Guayaquil, Shipbuilding Industry

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Guayaquil, Shipbuilding Industry

Shipbuilding in Guayaquil, Ecuador, during the colonial period became one of the leading maritime and naval enterprises in the Viceroyalty of Peru. Virtually isolated from the Atlantic world, the Pacific colonies of the Spanish Empire early on had to develop shipbuilding independently to meet the needs of an empire that grew to stretch along the Pacific coast from Mexico to Chile.

The small port city of Guayaquil, located along the lower reaches of the broad Guayas River in modern Ecuador, possessed excellent access to a hinterland rich in shipbuilding timbers, especially the resistant and durable wood from the guachapeli tree. As traffic continued to grow between the Viceroyalty of Peru and Spain via the Isthmus of Panama, especially after the discovery of silver at Potosí in modern Bolivia in 1545, the shipyards at Guayaquil expanded to meet the needs of transporting silver north and European merchandise south.

The creation and expansion of the Armada Del Mar Del Sur in the wake of English and Dutch attacks on the viceroyalty in the 1570s and 1580s further stimulated the industry. All of the large royal galleons built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to transport silver and protect the viceroyalty were constructed at Guayaquil, endowing the port with a strategic importance of considerable value in the defense of the Spanish Empire in the Pacific.

Commercially, the ships built at Guayaquil supported the development of a lively inter- and intraviceregal trade that moved the colonies toward a greater self-sufficiency in the seventeenth century. Olive oil, wheat, sugar, cacao, tobacco, wine, textiles, wood, and myriad other products grown and produced along the west coast were carried on ship bottoms launched from the shipyards of Guayaquil. In 1590 there were about thirty-five to forty ships and barks in the merchant marine; a century later, at least seventy-two large seagoing vessels plied the waters of the Viceroyalty of Peru, most of them built in Guayaquil.

The earliest shipbuilders were Spaniards, caulkers and carpenters who brought their knowledge of shipbuilding to the New World. As time passed, increasingly larger numbers of blacks (slave and free) and mulattoes joined, and then supplanted, the original Spanish artisans and craftsmen. Native Andeans and mestizos rounded out the work force in a typical seventeenth-century shipyard. For a major royal job (two large galleons were occasionally built at the same time), it was not unusual for virtually all citizens to be involved in the shipbuilding, from the indigenous laborers felling trees in the interior to the master mulatto craftsmen overseeing the design.

By the eighteenth century, the industry was challenged by better ships from Europe, especially from France, which more and more frequently sailed into the Pacific to trade, navigate, and compete with ships built in the Viceroyalty of Peru. But the shipyards of Guayaquil proved the Spanish and colonials to have been an inventive and flexible lot, adapting to the necessities of trade and war at sea in a new environment with immense versatility and success. After independence, the shipbuilding industry declined, but still produced smaller boats for local traders.

See alsoArmada del Mar del Sur; Mining: Colonial Spanish America; Mining: Modern.


One book that deals directly with the subject is Lawrence A. Clayton, Caulkers and Carpenters in a New World: The Shipyards of Colonial Guayaquil (1980). A classic study of trade and navigation is Woodrow Wilson Borah, Early Colonial Trade and Navigation Between Mexico and Peru (1954). For an economic history of the seventeenth-century viceroyalty as a whole, see Kenneth J. Andrien, Crisis and Decline: The Viceroyalty of Peru in the Seventeenth Century (1985). On the defense of the viceroyalty, see Carla Rahn Phillips, Six Galleons for the King of Spain: Imperial Defense in the Early Seventeenth Century (1986); and Peter T. Bradley, The Lure of Peru: Maritime Intrusion into the South Sea, 1598–1701 (1989).

Additional Bibliography

Andrien, Kenneth J. The Kingdom of Quito, 1690–1830: The State and Regional Development. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Borchart de Moreno, Christiana Renate. La Audiencia de Quito: Aspectos económicos y sociales (siglos XVI-XVIII). Quito: Ediciones del Banco Central del Ecuador, 1998.

                                Lawrence A. Clayton