Sevilla, “so affectionate, so brunette, gypsy and so beautiful”, as the song says. Sevilla, forever the heart of the south and for so long the crossroads of the Old and New worlds. Sevilla I visit to learn about the symbol of this cultural meeting point, the Royal Tobacco Factory, the same tobacco factory from which poured out Sevilla’s most beautiful cigarreras in Bizet’s opera Carmen, pursued by their admirers calling:
La cloche a sonné! – The bell has rung; we’ve come here
to catch the factory girls on their way back;
and we’ll follow you, dark-haired cigarette girls,
murmuring words of love to you!
The reply they get from the gypsy seductress Carmen was not what they hoped. Love, she says, “l’amour est un oiseau rebelle – love is a rebellious child / that no one can tame / and it’s quite useless to call him.” Love, she says, is a gypsy child, who has never heard of law.
Carmen’s words of love and lust were sung from the gates of the tobacco factory when Spain’s Antiguo Régimen was at its height in wealth and power, receiving the bounties of the new world – tobacco, gold, silver – by the shipload. Said ships returned from the New World colonies and travelled up the Guadalquivir River to deposit their wealth in the inland port of Seville, a city which enjoyed a royal monopoly over all trade with the indies. Managed between Seville’s Casa de Contratación – the monarch’s bureaucratic arm over trade – and the Consulado de Mercaderes – the merchant’s guild – Spain’s mercantile empire boomed, and with it Seville. But where there is a boom, there is a bust…
When the factory was completed in 1770 the building became the second largest building in all of Spain, behind only the royal residence, giving an indication of its import and its symbolism in a slowly industrialising Spain. Complete with depictions of New World figures like that of the conquistadores Columbus and Cortes, and, bizarrely, even the protector of the native populations Bartolomé de las Casas, the building’s aesthetic is heavily influenced by Spain’s New World experience. There are also reliefs of indigenous men smoking tobacco pipes, depictions of Spanish military might in the colonies, engravings of the ships that crossed the oceans bringing in the tobacco, and images of the old stone mills that worked away inside to pulverise the tobacco leaf into ‘snuff’; the building is a celebration of old colonial Spain.
But not long after the building was opened, that old colonial Spain begun to falter. Throughout the nineteenth century the Spanish empire went into serious decline, and with it so too did Seville and its merchants, its financiers, industrialists and bourgeoisie. Seville soon lost its privileged position within the empire as the sole recipient of New World extracted goods, a position lost to Cadiz, the port city to the south which became the new house for the Casa de Contratación. The tobacco factory became renowned for poor quality tobacco, and struggled to compete with other producer cities within Spain. Looking to renew its fortunes, the factory feminised its workforce, as female workers were paid less and thought to produce better cigars; hence the fame which became attached to this factory for its women workforce, immortalised in the works of writers, photographers, painters and composers from across Europe.
But the clock had run, as Carmen sung, and the decline could not be abated. The privatisation and mechanisation in the late nineteenth century only served to accelerate the decline in both production and employment, and ultimately, the Sevillian tobacco factory in the twentieth century became a minor player in Spanish and international cigar and cigarette production. Its doors were closed in the 1950s, transferring the building to the University of Seville. But the building remains today as a site of great historical interest, standing as a monument of old Spain; of the role of Seville as a site of economic and cultural exchange between the Old and New worlds, the role of tobacco in the Spanish Empire’s rise and fall, the changes in the international economic order throughout the centuries, and the changes in workplace and consumer culture over time.