Maria del Carmen Mena Garcia. Sevilla y las flotas de Indias: La gran armada de Castilla del Oro (1513-1514). Sevilla: Universidad de Sevilla & Fundacion El Monte, 1998. 458 pp. 5,000 pesetas (cloth), ISBN 978-84-472-0459-5.
Reviewed by Ralph Lee Woodward (Department of History, Texas Christian University )
Published on H-LatAm (November, 2000)
Ships and Men in the Conquest of the Indies
Ships and Men in the Conquest of the Indies
This lavishly illustrated volume by a distinguished historian at the University of Seville provides a large window on the nautical aspects of one of the most important early Spanish fleets to the New World. Professor Mena says she began this project with the intention of merely publishing a major documentary source, with an analytical introductory study, in order to provide greater detail and clarity on an early period of the opening of the New World. The historical document was the account books of the armada of Pedro Arias de Avila (Pedrarias Davila), the "Cuentas del gasto de la Armada que fue a Castilla del Oro a cargo de su gobernador Pedrarias Davila, dado por el tesorero de la Casa de la Contratacion Don Sancho de Matienza." a manuscript in the Archivo General de Indias (Libros de Armadas de 1513 a 1515, Contratacion, leg. 3253). In this legajo of more than 200 folios, officials of the Casa de la Contratacion noted in detail the expenditures relating to Pedrarias' expedition to Panama in those years. Once having transcribed the document, Professor Mena realized that the results far exceeded her expectations in the diverse and detailed historical data found there, and that it offered the opportunity for a much more significant analysis of the expedition. That required, however, additional research in early sixteenth-century sources at the A.G.I., especially in the Audiencia de Panama records, as well as in others archives and printed sources. The happy result has been the publication of an erudite and opulent volume that submerges the reader through text and illustrations in the early sixteenth-century expedition of Pedrarias Davila.
An initial chapter focuses on the preparations for the voyage and the environment in Sevilla surrounding the departure of the fleet in 1514. The search for a passage through the American continents had as yet failed, but the establishment of the first successful colony on the mainland by Vasco Nunez de Balboa encouraged the Spanish Crown to back a major expedition under the prominent, but aging nobleman and general, General Pedrarias Davila. It was a massive undertaking, described by King Fernando V as "uno de los mas grandes que hoy hay en el mundo" (p. 34). Mena depicts the elaborate and extensive preparations for the expedition and analyzes the royal instructions including the new rules regarding more humane treatment of the indigenous population as incorporated in the Laws of Burgos. The loophole of waging "just war" and imposing slavery on Indians who resisted conversion would allow Pedrarias to become notorious for his maltreatment of the indigenous population, but Mena is less concerned with that than with simply describing the voyage itself. She tells us that the preparations for the armada were begun without limits of expense or effort, but repeatedly suffered delays. In addition to a wealth of textual detail on the planning of this voyage, Mena has included an impressive collection of maps and illustrations.
A second chapter focuses on the approximately 1500 passengers on this voyage: colonists, government officials, military personnel, and clergy. She details their numbers, salaries, and other information about them before going on to detail the cargoes that accompanied them, including some 50 tons (mostly provisions - wine, flour, oil and olives) belonging to Pedrarias alone.
A third, very long chapter describes the fleet's crew, specifically naming each member with his job and place of origin. Most were Spanish, but with a good sprinkling of Italians and Portuguese among them, and even three Englishmen. In all, 17% of the crew was foreign. Among the Spaniards, 47% were Andalusians, especially from Huelva, which accounted for 31% of the total.
The fourth chapter details the ships and their construction, including an interesting description of Seville and the shipbuilders, and a final chapter explores Seville as the "great pantry of the Indies" (p. 371). She notes that much of Seville's prosperity resulted not from the direct flow of precious metals coming from the conquest, but rather from the trade that supplying the New World generated. Mena details prices and volume of the trade in the early sixteenth century, supplementing her text with rich illustrative material, graphs and tables.
This handsome volume has brought together an enormous quantity of data from both earlier publications and new data from the archives in Seville. It provides us with a macroscopic image of travel across the Atlantic in the early sixteenth century and of the people involved the early stages of the settlement of the Americas. Its adds much new insight to the study of Seville and the Indies in the early sixteenth century. It is a book that thus has relevance far beyond the history of the isthmus alone, and one which every library with an interest in the European conquest of America should possess.
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Ralph Lee Woodward. Review of Garcia, Maria del Carmen Mena, Sevilla y las flotas de Indias: La gran armada de Castilla del Oro (1513-1514).
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