Atlantic History Seville
Guy Lazure
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0373


With the opening of the New World and the monopoly on trade granted to the city starting in 1503, early modern Seville went from a relatively important regional commercial center to a major continental and even international metropolis whose population nearly doubled every fifty years. This newfound prosperity had a transformative impact not only on the local economy but on internal social dynamics as well, given the number of migrants the city attracted, the diversity of their origins, and the social mobility this sudden influx of capital facilitated. In a place where stories of rags to riches (and riches to rags) abounded and living conditions varied significantly, scholars have naturally paid considerable attention to the social and economic disparities between and within groups or classes of residents. Religion was also at the heart of early modern Sevillian life with the presence of significant communities of converted Jews and Muslims, as well as the discovery of one the largest Protestant “flare-ups” in Spain, that set off the combined repressive efforts of the Spanish state and the Inquisition. But 16th- and 17th-century Seville was not only the “gateway to the Indies” or the “great Babylon” that poets, playwrights, and travelers have described for centuries. It was also one of the greatest and most vibrant centers of art, learning, letters, and print culture on the Iberian Peninsula, home to some of Golden Age Spain’s most illustrious writers, humanists, and painters.

Economy and Politics

Considering the transatlantic trade’s crucial importance for the development of Golden Age Seville, economic history has always attracted the lion’s share of historiographical attention. García-Baquero González 1992 examines the inner workings of the Spanish monopoly system, its overarching administrative structure as well as its underlying resources, while Álvarez Nogal 2000 offers a rare foray into the consequences of the 17th-century economic crisis on the city’s finances and its relations with the monarchy. From an institutional standpoint, Vila Vilar 2016 and Fernández López 2018 provide an inside look at the two pillars of Sevillian commerce, the corporation of merchants (Consulado) and the famous House of Trade (Casa de Contratación). The different local merchant communities have long been under scholarly scrutiny, from Pike 1966, a pioneering socioeconomic study of the Genoese, to Gil 2009, a prosopography of the Portuguese, Vila Vilar 1991, a classic case study of two of the city’s wealthiest families, and Pérez 2016, an investigation of investments (in both business and land) as tools for social promotion. Along the same lines, Cartaya Baños 2018 studies the creation of entailed estates (mayorazgos) among affluent Sevillian merchants as a way to protect and bequeath their fortunes that would ultimately lead to noble titles. As far as politics is concerned, Navarro Saínz 2007 offers an in-depth analysis of the workings of local municipal government under the Catholic Monarchs, whose structure would remain intact throughout Seville’s period of expansion and profound transformation in the sixteenth century.

  • Álvarez Nogal, Carlos. Sevilla y la monarquía hispánica en el siglo XVII: Dinero, crédito y privilegios en tiempos de Felipe IV. Seville: Ayuntamiento de Sevilla, 2000.

    Short but informative study on Seville’s fiscal contribution to the Spanish monarchy and the impact the 17th -century economic crisis had on the relationship between the Crown and its wealthiest city. Examines how the state came to demand greater contributions and concessions from its municipal partners in order to ensure continued revenues for its imperial policies, and how the local economic elites adjusted to preserve their privileges.

  • Cartaya Baños, Juan. Mayorazgos: Riqueza, nobleza y posteridad en la Sevilla del siglo XVI. Seville: Universidad de Sevilla, 2018.

    Socioeconomic analysis of the rise of the entailed estate (mayorazgo), the preferred legal institution used by affluent merchant families in Seville, often of immigrant or converso origin, to preserve and pass on their recently acquired fortune to their descendants. Its widespread use throughout the sixteenth century not only reflects the city’s dramatic social mobility, but also clearly indicates the rapid ennoblement of Sevillian society.

  • Fernández López, Francisco. La Casa de la Contratación: Una oficina de expedición documental para el gobierno de las Indias (1503–1717). Seville: Universidad de Sevilla—Colegio de Michoacán, 2018.

    An institutional history of Seville’s emblematic House of Trade. Instead of looking at its commercial activities with the New World, the author offers an in-depth description of every position or office that made up its administrative structure, along with a detailed examination of its internal workings and daily operations. Emphasis is placed on the type of documents the Casa de Contratación generated, and the nature of the information it produced.

  • García-Baquero González, Antonio. La carrera de Indias: Suma de la contratación y océano de negocios. Seville: Sociedad Estatal para la Exposición Universal—Algaida, 1992.

    Comprehensive overview describing the political, legal, fiscal, and administrative structure of the monopoly system governing the transatlantic trade route, as organized and managed by various institutions established in Seville. The book also surveys the abundant material, technological, and human resources that allowed the “carrera de Indias” to fuel and sustain the imperial aspiration of the Spanish monarchy for over three centuries. A French translation is available (Paris: Desjonquères, 1997).

  • Gil, Juan. El exilio portugués en Sevilla: De los Braganza a Magallanes. Seville: Fundación Cajasol, 2009.

    Prosopographical study of Seville’s important Portuguese community, made up of exiled aristocrats, merchants, navigators (most notably Magellan), and cosmographers, which played a decisive role in the city’s economic, cultural, and scientific life, as well as its transatlantic expansion. Based on extensive research in the local notarial and ecclesiastical archives, the work includes editions of key documents and genealogies of the most prominent Portuguese families established in Seville.

  • Navarro Saínz, José María. El concejo de Sevilla en el reinado de Isabel I (1474–1504). Seville: Diputación de Sevilla, 2007.

    Meticulous description of Seville’s municipal council between the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, detailing the powers, duties, responsibilities, as well as socioeconomic origins of the various officials, from the asistente (mayor) to the veinticuatro and the jurado (councilors), along with the different city magistrates, sheriffs, attorneys, notaries, accountants, and inspectors. Each position comes illustrated with specific examples drawn from a rich archival database of its holders.

  • Pérez, Béatrice. Les marchands de Séville: Une société inquiète (XVe–XVIe siècles). Paris: Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2016.

    Detailed investigation of the mechanics of social promotion among Seville’s mercantile elite at the turn of the sixteenth century. Examines the theoretical training and accounting background of local merchants, the scope of their activities and various forms of capital investment (notably land and real estate), as well as their perception and reputation in scholastic and humanistic literature. Concludes with the case study of one prominent family’s transatlantic business ventures.

  • Pike, Ruth. Enterprise and Adventure: The Genoese in Seville and the Opening of the New World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.

    The first book-length study on Golden Age Seville in English, focusing on the prominent Genoese colony and its crucial role in the development of the transatlantic economy through trade, banking, and investment in discovery and exploration. The author looks at the community’s assimilation and rise into the ranks of the local nobility, both as a reflection and a result of the city’s social transformation between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

  • Vila Vilar, Enriqueta. Los Corzo y los Mañara: Tipos y arquetipos del mercader con Indias. Seville: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, 1991.

    Multigenerational socioeconomic study of two of the wealthiest, most influential, and most iconic merchant families of 16th- and 17th-century Seville. The book details their trading activities on both sides of the Atlantic, their massive investments in land, offices, and titles, as well as their marriage strategies and spectacular social ascent. A revised and expanded twentieth-anniversary edition of this seminal work was published in 2011 (Seville: Universidad de Sevilla).

  • Vila Vilar, Enriqueta. El Consulado de Sevilla de mercaderes a Indias: Un órgano de poder. Seville: Ayuntamiento de Sevilla—Instituto de la Cultura y las Artes de Sevilla, 2016.

    Collection of essays on Seville’s other great commercial institution, the private corporation of merchants, which controlled the transatlantic trade and settled the legal disputes that derived from it in competition/collaboration with the state-run House of Trade. Through case studies of prominent local families, who often served as the Crown’s bankers, the author examines the economic power, social prestige, and religious devotion of the merchant lobby in the city.

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