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The expeditions that departed Seville’s harbor greatly expanded humanity’s horizons.

Centers of Progress, Pt. 36: Seville (Navigation)

By Chelsea Follett @Chellivia

Today marks the 36th installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

The 36th Center of Progress is Seville during Europe’s Age of Discovery, from the mid-15th to the mid-16th century, when the city was a major trade port at the forefront of progress in maritime navigation. In 1519, a five-ship expedition departed Seville on a quest to sail around the world. In 1522, only a single ship from that expedition returned, the galleon Victoria. And victorious she was, having sailed 42,000 miles to successfully circumnavigate the globe—a milestone in the history of navigation.

Today, Seville is the capital, as well as the most populous and richest city, in Andalusia, and its harbor remains busy as Spain’s only river port. The port handles exports such as wine, fruit (including oranges, which famously grow throughout and perfume the city of Seville), olives, and minerals. The port also handles imports, including oil and coal. Shipbuilding is a major part of the city’s economy, alongside the services industry and tourism. The city is known as the world capital of flamenco dancing, and throughout the city there are frequent performances of that dance form, which is likely a fusion of Asian and European dance forms brought about by a wave of immigration from northwest India to Andalusia between the 9th and 14th centuries. The city is also known among tourists for its bullfighting shows and its religiosity, with many believers thronging to the city during its Santa Semana (Easter Holy Week) festivities. The city is also the setting of several famous operas, including the Barber of Seville

Seville’s architectural wonders have been featured as backdrops in famous movies and television series, including Star Wars and Game of Thrones. While the city contains notable modernist buildings, such as the world’s largest timber-framed structure, the distinctive Las Setas (the Mushrooms), Seville remains best-known for its historic architecture. The city’s old town contains no less than three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One is the Mudéjar-style Alcázar royal palace, which was largely built by Castilians in the 14th century on the site of an earlier Abbadid dynasty–era (1023–1091) fortress, incorporating some of the original structures, to house King Peter the Cruel (1334–1369). To this day, Spain’s royal family continues to occupy the Alcázar when visiting Seville, making it Europe’s oldest royal palace still in use.

Another World Heritage Site is the Seville Cathedral, which took more than a century to build. Completed in 1507, it presented an extravagant sight during Seville’s golden age of trade, just as it does today. It remains the world’s largest Gothic-style church, as well as the fourth-largest church of any kind. It is said that the original construction committee was tasked to create something “so beautiful and so magnificent that those who see it will think we are mad.” The surrounding orange trees delight the church’s visitors with Seville’s trademark scent.

The city’s final World Heritage Site is the General Archive of the Indies. It was commissioned in 1572 by King Philip the Prudent (1527–1598), who oversaw the peak of the Spanish Empire, to serve as the Merchants’ Exchange House (Casa Lonja de Mercaderes) for Seville’s tradespeople to conduct business related to their New World voyages. Throughout its history, different portions of the enormous Renaissance building have variously served such diverse functions as a painting academy, a grain storehouse, and a shelter for orphans and widows. As its current name suggests, the General Archive of the Indies now serves as a repository of archival documents illustrating the history of the Spanish Empire and its transatlantic trade.

According to mythology, Seville’s founder was none other than the famous demigod hero of classical literature, Hercules. A garden square called the Alameda de Hércules (Hercules mall), built in 1574, greets visitors to this day with a towering statue of the hero. More precisely, the city’s mythical founder was the Phoenician god Melqart, who later became identified with Hercules. The oldest part of Seville was likely constructed around the 8th century BC, on an island in the Guadalquivir River (derived from the Arabic al-wādī l-kabīr, meaning “the great river”). Seville was multicultural from its inception, defined by a mingling of the Tartessians, an indigenous Iberian people, and Phoenicians, who were lured by the city’s potential as a trade port.

Seville’s geography perhaps destined it to become a major port. The city marks the point on the 408-mile-long Guadalquivir beyond which ships are unable to travel farther inland. As Spain’s only major navigable river, the Guadalquivir has been used to transport goods since at least the 8th century BC when the ancient Phoenicians moved precious metals that were mined in Spain by boat, carrying them out to sea and delivering the cargo to the world’s first major port at Byblos, in what is today Lebanon, as well as to the Assyrians. The river was not only the main artery of trade traffic in and out of Andalusia, but it provided access to the Atlantic, which became critical for exploration of the New World and, ultimately, the achievement of circumnavigating the globe.

Over the years, Seville was ruled by Carthaginians, Romans (whose city walls remain partially intact), Visigoths, Moors, and Castilians. The city was always a prominent trade gateway and was progressively diversified by a constant influx of goods and people from different cultures. But it was during Spain’s Golden Age, at the height of the Spanish Empire’s transatlantic trade in the 16th century, that Seville grew to be one of the largest cities in Western Europe.

If you could visit Seville during its glory days, you would enter an intoxicating metropolis with eclectic architecture epitomizing centuries of cultural intermingling. As a Spanish rhyme goes, “Quien no ha visto Sevilla, no ha visto maravilla.” (He who has not seen Seville, has not seen wonder.) Walking amongst the crowds along the city’s intricately tiled pathways and mosaicked plazas, you would have seen a thriving cosmopolitan commercial center that housed merchants from across the continent, and you would have heard not only Spanish, but English, Flemish, and Italian, among other languages. While Islam was outlawed in 1502, there remained a significant Moorish, formerly Muslim minority, known as moriscos, some of whom continued to practice Islam in secret. Enslaved Africans also would have been present. The streets would be abuzz with talk of the latest groundbreaking maritime expeditions, as Europe’s great powers competed for mastery of oceanic trade avenues and raced to be the first to discover promising sea routes and uncharted lands.

In 1503, Spain granted Seville exclusive trading rights with the New World, and the city prospered. But, as the British historian Richard Cavendish has noted, “The idea that such a web of human activity could be controlled by a bureaucracy proved hopelessly unrealistic and for all the cascade of silver, Spain remained a poor country.” The weight that Seville’s monopoly and other policies limiting economic freedom put on the Spanish economy contributed to the government’s financial troubles, including nine eventual bankruptcies of the Spanish monarchy (in 1557, 1575, 1596, 1607, 1627, 1647, 1652, 1662, and 1666). Government-backed privileges enjoyed by the elites in areas ranging from trade to land management, monetary inflation from an influx of New World silver, and high government war spending were some of the factors that stymied economic development. Seville’s golden age was short-lived, ending when the crown transferred control of New World trade to Cádiz in 1717.

Among 16th-century Seville’s crowds, you might have glimpsed the renowned novelist Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), who studied at the Jesuit college in Seville in the 1560s and returned to the city in 1588 for a few years. Seville featured in several of his works, for example, by providing the setting for his novel about the city’s organized crime scene, Rinconete y Cortadillo. In one poem, Cervantes characterized the city this way: “O great Seville! Like Rome triumphant in spirit and nobility.” In Cervantes’s magnum opus, Don Quixote, the eponymous central character of that groundbreaking novel (first published in 1605), receives an invitation to visit Seville because “it was just the place to find adventure, for in every street and on every street corner there were more adventures than in any other place.” 

And a sense of adventure surely must have filled the air on the fateful day when an expedition departed Seville’s harbor on a quest to circumnavigate the globe. The achievement came at a cost: the expedition set out with some 260 people, but only 18 of them returned to Seville after circumnavigating. True to Seville’s multicultural reputation, the survivors who completed the voyage represented a number of nationalities. There were three Galicians, three Castilians, two Greeks, a Venetian supernumerary, a Genoese chief steward, a Portuguese mariner, a German gunner, and six Basque people, including the expedition’s ultimate captain, Juan Sebastián Elcano (c. 1486–1526). The Venetian, Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491–c. 1531), kept precise journals chronicling the voyage, which many scholars consider the most reliable account of the expedition. Absent from the return was the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521), who had planned the Spanish expedition, but died en route in the Philippines. 

Europe’s Age of Discovery saw competition between many countries, but Portugal and Spain led the way. At first, Portugal dominated, discovering and claiming the Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira and Azores in 1419 and 1427, respectively, and finding a game-changing sea route to India in 1498, around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The Portuguese focus on navigation even resulted in the unusual royal nickname of Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460). In 1501, the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512), while on a Portuguese expedition looking for another maritime route to Asia, discovered what he called the New World—and from his name we get the term “America.” Advances in shipbuilding, including the development of a stabler, faster, and more maneuverable kind of ship called the galleon toward the beginning of the 16th century further accelerated progress in navigation.

While the governments sponsoring the expeditions may have been rivals, major voyages tended to be enterprises of multicultural cooperation, with crew members hailing from many countries—including Spaniards serving on Portuguese expeditions and vice versa, as the Spanish and Portuguese crowns competed to hire the best talent. Spain began to challenge Portugal’s supremacy of the seas in part thanks to its openness to expertise from abroad. It was Spain that financed the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus’s (1451–1506) famous 1492 voyage to the Americas, which he mistook for the East Indies. (The West Indies owe their name to that mistake, and Columbia, derived from Columbus’s name, remains a poetic term for America). The Florence-born Vespucci died a Spanish citizen in Seville, with the title of Spain’s chief navigator, in 1512. The Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475–1519) became the first European to cross the Americas to the Pacific Ocean in 1513, and in 1516 Juan Díaz de Solís (1470–1516), who may have been born in either Seville or Lisbon, became the first European to reach Uruguay, while on a Spanish expedition. 

Magellan dreamed of finding a direct trade route to the Spice Islands, in what is today Indonesia, that avoided having to go around Africa with its many rocky outcrops. The treacherous Cape of Good Hope route had become known as a ship graveyard. After repeated failed attempts to solicit funding for his voyage from Portugal’s monarch, Magellan went to Seville in 1517 to try his luck with the Spanish crown. Supportive of Magellan’s vision, but heavily in debt, Spain’s teenaged king (the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) was unable to fully fund the voyage. The private sector stepped in to make Magellan’s expedition possible. Cristóbal de Haro (d. 1541), a Burgos-born financier and merchant connected to the Fuggers, a prominent German banker family, provided the critical remaining funds that were needed for the voyage, as well as supplying goods for the crew to barter.

In 1519, Magellan departed Seville with a five-ship fleet consisting of the flagship Trinidad, the San Antonio, the carrack Concepción, the Santiago, and the Victoria. The Victoria was born as the Santa Maria in the shipyards of Ondarroa in Spain’s north, and was used for trade between Castile and England before the crown purchased the vessel in 1518. Magellan renamed her after his favorite chapel in Seville, the Santa María de la Victoria.

After a long journey across the Atlantic and travels along the South American coast in search of a route to the Pacific, the Santiago was wrecked in an Argentinian river in 1520 during a storm. Later that year, the expedition discovered a navigable sea route to cross the Americas to the Pacific through Chile, which was later given the name Strait of Magellan. Until the Panama Canal’s completion in 1914, the strait provided the only relatively safe maritime path between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. At the strait, the San Antonio deserted the expedition and returned to Spain. To justify their desertion, the crew described Magellan as a psychopath. His reputation in Seville suffered and his wife and child were sentenced to house arrest. It was only after Pigafetta disseminated his account of the voyage that Magellan’s reputation recovered. To this day, opinions of Magellan vary wildly.

After crossing the strait, Magellan named the body of water beyond it the Pacific Ocean because its waters were peaceful when he entered it. Unaware of the ocean’s vastness, the explorers expected to cross it in a few days, but it took months before they made landfall. By that point, the crew had eaten through their food supply and were reduced to devouring ship rats and sawdust. The majority developed scurvy, a condition caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, and many died of malnutrition.

But their troubles did not end when they finally reached Guam and the Philippines. An enslaved crew member and native speaker of Malay, Enrique of Malacca (1495–after 1522), conversed successfully with the locals, proving that they had indeed reached Asia. He may have been the first person to circumnavigate the world. The expedition soon became embroiled in conflict—the Battle of Mactan. Magellan led a contingent of his crew to fight for a local ruler, Humabon of Cebu, against the warriors of Lapulapu, who was the chieftain of Mactan, an island located about a mile east of Cebu. While Magellan’s crew was better armed, Lapulapu’s men outnumbered them, and they killed Magellan with a poisoned arrow. Today, Indonesians celebrate a holiday honoring Lapulapu for defeating the foreign force, and a prominent shrine in Mactan features a statue of Lapulapu and a mural painting of Magellan and Lapulapu in combat. According to Pigafetta, after the crew refused to free Enrique upon Magellan’s death, as specified in the latter’s will, Enrique successfully conspired with Humabon to arrange their extermination and his own freedom. Humabon invited part of the expedition, including the crew astrologer, San Martin of Seville, to a feast and had them massacred. The expedition’s survivors scuttled (deliberately sunk) the Concepción in 1521 because they no longer had enough men to crew three ships, and the Trinidad later broke down in the Spice Islands.

When the Victoria finally docked in Seville’s harbor three years after her departure, loaded with spices, she fired off salutes with the expedition’s remaining gunpowder. Pale and emaciated, the crew slowly disembarked, forever scarred by the memory of mutinies, disease, starvation, war, and storms at sea. Their leader Elcano called them “the skinniest men there ever were.” The cheering multitudes of Sevillians that greeted them handed out candles and applauded as the expedition members walked shakily and wordlessly to their ship’s namesake, the shrine of Santa María de la Victoria, to give thanks for their survival. Today, a slab in the cathedral honors them. Throughout their ordeal, the first circumnavigators of the earth contributed profoundly to humanity’s navigational understanding: they found the Strait of Magellan, learned of the immensity of the Pacific Ocean, and confirmed that the world was round. The spices they transported to Seville were valuable, but the greatest treasure they brought home was their hard-won navigational knowledge. 

Bursting with mercantile activity and adventure-seekers from across Europe, 16th-century Seville gave humanity the first expedition to circle the world, which was arguably “the greatest sea voyage in the Age of Discovery.” That age ushered in a new phase of sea-based globalization that expanded humanity’s horizons, allowing the mapping of the world. As distant civilizations came into contact, brutal conflict often occurred, including the transatlantic slave trade and colonial power struggles. But the global interconnectedness enabled by mankind’s newfound navigational expertise ultimately helped create modern society, with far-reaching exchange of scientific knowledge and the prosperity generated by worldwide trade. Financed by both kings and merchants, the expeditions that departed Seville’s harbor undoubtedly changed the world. It is for those reasons that Seville has found its way to being our 36th Center of Progress.

Chelsea Follett is the managing editor of HumanProgress.org and a policy analyst in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.

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