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Spain administered its main colony Mexico from across the Atlantic. Ships crossed regularly between Cadiz or Seville and Vera Cruz (both capital cities are inland). At the time of Mexican independence, the transport link with Spain had been in place for three hundred years. It moved materials of such importance as communications between the king and viceroy.

How long did it take mail to get between Madrid and Mexico, and did it get faster over time? Information about how often Spanish ships traveled the Spain-Mexico route would also be welcome.

  • 1
    Here is a passing mention of the increasing frequency of mail ships between Havana and Spain in the eighteenth century, up to one per month. I suspect communication with Mexico would have been via Havana at that time, but I'm not certain. – Brian Z May 14 '17 at 12:24
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It looks like around 7-8 weeks ship time. See update below. (Inserted new info at top, ahead of the background info on the avisos ships and routes.)

--- UPDATE --- Finally found actual info on the travel time for the avisos. This book concerning the HMS Centurion actually lists the transit time for the avisos San Lorenzo as 41 days. This put the ship at Puerto Rico. Leaving there on Jan 31st, detained by British on Feb 3rd, and after rescue and various engagements reaches Santiago Cuba on Feb 12, after 12 more days. Then it apparently took two more weeks (inland Travel?) before the message was finally delivered to the Governor of Cuba, Juan de Prado,on Feb 26th 1762, informing him that Spain and Britain were at war. So 53 days travel time to Cuba, plus a couple more weeks delivery time. (And this just got us to Havana.)


Now, some background about the mail service.First of all, the correspondence between Spain and Mexico was carried by specialized vessels called avisos:

The communication between the Spanish government and the Viceroys in America was carried out by small and fast vessels called avisos that operated under the directions of the Secretariship of State. Initially, these ships were intended to announce in America and Spain the departure of the Flota, and the Galleons, respectively. However, they ended up carrying with them all the colonial correspondences. On 20 July 1718, the Crown established that an annual number of eight avisos would have to be employed to carry the colonial correspondence. Two years later, on 31 May 1720, the Consulado de Cadiz and the Crown signed an agreement.22 The Consulado agreed to add another eight vessels to work as avisos every year. By the 1730s, the avisos arrived at Buenos Aires, Cartagena de Indias and Havana on a monthly basis.

from Mobilizing resources for war: the British and Spanish intelligence systems...

Later, we see that the use of these packet-boats is reconfirmed:

Charles III in 1764 established monthly mail packet boats between Corunna and Havana and these were permitted to transport goods to the extent of half their cargo Every two months a similar packet boat went to Buenos Ayres and there were American post routes connected with it In 1765 came the great advance.

from: The Spanish Colonial System By Wilhelm Roscher

We can also learn a little more concerning the avisos because a couple of them have been found off the coast of Florida:

Ships thought to have wrecked off the Jupiter coast during the 1600s include the San Miguel Archangel and the San Francisco y San Antonio. Both ships were avisos, Spanish courier ships weighing 60 tons or less. The avisos were well-armed, but speed was their best defense, which allowed them to outrun larger, better-armed vessels. Avisos were primarily used to transport correspondence to and from the Spanish throne, but were known to carry goods and valuables.

from http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMRP81_Jupiter_Inlet_Shipwrecks_1600_1700s

Now we can compare this size to that of the ships most often thought of when we think Spanish fleet, the Galleon

...while galleons were mostly under 500 tons, although the Manila galleons were to reach up to 2,000 tons.


I did find a little more describing the actual route generally followed by the trade fleet:

The ships departed from Seville (later from Cadiz) and sailed down the coast of Africa to the Canary Islands, where they stopped for supplies. They then turned west to take advantage of the trade winds and, after sailing about a month or more, entered the Caribbean southeast of Puerto Rico. Here the convoy split into two fleets: the Tierra Firme (Spanish name for the South American mainland) and the New Spain. The New Spain fleet sailed on to the port of Veracruz in New Spain (present day Mexico).

(and for the return voyage)

The two fleets met up in Havana and made preparations for the return trip to Spain. When they left Havana, the combined fleet sailed along the east coast of Florida and rode the Gulf Stream—a strong, warm ocean current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and flows north along the east coast of the United States— north as far as Cape Canaveral before heading east towards Spain.

above from this National Park Service site


  • It's great to know the term aviso and that several would be in the water at once. You established that a certain voyage took 53 days from Cádiz to Havana. It makes it seem like the answer to the question might be around 3 months. – Aaron Brick Jul 4 '17 at 5:40
2

Columbus’s first voyage across the Atlantic to the New World in 1492 took more than two months. Crossing times did improve over time, but by the 1700s, sailing ships still needed six weeks or more to make the crossing.

Making an allowance for the overland transport of messages, it would be reasonable to estimate that mail would take at least 8 weeks / 2 months to travel from Madrid to Mexico.

However, we should also remember that through the age of sail, crossing times would also have been greatly effected by the weather, so an estimate of two months would still only be an average. As noted in this article,

An immigrant who made the journey in 1750 reported that it could take between eight and 12 weeks, while another who arrived in 1724 reported that the journey took six weeks and three days.

  • 1
    Another factor was warfare: in wartime, ships would sail in convoys, and it could take a few weeks to prepare them. Also, taking the southern route off the coast of Africa was better to travel east-west, while a more northern route was better when crossing west-east. Sailors' knowledge of dominant winds evolved over the years. – Denis de Bernardy Jul 1 '17 at 10:59
  • This is helpful context but those ships weren't on the route of interest and they weren't packet ships. – Aaron Brick Jul 4 '17 at 5:45
  • @AaronBrick Question isn't about packet ships, it's about mail from Madrid to Mexico - which could be carried by any vessels, not just fast packet boats. The OP asked how long it took, and did it get faster over time. The longest part of the journey was the Atlantic crossing, and that was highly variable throughout the Age of Sail, irrespective of the route chosen. These figures from actual voyages show that crossings did get faster over time on average, but not by much. – sempaiscuba Jul 4 '17 at 10:12
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There were three distinct components to mail latency between the imperial and the viceregal capitals: road travel to and from the ports, the sea voyage, and most variably, the wait for a mail ship to depart. I estimate travel times here in a worst case, an average case for the late imperial period, and a best case. These figures only apply to mail that actually arrived; some of it is still on the ocean floor!

According to Ignacio Rivas Ibáñez, Spanish royal mail in the peninsula traveled at 105 miles per day, which would require several changes of horse along the way. According to Google, the present road distance from Madrid to Cadiz is 404 miles and from Veracruz to Mexico City, 246 miles. Let's presume these roads are of similar length to those in use in the imperial period and that the same kind of inland messenger system was used on both sides of the Atlantic; rounding up, the land transits took about 4 and 3 days. Because the horse and road components were pretty constant, they would not have varied much over time.

Carlos Venegas attributes to Chaunu the finding that mail ships in the 1504-1650 period took an average of 75 days to cross from Cádiz to Veracruz, including stops (outbound: Santo Domingo and San Juan; inbound: La Habana). These were relatively light and long ships, built for speed rather than capacity. I intuit that a variability of 50% is reasonable, so these early voyages would have taken from 60 to 90 days. Towards the end of the imperial period, technology and routes had improved a bit, reducing these figures by, let's say, 10%: 54 to 81 days, the mean being 68 days.

The wait for the next departure of a mail ship is the only factor that increased investment could substantially speed up. When there were eight imperial mail ships (also according to Ibáñez), four were on the New Spain route. Presume that one was in maintenance at a given time, putting three in service. Worst case, the crossings took 90 days and with three days in each port, the whole circuit could take 186 days. Presuming that these three ships were kept more or less evenly timed, a departure would take place about every 62 days. According to H.H. Bancroft, after the 1730s departures happened monthly, making the average wait in the late imperial period about 15 days.

  • Worst case: 4 + 62 + 90 + 3 = 159 days
  • Late empire average case: 4 + 15 + 68 + 3 = 90 days
  • Best case: 4 + 0 + 54 + 3 = 61 days

Writing this answer would not have been possible without Brian Z's reference to the ships' frequency and user2448131's contribution that they were called avisos. Thank you both.

  • PS -- comments on my methodology are welcome. Certainly even better estimates could be out there. – Aaron Brick Jul 9 '17 at 17:21

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