General Archive of the Indies, Seville


A review of the General Archive of the Indies (Archivo General de Indias) (Seville, Spain). 

My dissertation, entitled Indian Harvest: The Rise of the Indigenous Slave Trade and Diaspora from Española to the Circum-Caribbean, 1492-1560, examines the growth and height of the Circum-Caribbean indigenous slave trade. My project seeks to capture the scope of this slave trade and resultant Indian diaspora for the first time. In tracing the diaspora I also try to reveal the hidden consequences of the slave trade, including the indigenous experience of movement and displacement across the Caribbean. While I look at archaeological and anthropological evidence, the bulk of the dissertation hinges on the use and analysis of sixteenth-century Spanish documents. These sources range from court cases and royal orders to personal letters and general correspondence between the Caribbean colonies and the royal court in Spain. Nearly all of these documents are housed in the Archivo General de Indias (AGI). The AGI’s collection contains almost all of the documentation dealing with Spain’s expansion and overseas colonies from the fifteenth century to independence. In researching my project I have spent a considerable amount of time in the AGI and most recently worked there from October 2011 until April 2012.

The AGI is located in the absolute center of Seville between the city’s famous cathedral and the Real Alcázar, so it is very easy to locate. The archive is comprised of two distinct buildings. The first is the former Merchant’s Exchange, or Casa Lonja de Mercaderes, and is the one that actually houses the documents and that you can visit as a tourist. Its address is Avenida de la Constitución, 3. However as a researcher you will be more interested in its neighbor, where historians actually work. This portion of the AGI is located across the street from the larger tourist attraction on the Calle Santo Tomás and is known as the Edificio de la Cilla.

The AGI’s room for investigation is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. from mid-September until mid-June. From June until September the archive closes slightly earlier at 2:30 in the afternoon. The archive does open promptly between 8 and 8:15 in the morning. However, the closing times are a bit deceptive. While the archive is technically open until 3 p.m. (or 2:30) the archivists collect your documents or legajos anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes prior to closing the archive. So be prepared to end your daily research by 2:45 or 2:15. The archive is closed on all major religious, national, and local holidays. You can access a calendar of Spanish holidays online or simply ask the employees of the archive. For up-to-date information see the archive’s website at

Because the hours of the archive are so limited, few researchers take longer than a half-hour break. This informal coffee break, better known as “once,” usually occurs around 11 a.m. The archive does not close during “once,” but at least half of the archive’s patrons do go to coffee at this time. It is the perfect opportunity to meet your fellow researchers and to make scholarly contacts with academics from around the world. I made great friends with some of the people I met and socialized with during “once,” later meeting them for lunch or tapas and even traveling with some for weekend trips across Andalucía. Most researchers sojourn to one specific restaurant called Rayuelo Café. It is located on the street behind the Edificio de la Cilla near the entrance to the Real Alcázar.

On your first visit to the AGI you will need to register. Although the AGI opens at or near to 8 a.m., the office of registration (which is also where you make copy and digitalization requests) does not open until 9 a.m. For registration make sure to bring your passport and a letter of introduction from your university/advisor, and also be prepared to discuss your research. Upon entering the building you first must go through a metal detector and your bag will be x-rayed. You will then have to turn in your bag. The only things that you can carry with you into the archive are a laptop computer or note cards and pencil for transcribing. You cannot have a camera, pens, regular paper, notebooks, cell phones, or any other items. All of these things will be stored in lockers. After turning in your belongings you will be given a number. When you are done researching, or are taking a break and need access to your purse or phone, you will turn in the number at the front desk and the attendant will give you back your things. This same procedure will occur every day that you visit the AGI.

Next you will tell the individual at the front desk that you are a first time investigator/researcher. They will call the office upstairs and have you wait until the archivist is ready to speak with you. Once they are prepared to interview you, you will go up one flight of stairs to the office of Reprografía. There you will have a short interview with one of the archivists discussing what sort of documents you will be reading and the topics you are interested in. If you have a letter of introduction from your university they will also look it over, but it is not mandatory for entry to the archive.

After your interview (which is not as intimidating as it sounds) they will take a somewhat dinky photograph of you and make an ID card for you with the photo and an identification number. You will need this number and card to enter the investigator’s room each day and to log into the archive’s system to request documents. It will likely take one to two days to receive this card, but you will be given a temporary card to conduct research immediately if you choose. This card will also give you access to all of Spain’s other national archives, for example the Archivo de Simancas and the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid.

At this point you will be ready to go upstairs to the research/reading room! In the reading room itself you will sign in with your number and name. You will then be assigned a table/desk. Each station or table has a number. You can request a certain table when signing in, so figure out the room layout and find a table that best suits you, though you may have to arrive early to get the best desks (i.e. end tables that allow you more space for your documents).

It is best to come to the archive with a list of documents that you wish to examine so that you do not waste too much time in the AGI searching their holdings. This can be done easily at the website, which allows you to search the catalogues of all of Spain’s national archives. Here you can also see what documents are already digitalized and which you must look at in the archive itself. If you have your list ready, simply locate the document you wish to order by heading and then number, i.e. Patronato 1 or Santo Domingo 203. Then right click your mouse over the heading and select “Solicitar.” Once you have successfully ordered the documents you will see a message on your computer screen saying that the solicitation was processed correctly. You can order up to two document sets or legajos at a time.

Once you have ordered your document sets, allow anywhere from ten minutes to a half hour for them to be delivered. During this time you can look at the digitalized documents on your computer. It is important to note that quite a bit of the AGI’s documents have been digitalized, and once a document is online you cannot handle the physical legajo. Luckily, the digital sources are quite clear and most are better catalogued so searching through the digital collections is very efficient. You can also access any of the online/digital sources from anywhere in the world. Additionally, you can manipulate the digital images, for example zooming in or flipping the pages. I still prefer to read the original documents, but the digital ones are a wonderful resource to have.

When an archivist enters the reading room with a cart full of legajos, then you can go to the front desk and ask for the legajo you ordered. You can only have one legajo at a time at your desk; the other will remain at the front desk until you return the first legajo. For an image of some legajos see Figure 3. You can repeat this process (which also works for ordering microfilm in addition to the physical documents) as many times in a day as you wish. Some legajos will take days to go through and some can be finished in a few minutes. Because you cannot photograph the documents, you will likely need to both take notes/transcribe documents and request digitalization of legajos. My advice is to transcribe as much as you can, as the photocopies/digital images are quite expensive, especially for microfilm. It can also take months for you to receive your copies, at least of the digital images.

If you do plan on making copies, you will need to have two forms with you as you read the documents. Both forms are available at the side desk where all the archivists sit. The first is known as a “Tira” and each one has a number. Basically your first Tira will be number 1, second 2, and so on. Whenever you find a page or section in a legajo that you want a copy of simply mark the page with a Tira. In addition to the number on the Tira you will also include your name, archive ID number, the name of the legajo (for example Santo Domingo 74), the name of the document (like Letter from Menéndez de Avilés), the date of the document, whether you want photocopies or microfilm, and how many pages of the document/legajo you want copied. The Tira will remain in the legajo marking the page. The second form is the one you will turn in to the reproductions office. On this you will list all the Tiras/orders that you want copied with all of the above information included again. I would recommend not going over 5 legajos or 300 pages on any single order; it will just take them longer to process. Keep the second form with you until you are ready to turn it in for reproductions. This form lists the various prices for copies.

By far the cheapest format to receive copies is as digital images burned on a CD. Each page costs 10 cents and the CD itself is 4.70 euros. However, you can also get hardcopies (14 cents per page) or microfilm (23 cents per page). If you order your copies right before leaving, you will have to pay for shipping to the U.S. Once you are ready to submit your order, go to the reproductions office and they will tally up your total for copies. You will then be given a bank form. Next go to the nearby bank (CajaSol) and pay the bill. For whatever reason the archive itself will not handle money. The bank will give you a receipt, which you will then turn into the reproductions office. They will attach the receipt to your order.

When you do get your copies, whether in two weeks or two months, you will be very pleasantly surprised—at least I was. Not only are the digital images of great quality, but each document is its own separate pdf. This makes organizing your copies much more efficient. You will also receive copies of all your Tiras and the order form.

The overall ambience of the AGI is professional and fairly formal. Many of the researchers dress in business casual (especially the Spaniards), while others will wear more relaxed attire. I prefer to dress somewhat more formally when conducting research in the AGI, but it is a personal choice. Be careful when wearing jackets or sweaters because you cannot take them off in the reading room and place them on the back of your chair or next to you. You will have to leave any jackets downstairs on the coat rack or with your bag. This brings me to one of the more uncomfortable elements of the AGI. There is a security guard patrolling the reading room constantly. He watches for anyone trying to take pictures, talking loudly, or mishandling the documents (for example, leaning on a document or lifting a page into the air). If someone is caught doing any of these things, an archivist will immediately chastise the offender, sometimes quite loudly so that everyone in the archive notices. This raises another issue. While some of the staff is very friendly, others are aloof and can even be hostile at times. You will figure out quickly who is who. Though this environment can seem quite cold, it does foster an excellent working space. There are never problems of noise to distract you, and the documents are kept in good condition. There is also no Internet access, so yet another possible distraction removed. And while some of the staff can be unfriendly, this can actually build camaraderie among the researchers.

Not to be forgotten is the fact that the AGI is in Seville, Spain. Seville is truly one of my favorite cities in Europe, if not the world. It is amazingly beautiful, houses dozens of important historical sites, offers great shopping, has a variety of diverse neighborhoods (all within walking distance of the archive), and has some of the best food and drinks in Andalucía. Basically you will find plenty to do after the archive closes at 2:30/3 p.m.! Most researchers rent apartments for their stay in Seville. If price is a concern, I recommend looking in the neighborhoods of Triana or Alameda Hercules, where apartments are a bit cheaper than right in the center of town. These neighborhoods are at most a 25-minute walk from the archive and are bit less touristy.

Seville is also a good base to explore the rest of Andalucía on day or weekend trips. For example, you can easily get to Cordoba, Granada, Tarifa, Ronda, or Jerez de la Frontera (to name a few) by bus, train, or car from Seville. Through my months of research at the AGI, I have been able to see most of Andalucía and explore a lot of the rest of Spain as well. The fact that Seville is such a great city is very important, since the holdings of the AGI are tremendous. I have conducted research there three times now, with each trip lasting several months, if not more, and have yet to scratch the surface of what the archive houses. I look forward to many more summers or years spent working in the AGI and having tapas and wine by the gorgeous Guadalquivir River.

Erin W. Stone
Department of History
Vanderbilt University

Image: Example of some legajos at the General Archive of the Indies. Photo by Erin W. Stone.

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