Daily Archives: 10 March 2021

Seville as Port City in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 39-41:

IN SIXTEENTH-CENTURY SPAIN, ALL NEW WORLD explorations originated in Seville, that marvel of a city-port on the Guadalquivir River. As Spain’s only port licensed to do business with the American colonies, Seville became a protagonist in the history of discovery, the starting and end point of all transatlantic voyages. As one contemporary so aptly put it, “Seville is the common homeland, the endless globe, the mother of orphans, and the cloak of sinners, where everything is a necessity and no one has it.” In the 1520s many sevillanos could still recall the stir caused by Columbus’s triumphant entrance in the spring of 1493. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea had paraded around town followed by ten natives and a few resilient parrots that he had brought from the newly discovered lands. The people of Seville had more recent memories of that cantankerous Portuguese commander, Ferdinand Magellan, who had departed in 1519 with five good ships. Three years later a lone vessel with tattered sails and twenty-one famished survivors pulled up into harbor after having circumnavigated the entire globe.

But far from being a backdrop or a silent witness, Seville was a beehive of activity, its workforce specializing in the procurement, outfitting, and manning of fleets bound for the New World, activities that drew men and women from all over Europe and North Africa. The main action centered on a stretch of beach that joined the left bank of the river to the city. Measuring 800 yards long and 350 yards wide, this area, commonly referred to as El Arenal (the Sandy Beach), functioned much like a surgeon’s operating table. On any given day, one could see dozens of ships crowding each other, all floating perpendicularly to the waterline to make the most of the work space. Many of these vessels were surrounded by swarms of carpenters, caulkers, riggers, stevedores, boatmen, pilots, accountants, royal officials, aspiring passengers, and the many other characters that populated this vibrant maritime community. Since the average lifespan of sixteenth-century ships that plied the transatlantic routes was a mere four years, repair crews were ubiquitous. Caulkers skillfully laid ships on one side by shifting the ballast and taking advantage of low tides to expose parts of the hull. They had a few frantic hours to scrub the bottom and add tarred oakum between the planks before the tide turned again. Loading a vessel required less skill but far more stamina. There were no piers or wharves at El Arenal, so the entire cargo—fifty, seventy, 120, or more tons—had to be taken by smaller boats and lifted up with ropes onto the deck, or carried on the backs of stevedores who staggered from shore to the ships over narrow planks.

It took about ten minutes to walk from El Arenal to the city center, where the imperial and ecclesiastical powers resided and expedition leaders wrestled with the overwhelming logistics of raising armadas. Human rivers flowed between the rowdy port scene and the august downtown through two main streets. The principal thoroughfare, a cobblestone street flanked by high stucco walls and wrought-iron grilles, began in the heart of El Arenal and ended at the steps of the Cathedral of Seville. Shipmasters recruited crew members and volunteers from these steps, and in the cool shade of the surrounding archways. Fittingly, the street was named La Calle de la Mar (“The Street of the Sea”), as it was here that crews bid their last farewells and caught their last glimpses of the city before boarding the ships.

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