired at military academies, on skills and on membership of the Spanish nation.

5Between 1710 and 1744, Verboom as director was able to refine the structures and functioning of the corps by means of successive ordinances and regulations. He set up military academies run by engineers. Later, eminent engineers like Pedro de Lucuce, Francisco Sabatini or even Juan Martín Cermeño, also influenced the development of the corps through their work, their debates or their decisions. One of the characteristics of this corps, then, was that its trajectory was determined by the engineers themselves.

6Throughout the century the corps of military engineers was an exception in the army of its time thanks to the versatility that assured it a place in the mastering of the country, in the spread of a monarchical structure, in military defence and in the development inspired by enlightened despotism. It is one of the key elements of Spanish recovery in the 18th century. By the end of the century, the division into three branches (military engineering, civil engineering and academies) was progressively bringing an end to versatility and favouring the rise of elites of technical specialists. This development mirrored a European-wide move towards the creation of technical corps.

7Within their professional milieu engineers were defined by their geographical and social origins. The picture that emerges is one in which Spanish engineers were increasingly recruited in geographical areas where there was a strong military presence or a military academy. Nonetheless, the corps was by no means closed to foreign influences, as evidenced by regular recruitment of foreign engineers (French, Italian, etc.) in the course of the century. This indicates that contacts were maintained with the technical elites of Spain’s closest European neighbours. We can identify two social trends in recruitment: there was a strong presence of the military and an important influx from the petty and middle nobility who did not feel demeaned by the choice of engineering. For someone with a father in the infantry, entry in the engineering corps meant to rise above the crowd thanks to the skills thus acquired. For those following their forebears in engineering, it showed interest in the service while assuring the benefit of parental relations and readier access to learning thanks to the father’s training. Such hereditisation of the service could have undermined a system of selection based on merits. However, an entrance examination certainly limited the effects of such old-boy networks.

8There was a considerable diversity of training centres (some twenty all told) influenced by the constant influx of foreigners, the persistence of parental influence and the appearance of military academies and other institutions. However, one type was predominant: namely military academies, particularly those devoted to engineering; the presence of universities was minor, while there was some emergence of colleges formerly run by the Jesuits. The engineer’s training equipped him with knowledge in the fields of science, architecture and military strategy. There was a tendency for the latter to become uniform with the dissemination of manuals written by the directors of academies. Engineers came to be the instructors of an entire elite of officerdom. Nevertheless, the teaching tended to become gradually less innovative, a definite disadvantage in a world where knowledge is perpetually evolving.

9Military academy became a mandatory step for entry to the corps. An engineer took some forty years to scale the ranks. Promotion was based upon experience, competence and seniority. An engineer rarely soared through the ranks; his career tended to advance as the man matured. Engineers rarely left the corps in mid-career, and only seldom found the end of their professional service rewarded with a senior position in the administration or the corridors of power. The corps was always an instrument of power, esteemed by the latter but the prisoner of its manifold duties. It therefore seems that most engineers did not belong to the elites that governed the country or to the preserve of senior officialdom.

10Another feature of this corps setting it apart from the rest of the army is its mobility, whether within a province or in the overseas possessions. However, the corps was not only highly mobile but also highly versatile, as evidenced by the variety of tasks undertaken in the interests of the State: fortifications, surveys of frontiers and building of roads, bridges and military, royal and governmental buildings. The engineers, then, helped to invent, survey and master space. Moreover, they spread Neo-classicism wherever Spain ruled. Their writings contributed to the translation and dissemination of foreign works, to the spread of technical and scientific learning and to knowledge of the land. Their contribution to science in Spain embraces works of translation and the practical application of the knowledge acquired to works of military and civil engineering.

11The last part of the book seeks to set engineers in the society of their time by typifying the kinds of marriages they made, identifying their networks of relationships and generally describing their living environments and interests.

12The engineer was a soldier desirous of a place in society. For him, in order to start a family he needed to possess the financial means to take on his duties and to secure a certain position in society. The proportion of married men was thus higher than in other army corps. Their manifold duties and their versatility brought them into contact with numerous people in a variety of regions. There was consequently a high incidence of geographic exogamy influenced by postings, and a certain degree of social exogamy as well. Engineers’ wives came predominantly from two spheres: local elites or military circles.

13As regards personal relationships and families, there is a degree of family continuity; in 20 % of cases sons joined the engineers or daughters married engineers. These men thus established special ties both with the socio-professional circles with which they were in contact and also with members of learned societies.

14As to the living environments and the fortunes of engineers, there is unfortunately scant information to go on. The financial situation of engineers was no better than that of other officers. Pay was always late and debt was part and parcel of life. Some who possessed personal or family wealth enjoyed a higher standard of living. We can therefore draw two general portraits of an engineer: one who rents his home, possesses little in the way of furniture or clothing, a few books; and one with landed income, commensurate furnishings and clothing, and a well-stocked library. All shared a number of points in common: possession of uniforms, mathematical instruments, portraits of the sovereign, and books. Engineers appear to have been assiduous readers of scientific literature, but they were also open to a variety of disciplines, reading in French, English, Latin or Italian, and keen to keep up with the progress of their times. An examination of their libraries places engineers among the cultivated elites of their time. They tended to be conveyors rather than conceivers of knowledge. They belonged not to the ruling elites but to the middle classes. They built up a network of relationships based primordially on their professional milieu but also encompassing local elites and scientific circles. The engineer could be defined as a cultivated man, open to all things modern albeit respectful of the religious rituals of his time.

15In short, the profile of the engineer depicts a new type of elite based not on birth, wealth and possessions but on training, knowledge and ability. Military engineers by the end of the century were men with a solid scientific and technical grounding. They were successful at once in discharging their duties to the service and in helping to disseminate imported technical knowledge in Spain. They were devoted servants of the crown and helped it to establish a centralised monarchy. They put the country’s defences in order and contributed to a more comprehensive knowledge of the land through map-making. They also participated in the development of the country’s economic and communications infrastructures. When military engineering became a speciality in 1803, they were barracked at the orders of the State and placed at the service of the army. But nonetheless, the tasks they were required to perform were still manifold. One fundamental aspect of this corps of military engineers is that they were the founders of a new elite, the forerunners of the technical elites who would dominate the 19th century.

© Casa de Velázquez, 2008

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