Archivo GENERAL de Indias
The Archivo General de Indias is situated next to the Cathedral, on Avenida de la Constitucion. This 16th-century building houses 80 million pages of documents and maps about the Indies (9km of shelving), Spain’s mighty empire from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, providing the most complete and documented historical view (if not the most objective) of the Spanish administration of the New World. Open to the public, the Archive stages frequent exhibitions, and documents can be viewed for research purposes.
History of the Archivo
Originally built as the Casa Lonja de Mercadores in 1573, it housed the merchants’ exchange. Merchants used to meet at the Puerta del Perdon, the gate leading out of the Patio de Naranjas of the cathedral, to haggle and make deals, until the church complained to the city authorities. The traders asked for appropriate premises where they could carry out their business.
Their financial and commercial transactions were providing Seville with its huge wealth during this period, so a headquarters for the merchants was essential to the city’s continued fortune. The Lonja was the place where dates were recorded, prices were set, and cargo was logged, for all merchandise brought back from the Indies – the closest thing to a modern-day stock exchange, and a place of frenzied excitement when news of ships arrived. The cargoes – of gold and silver, spices and silks - were brought back from the New World by ships, which arrived at the port on the Guadalquivir river.
Then, in 1680, the river silted up, and the Royal Fleet moved to Cadiz; in 1717, the trading house also went to the coast. The building was used a private residence for some years, until it was modified to house the Archivo General de Indias, founded in 1785. This archive was founded to group together all documents referring to the Indies in one place.
What can I see there?
The square two-storey building, with galleries around a central patio, has several public spaces: one gallery on the ground floor, while a large part of the first floor is dedicated to exhibits for visitors.
The gallery on the ground floor houses a bronze cannon with a fascinating history. Made in Seville in 1616, it was used on a galleon which sunk in 1622 near Cuba. The ship was located in 1975, using documentation from the Archivo, its cargo of silver and gold coins recovered, and the weapon was returned to Spain in 1976.
The Lonja is famous for its magnificent red and white marble staircase which leads from the ground floor to the first floor. This was built with marble from Malaga, and is very impressive with its name plaque and royal crest carved in relief.
Upstairs, you can see maps dating from the 17th century of almost every Spanish colony, extending across the whole of Central and South America, and across to Asia: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Peru, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, the Phillippines. It’s easy to forget the extent, power and wealth of the Spanish Empire back then.
You can watch an introductory film about the Lonja, in Spanish with English subtitles, in a small room at the far left-hand end of the first gallery you enter (it’s not signed). This describes the Archive as “the memory of the New World”, and reminds us that for many years, Seville was the only port licensed to trade with the New World, and it was therefore “the most important trading centre of the old continent”.
Exhibitions are often held in the Archivo, in the galleries around the central patio. They show documents which are normally stored away, themed around countries, periods, voyages, or other aspects of Spain’s colonial history.
Don’t miss the newly-opened “Salon de los Cuatro Goyas”, a room at the far right-hand end of the main gallery on the first floor. As its name suggests, this houses four paintings by Goya, along with some 18th-century porcelain and 19th-century figures of indigenos (natives). These pieces have been donated by the family of the Duke of Montpensier (Borbons considered by some to be heirs to the Mexican throne). Look out for the duck with exquisitely coloured plumage, the soup dish in the form of a salmon, and the wax figures of dancing Indians, complete with fabric clothes, headdresses and painted faces.
Just outside this room is a scale model of the Archive showing the annexe, called La Cilla, in a building to the side of the main Lonja, on Calle San Tomares. The two premises are linked by an underground tunnel, and La Cilla is where the administrative headquarters, reading room, library and research areas are located.
What documents does the Archive hold?
There are 43,000 files in total, with 80 million pages of original documents dating back more than 300 years. They cover everything from the discovery, exploration and conquest of the New World, to political, social and economic history of the colonies; details of the pre-Colombian peoples in their natural state; commercial trade and maritime challenges; missionaries and the Inquisition.
Some of the Archivo’s most important documents are:
- Letters from Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) to his patrons, the Reyes Catolicos, Isabella and Ferdinand, including the Capitulacion de Santa Fe (formal title: Capitulaciones del Almirante don Cristobal Colon), a contract between the conquistador and the monarchs, dated 17 April 1492
- The Treaty of Tordesillas from 1494, when John II of Portugal and the Reyes Catolicos divided the world between their kingdoms
- Archives of the Colon and Montpensier families
- Papal Bulls
- Documents included in UNESCO's Memory of the World programme, to preserve documentary heritage
Who can use the research facilities?
Anyone can visit the research room in La Cilla, on presentation of their ID and filling in a form. There is also a search service for specific documents, and documents can be copied, for a fee.
What documents are available on the internet?
Many documentary resources are available online, with a large number of the documents now digitised using several databases.
PARES – Portal de Archivos Españoles – is a database offering access to all members of the public, with an important resource of 26 million images and five million documents, including many from the Archivo de Indias. PARES offers descriptions and images of countless documents held at the Archive, including maps, plans and drawings. There is a search facility so you can look for specific documents, by name and time period. This is a good starting point for any research projects.
Another useful database is the Censo-Guia De Archivos de España y Iberoamerica, which also offers access to private funds and collections, as well as the public archives. On this database, you can also search by person, family or institution.
Many of these pages are available in English.
Mon-Sat 9.30am-5pm, Sunday and holidays 10am-2pm
Edificio de La Lonja, Avenida de la Constitución 3, 41071 Sevilla. Tel 954 500 528
Edificio de La Cilla, Calle Santo Tomas, 41071 Seville.