During this period, the Spanish Empire became the largest and richest in the world. Indeed, the ‘discovery’ of the New World enabled Spain’s Catholic conquerors to consolidate their victory over the Moors in spectacular fashion – and at the heart of the country’s rapid extension of dominion and increase in wealth was Seville.
Seville was ideally placed to take advantage of trade with the newly-discovered Americas, situated as it is on the great Quadalquivir. This 408 mile-long river is Andalusia’s central artery and runs down from the mountains in Jaen, through Seville and out to the Atlantic Ocean via the Bay of Cadiz. When the New World was discovered, Seville marked a point on the river beyond which ships were unable to navigate further inland, meaning it became the key point of contact with the new outposts of Spain’s empire. Its supremacy was officially established in 1503, when a royal decree awarded Seville’s Puerto de Indias a trade monopoly on all goods imported from the Americas.
1503 was a bonanza for a city that had now unofficially become the commercial centre of the Spanish empire. In the same year as securing the trading monopoly, the Casa de Contratación was established in Seville. This “House of Trade” levied a 20% tax – known as the “Quinto Real” – on all precious metals entering Spain from the Americas. The Casa quickly acquired huge control and wealth, with every expedition to the New World and every transaction associated with it needing its officials’ approval. In another royal decree of 1503, the Casa was also authorised to train sailors and to offer classes in navigation and navy military tactics – skills of crucial importance for expeditions to the Americas and beyond.
Forty years later, the Casa de Contratacion’s power was augmented by the creation of the Consulado de Mercaderes, or Merchants’ Guild, which was also based in Seville. Together, these two bodies effectively regulated every aspect of Spain’s relationship with the Americas. Seville was the only city in Spain where ships could depart for and arrive from the new outposts of empire (although piracy was the scourge of the open seas), so the city quickly filled with dignitaries and ambassadors from all over Europe. It also became an important intellectual hub following the opening of its university, by Papal decree, in 1505. According to a document on the demographics of 16th century Seville held by the city’s University, the population swelled to over 100,000, making it the largest in Spain at the time.
By the middle of the 17th century, though, Seville’s Golden Age was beginning to fade. The first major setback came in 1649, when a plague wiped out half the city; and in 1717 the Casa de Contratación was moved to Cadiz, meaning Seville no longer enjoyed a trade monopoly with the Americas. The disastrous events of 1898, when Spain lost Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the U.S. by signing the Treaty of Paris, truly marked the end of the country’s “Golden Age”, in which Seville had played such a pivotal role.
Today, great monuments from this fecund period of Seville’s history abound throughout the city. The Archives of the Indies, which is part of the UNESCO-protected cluster of buildings that also includes the cathedral and Alcazar, offers a fascinating insight into this eopch. A vast, palatial 16th century building sitting right next door to Seville’s mighty cathedral, it houses some 80 million documents relating to the Spanish Empire of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
There is also the cathedral itself, which was finally finished in 1507, just four years after Seville gained trading monopoly with the Americas. It is said that the motto of the original construction committee had been to create something “so beautiful and so magnificent that those who see it will think we are mad”. In 1507, at the beginning of Seville’s “Golden Age”, the cathedral’s splendour and extravagance would have left visitors in little doubt of this great city’s importance to the Spanish empire.