Captaincies (Spanish: capitanías) were military and administrative divisions in colonial Spanish America and the Spanish Philippines, established in areas under risk of foreign invasion or Indian attack. They could consist of just one province, or group several together. These captaincies general should be distinguished from the ones given to almost all of the conquistadores, which was based on an older tradition. During the Reconquista, the term "captain general" and similar ones had been used for the official in charge of all the troops in a given district. This office was transferred to America during the conquest and was usually granted along with the hereditary governorship to the adelantado in the patent issued by the Crown. This established a precedent that was recognized by the New Laws of 1542, but ultimately the crown eliminated all hereditary governorships in its overseas possessions.
With the establishment of appointed governors, who served only for a few years, captaincies were created in the areas where the crown deemed them necessary. The new captaincies general were governed by what was also called a captain general, and it is this title alone that is usually used by historians. However, in practice this was a person who held two distinct offices: one military, which granted him command of the regional forces (the "captaincy general" proper), and another civilian, which included the presidency of the audiencia, if there was one in the provincial capital, (the governorship). The specific powers of any governor-captain general varied by time and place and were specified in the decrees establishing the captaincy general. The institution of the captaincy general predated the viceroyalty, but was incorporated into the latter when the viceroyalties were established in the mid-16th century.
Some captaincies general, such as Guatemala, Chile and Venezuela were eventually split off from their viceroyalties for better-administration purposes. Although under the nominal jurisdiction of their viceroys, governors-captains general were virtually independent, because the law granted them special military functions and given the considerable distance of their districts from the viceregal capital, they were authorized to deal directly with the King and the Council of the Indies, in Madrid. The institution was later revived as part of the Bourbon Reforms. Captaincies general were first introduced into Spain beginning in 1713 during the War of the Spanish Succession. After the losses of the Seven Years' War, the Bourbon kings established new ones in many American regions, which had not had them before. Along with the new governors-captains general, the Bourbons introduced the Intendant, to handle civilian and military expenses.