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Seville and its monopoly on trans-Atlantic trade

This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of The Portuguese and Spanish Empires.

In the early years of the 16th century, the kingdom of Spain had a monopoly on trans-Atlantic trade with its colonies.

 Seville stands on the River Guadalquivir, 90 kilometers inland from the coast, and was the only port authorized for trading with America. The Casa de la Contratacion, which controlled all aspects of maritime trade between Spain and its empire, had its offices in this city.

 In the New World, very few ports were allowed to be involved in trans-Atlantic trade:

- In the Antilles, Santo Domingo and Havana served as arrival and departure ports for Spain’s trans-Atlantic ships.

- In the viceroyalty of Peru, the monopoly was attributed to Cartagena and Nombre de Dios, though Nombre de Dios was replaced by Portobelo in later years. It was from these ports that Peruvian silver was sent to Spain: after a long sea journey from Lima to Panama, it was taken by mule across the Isthmus to the Caribbean coast where it was once more loaded back onto ships.

- In New Spain, Veracruz was the center for trade between Mexico and Seville. It also received Chinese merchandise from Manila. After crossing the Pacific Ocean, Chinese goods were disembarked at Acapulco, transported overland to the Gulf of Mexico and then loaded on ships bound for Spain.

 Trans-Atlantic traffic increased massively during the 16th century and, as a result, Spain became immensely rich.

- On their arrival in Seville, the ships delivered agricultural produce, leather and plant dyes. But it was silver and, to a lesser extent, gold from the mines in Peru and Mexico that were the most valuable part of these cargos. 

- When they left for the New World, the ships’ holds were filled with manufactured products from all over Europe.

 After 1610, Spain’s trade with its colonies began to diminish and Seville was gradually eclipsed by another city, Cadiz, which was in a better position on the coast.

However, such a heavily regulated monopoly encouraged fraud and smuggling.  Gradually French, British and Dutch merchants began to trade directly with Spanish territories in the New World, either from Europe, or from their bases in the Antilles.