Mexico's principal seaport was founded by Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) as Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz in April 1519. He soon moved it 28 kilometers north to a site known today as La Antigua, but throughout the sixteenth century the hot, humid climate, epidemic disease, hurricanes, and vulnerability to foreign attack retarded the growth of the port, which was Spain's only harbor for Mexican commerce. Shipping preferred the former location, and in 1599 the town formally returned to its original site opposite the island of San Juan de Ulúa. Annual fleets brought European wines, olive oil, quicksilver, textiles, and other manufactures, and returned with gold, silver, and agricultural produce. Veracruz's annual trade fairs and its warehouses tempted French, English, and Dutch privateers, buccaneers, and pirates. Raids by English sea dogs John Hawkins (1532–1595) and Francis Drake (1540?–1596) in 1568 and Dutch buccaneers Laurent Graff (Lorencillo), Granmont de la Motte, and Nicolás Van Horn in 1683 were especially damaging. Great fortifications on San Juan de Ulúa and in Veracruz arose to defend the port. Even more devastating was the widespread smuggling that eluded Spain's monopolistic trading system well into the eighteenth century. Mexico City's merchants controlled Veracruz throughout much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the establishment of a Chamber of Commerce (consulado) in Veracruz in 1795 reflected the emergence of a significant merchant community in the port. Reflecting its rising trade, Veracruz's population rose from about 6,000 in 1700 to nearly 15,000 by 1821.
Mexico won independence in 1821, but Spain held the San Juan de Ulúa fortress until 1825, thereby restricting Veracruz's commerce. Thereafter, Veracruz continued as Mexico's principal port. Taxes on foreign trade were the government's main revenue and made the port a target for both foreign and native challengers. The French attacked the port in 1838 and U.S. forces took it 1847. The French returned again in 1861, when they installed the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian (1832–1867) on a Mexican throne. Rebels also often seized the city, and President Benito Juárez (1806–1872) made it the temporary capital of Mexico from 1858 to 1860 when he was still a young revolutionary fighting against the government. Later in the century improvement in public health, infrastructure development, and new Mexican industry stimulated growth in the port once more. A railway to Mexico City began in 1873, and new wharves, warehouses, public works, and a potable water system came during the rule of Porfirio Díaz (1830–1915) from 1876 to 1910. By 1900 Veracruz was the leading cargo port in Latin America. Railway expansion in northern Mexico diverted some trade with the United States away from the port, yet the city's population grew from about 16,000 in 1877 to 53,000 by 1910.
From 1914 to 1915 U.S. occupation of Veracruz helped to bring down the government of Victoriano Huerta (1854–1916), and the city became the Mexican capital again for a short time. Veracruz was a stronghold of organized labor (especially longshoremen) in the Mexican Revolution (1910–1940). After 1940, new port facilities and containerization led to substantial growth by the end of the twentieth century. Exports from Veracruz include petroleum, chemicals, iron and steel, coffee, fruits, rum, molasses, tobacco, chicle (used in making chewing gum), and fertilizers. Leading imports include manufactured goods, grains, and chemicals. In the year 2000 a record 1,685 vessels carrying nearly 15 million tons of cargo docked in the port, and the city's population exceeded 500,000.
SEE ALSO Agriculture; Cargoes, Freight; Cargoes, Passenger; Chambers of Commerce; Conquistadors; Containerization; Empire, Spanish; Encomienda and Repartimiento; Free Ports; Harbors;Mexico;New Spain;Port Cities;Spain.
Antuñano Maurer, Alejandro de, et al. Veracruz: primer puerto del continente. Mexico City: Fundación Miguel Alemán, 1996.
Booker, Jackie Robinson. Veracruz Merchants, 1770–1829: A Mercantile Elite in Late Bourbon and Early Independent Mexico. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.
Pasquel, Leonardo. Biografía integral de la ciudad de Veracruz, 1519–1969. Veracruz, Mexico: Ayuntamiento de Veracruz, 1969.
Rodríguez, Hipólito, and Manrique, Jorge Alberto. Veracruz: La ciudad hecha de mar, 1519–1821. Veracruz, Mexico: Ayuntamiento de Veracruz and Instituto Verucrazano de Cultura, 1991.
Ralph Lee Woodward Jr.