Atlantic History Spanish American Port Cities
Jorge Díaz Ceballos
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0345


Following medieval political traditions, the conquest of America led by the Spanish crown was a highly urbanized enterprise. Cities defined the spaces of colonial America in terms of organization of the territory, control of the population, and the negotiation of political sovereignty on the ground. Early city foundation in the Antilles after 1492 was followed by the major occupation of continental America, when more than two hundred cities were founded over the 16th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries, cities in Spanish America became the hub of social integration, moving from ‘Spanish cities’ to what has been labeled ‘creole metropolises.’ During the age of revolution and independence, the late 18th and early 19th centuries, cities played a major role as the seats of national sovereignty. Typically struggles for independence would start with the rising of creole elites in the capital cities of each viceroyalty. Historiography on Spanish American cities has evolved in the last decades from an institutionally driven or urban growth approach to urban experiences, to an exploration of the multiple facets of urban life: commercial, economic, political, social, and cultural. In the renewal of urban history, the study of port cities has gained significance especially—although not exclusively—in connection to their commercial role, contributing thus to the development of new trends on Atlantic, global, and connected histories. Ports were also spaces for scientific development with shipyards and arsenals as main centers of technological innovation. Studies on port cities, however, have not been systematic and are notably disproportionate among regions and periods within the Spanish Atlantic. There are a considerably greater number of studies related to the first half of the 16th century and late 18th century and to the Caribbean and River Plate regions. Acknowledging this imbalance, this article will prioritize a geographical approach by focusing on particular cities within four main regions in the Atlantic—the Greater Antilles, Northern Mainland Caribbean, Southern Mainland Caribbean and the Southern Atlantic and River Plate Region—as a way to address the complexity of port experiences within those regions during different chronologies. A section on Pacific Connections ports is included to underline the connected nature of Spanish American port cities and their global outreach. Although local examples of port cities will be the core of this article, it opens with an updated review on the main urban history literature, with a section on primary sources following, and a general overview of regional or thematic works on ports, to move then to the geographical sections.

Overview on Urban History of Latin America

At the beginning of the 20th century, the study of Latin American urban history was mostly neglected, particularly because the region was mainly considered rural. Early publications (Morse 1962) acknowledged this lack of interest and started to measure the importance of cities in the institutional, cultural, and economic development of the region. This early contribution marked a research agenda already split into two trends. One trend focused on urban planning while the other focused on the institutional development of cities. Both trends were reunited in the massive work of Solano 1983 that opened the way for a general renewal of the field of urban history, including multiple local case studies of port cities. Hoberman and Socolow 1986 offers a panoramic overview of social groups and dynamics of Spanish American cities over the early modern period. Concurrently with Solano and Hoberman and Socolow’s works produced in Latin America (Romero 2001) point to the deep cultural roots connecting cities and the historical development of the region. In the last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st, there has been a major renewal of the field and cities have been the object of considerable historiographical attention. Kagan and Marías 2000 is a mixture of cultural and political history examining the role of cities in the construction of local and supralocal identities. More recently, Pérez Vejo 2018 has followed the importance of cities and their image as urban republics inside the imperial system of the Spanish monarchy. Musset 2002 analyzes the classic phenomenon of nomad cities in the longue durée from an anthropological perspective. The role of cities and their connection with the development of Atlantic capitalism is the objective of Kinsbruner 2005; along the same lines, Lucena Giraldo 2006 addresses how urban theories and cities’ institutional development are intermingled in the foundational moment and continue over the colonial period. Other works analyze the influence of African descendants in the shaping of the Hispanic American colonial city (Bernand 2001). Despite these advances, there is still room for a further exploration of urban culture in the Spanish Atlantic, especially studies with an Atlantic and global view.

  • Bernand, Carmen. Negros esclavos y libres en las ciudades hispanoamericanas. Madrid: Fundación Tavera, 2001.

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    A pioneering work on the lives of slaves and free blacks outside of the paradigm of mining and the plantation systems. Sociohistorical account of the lives of black populations within urban spaces in Spanish America, from their daily lives to the different ways in which they sought freedom and the creation of new identities.

  • Hoberman, Louisa S., and Susan Migden Socolow, eds. Cities and Society in Colonial Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.

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    Collection of essays on the different social groups present in Latin American colonial cities. Without a geographical structure, each chapter is instead devoted to a social group across Latin American society, ranging from large landowners to suppliers, sellers, servants, slaves, and underclasses. A valuable introduction to both Latin American urban history and to the social history of the Spanish Empire.

  • Kagan, Richard, and Fernando Marías. Urban Images of the Hispanic World, 1493–1793. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

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    Midway between art history and cultural and political history. The book is constructed to follow different representations of cities in both Iberia and the New World and to measure their impact on the cultures in both regions. The introductory chapter by Richard Kagan is a very valuable introduction to Hispanic urban political culture with roots in Aristotelian Politics.

  • Kinsbruner, Jay. The Colonial Spanish-America City: Urban Life in the Age of Atlantic Capitalism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

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    Extremely useful account of the importance of urbanization and cities in the history of Spanish America from the institutional, political, and economic perspective. Although not focused explicitly on port cities, it offers inputs into the relevance of ports for the origins of commercial capitalism. Thought of as a broad introduction to the topic for undergraduates, it offers a comprehensive account on the topic with few annotations.

  • Lucena Giraldo, Manuel. A los cuatro vientos: Las ciudades de la América Hispánica. Madrid: Marcial Pons, 2006.

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    A comprehensive account of Spanish American colonial history through the foundation and institutional development of cities from the early 16th century to their independence. Offers very interesting references to the mixture of political cultures present in the foundational moments while developing the argument that the city, following Iberian urban traditions, was the main feature of Spanish imperialism.

  • Morse, Richard M. “Some Characteristics of Latin American Urban History.” The American Historical Review 67.2 (1962): 317–338.

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    A pioneering study of urban history that opened the way for many other works in the field. Large in scope, this article suggests a series of characteristics that made Latin American cities important for the settlement of the land and the forms of economic production.

  • Musset, Alain. Villes nómades du Nouveau Monde. Paris: Editions EHESS, 2002.

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    A very original book that deals with the classic topic of mobile cities in Spanish America. Following a methodology that mixes anthropology and history, it presents different case studies in the longue durée to understand this phenomenon while offering insight into the consequences for the communities that lived in the cities.

  • Pérez Vejo, Tomás. Repúblicas urbanas en una monarquía imperial: Imágenes de ciudades y orden político en la América virreinal. Bogotá, Colombia: Crítica, 2018.

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    This book focuses on how elites in the late colonial period related to the city and their own place in the colonial structure. It follows a series of images of cities and connects them to texts to offer an original account of the understanding of the Spanish Empire as a network of urban republics, independent but connected to each other and to the monarchy.

  • Romero, José Luís. Latinoamérica: Las ciudades y las ideas. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Siglo XXI, 2001.

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    A classic of Latin American urban history, this book connects intellectual history and urban studies to offer an understanding of the creation of Latin America as a coherent region through the foundation and long-lasting influence of cities in the continent. Originally published in 1976.

  • Solano, Francisco, ed. Estudios sobre la ciudad iberoamericana. Madrid: CSIC, 1983.

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    A massive collective volume of almost one thousand pages that offers studies ranging from economic to social, institutional, anthropological, and architectonical history of cities. Still the most comprehensive set of studies for an introduction to Ibero-American urban history. Although not focused on port cities, it has some case studies that specifically deal with Lima or Santiago de Chile. Originally published in 1975.

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