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G + 16 : La Palma - A Rival to Genoa and Venice

The Catalan Atlas made in La Palma in 1375, one hundred years before Columbus discovered America, shows what Europe knew about the world in the 14th Century

The choice of Bay last night was perfect. By the time we went to bed, all but two other boats had left for Port Andratx. It was a quiet night. Simply perfect for a good sleep. A light swell from a far and warm winds woke us this morning. Time for a swim and some canoeing. For lunch we are going to meet friends living on the island. Then off to La Palma, Mallorca’s capital. Our captain has a place in the harbour.

The Cala d'Egos where where we stayed overnight at 06.30 am this morning

La Palma is well known as Mallorca’s main urban center with a history reaching back to Roman and Arab times. Most people also know that the Aragon King James I conquered the island in 1229. Fewer though ask how his troops crossed over from Barcelona or how he supported a town that had to import food. The answer to either questions is the same. The Aragon Kings built a trading empire in the 13th century and a big fleet. The many wars between Genoa and Venice created opportunities for a newcomer . At the center of the new merchant empire was Barcelona. Soon Valencia and Palma joined to form a triangle.\

The Crown of Aragon included major Parts of the Mediterranean in 1450

Being at the cross-roads of major trading routes in the Western Mediterranean, La Palma was a natural Entrepot. Genoa and Pisa used it as a cargo hub. All of Genoa’s trade with North Africa was routed via La Palma – sounds like a small deal but actually means that the trade of delivering salt vs importing gold was channeled through the city's port. No wonder La Palma became rich and had 20’000 inhabitants.

The Red Dots are Trade Consulates of Barcelona, La Palma and Valencia in 1385

Mallorca was also a major producer of olive oil (for lamps), pitch (for water tightening ships) and salt from the salt pans in Formentera. La Palma's port was fortified to protect the valuable cargo. The spacious Gothic hall “Llotja dels Mercaders” allowed merchants and bankers to pursue their business. Many of the town’s monumental buildings were built in the 13th and 14th century when commercial activities peaked. A simple look at La Palma’s large fortifications or the circular Bellver Castle confirm that the town was one of Aragon’s crown jewels.

Llotjia was La Palma's old commercial District - it is now a favourite area for young visitors

The importance of La Palma, called Majorca at the time, is further underlined by the Cartographic School which made atlases and nautical maps. It was the unrivalled center of European cartography. The Catalan Atlas was made here in 1375 by Cresques Abraham.

Enlarged, composite View of the lefthand Part of the Catalan Atlas with Europe

The Jewish map maker was already famous for designing clocks and building nautical instruments. He meticulously compiled all the geographical knowledge Europe had at the time to produce his world map. Since this was the time before mail or the internet, the Cartographic School or the Aragon Kings must have owned a library with copies of all the important books in the world.

The shameful Expulsion of the Moriscos from Valencia in 1609 - not a proud part of history

Sadly, sixteen years later, in 1391, the vibrant Jewish community on the island was exiled or forced to convert. The first sign of even worse pogroms to come. In 1492, all Jews were kicked out of Spain, 1502 the Muslims had to go too and in 1609, also the Moriscos (Muslims who had converted to Christianity). No trading center survives religious prosecution. Full stop. Spain committed commercial suicide. La Palma suffered accordingly.

The Gothic Llotja Hall is half Fortress - Half Church

But was the meeting point of Merchants and Bankers

Also, with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, trading pattern in the eastern Mediterranean changed fundamentally. The Ottomans cancelled all of Genoa’s, Venice’s and Aragon’s trade privileges. Trade volumes shrank rapidly. At the same time, defense expenditures increased due to the activities of the Ottoman Corsairs. La Palma was too well fortified to be raided by Hayrettin Barbarossa’s galleys, but commercial ships now avoided the routes via the Baleares – they were too dangerous. The decline that followed was inevitable.

The Circular Bellver Castle, built in 1311, protected La Palma for Centuries

By the 17th century, Mallorca was a poor island with a glorious past. Like Sicily it was at the front line with the Ottoman Empire and heavily garrisoned. The Spanish Kings became the biggest source of revenue. Eventually even they run out of money. Mallorca slipped into a beauty sleep and slumbered until tourism woke it up in the 1960s. It is today Europe's best preserved medieval Mediterranean town and very nicely restored to its former glory.

The Interior of the Royal Almudaina Palace was built following Muslim Designs

We plan to have dinner on the boat near La Palma's old town and may go for an after-dinner drink to the old town. Tomorrow, I will lead a visit to the town - exciting!

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