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How has Cartagena been shaped by its relationship with the sea?


The sea has played a pivotal role at the Spanish urban coastal settlement of Cartagena. The sea brings flows, which are “movements between relatively fixed nodes in networks, flows can be of commodities, money, people, energy or even ideas.” (Pratt, 2009). It matters to look at Cartagena’s relationship with the sea because it influences all manner of objects in the cultural landscape. Carl Sauer first used this term, commenting “the cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group. Culture is the agent, the natural area the medium, the cultural landscape is the result.” (Sauer, 1925). The natural landscape also clearly shapes Cartagena, relative to its relationship with the sea. 

This report’s research aim will be to demonstrate the how behind the shaping of the sea and Cartagena’s relationship, and will conclude that the most important are threefold:

  1. The sea has moulded, and been moulded by, the landscapes of Cartagena, 
  2. The Spanish Navy has had a huge impact on the cultural landscape of Cartagena,
  3. The local response to the sea.

Literature Review


Flows may encompass people, commerce, industry, or ideas. Charles Minard was a pioneering cartographer (Robinson, 1967) with regard to flows, and he began the academic debate on the subject with his 1862 map of migration flows and 1864 map of wine exports from France (Grandjean, 2015). 

Figure 1- Grandjean’s (2015) digitization of Minard’s map of migration flows.

This does not mean that flows didn’t happen before Minard’s work. We see in Cartagena that there is Roman architecture in the settlement, with clear influences of both Carthaginian and Umayyad influence as well- no doubt enabled by Cartagena’s close proximity to the sea. 

Castells (2000) writes about the idea of some places being “hubs”- co-ordinators of smooth interactions in networks-, contrasting with other places being “nodes”, which he defines as “the location of strategically important functions that build a series of locality based activities and organizations around a key function in the network”. In the light of Castells’s work, it is clear that Cartagena falls into the “node” camp. Cartagena is not perceived as a Spanish “hub” as there is a lack of regional identity, but it is located in a strategically important location with a key function in the Spanish network- the navy.

However, as Hepworth (1989) points out, most of Castells’s research is focused on the US primarily, with little focus on Europe. It is interesting to note that there appears to be a lack of research on the impacts of flow on mainland Spanish coastal-urban environments.

Transnationalism is intimately related to the concept of flows, with Conradson and Latham (2010) writing that it “enables us to consider what it means to live in an interconnected, topologically complex world without resorting to overly abstract or grand narratives of global transformation to describe that connectivity”. Transnationalism has strong links to the history of Cartagena, as well as more recent developments in the settlement’s oil platform and ability to host cruise ships.

Cultural and physical landscape

Cultural landscape

As found in his definition of cultural landscape found earlier in this report, Sauer (1925) says “under the influence of a given culture, itself changing through time, the landscape undergoes development, passing through phases”. Sauer sought to bridge the interactions of human cultures and natural environments, and in doing so, conceived landscape as a “cultural entity- the distinctive product of interactions between people and topography” (Wylie, 2009). Sauer’s revolutionary work directed the study of cultural geography “towards the historical reconstruction of cultural landscape forms through fieldwork and archival study” (Wylie, 2009). However, Sauer’s work did receive criticism. Hartshorne (1939) critiqued the inclusion of objective and subjective elements (land itself, and the perception of land) into landscape, believing that the term “could not serve as the basis of a properly scientific geography.”.

Natural landscape

In 1925, Sauer also writes about the idea of morphology, which is “the causal study of relief forms” (p. 33). This is to describe the landscape, and look for formal patterns across differing landscapes to determine the links between it and culture. The idea is to create landscape composites, to measure future landscapes against. However, Sauer here discusses the issues with this definition, chiefly, that relief is clearly not the only way to examine a natural landscape.

Figure 2- Diagram to show Sauer’s definition of what constitutes a ‘natural’ or a ‘cultural’ landscape (Sauer, 1963).


In Cartagena, a variety of data-collection methods were used to gain data for this report (see Figure 3). These were decided upon before the trip to Cartagena, with minor adjustments during the course of the day. For example, there was a very limited amount of time to conduct interviews, so rather than use stratified sampling, a purposeful interview of the tour guide was used. Morse (1991) writes “when obtaining a purposeful sample, the researcher selects a participant according to the needs of the study” (p. 129). The idea of adjusting data collection methods is also a topic of interest for Lincoln and Guba (1985), stating “In qualitative research the design needs to remain sufficiently open and flexible to permit exploration of whatever the phenomenon under study offers for inquiry”. 

Figure 3- Table to show data collection methods used in Cartagena, with justification of use and relevancy included (author’s own).

Data collection method usedWhy method chosenWhat did it achieve?
Field SketchesShows biases to what researcher thinks is important.Had to pick out details more carefully than just taking photos.
Purposeful interviewGain further, local, insight into the particular topic.Qualitative (anecdotal) and quantitative responses.
Collection of mapsExamine differences over time and how this impacts the relationship with the sea.Able to photograph tour guide’s maps (see Figures 4 and 5).
PhotographsQuick method to capture a broad vision of natural and cultural landscapeAn exact copy of what was seen in Cartagena; doesn’t omit any visual details

Figure 4- Map to show varying topography of Cartagena (author’s own photo taken of tour guide’s map).

Figure 5- Map to show the Siege of Cartagena in 209 BC. Some bodies of water no longer exist today (author’s own photo taken of tour guide’s map).

Results and Discussion

Due to word-count limitations, only the methods of purposeful interview with the tour guide, and an overlap for field sketches, collection of maps, and photographs will be examined. These methods have been chosen as they have the largest data sets and have the most relevant data to answer the research aim. Given space, note-taking of general observations, collection of quotes from the tour guide, and field guide for reflective notes would have been discussed as well.

Field sketches, maps and photographs

It is interesting to compare the differences between the field sketches that were drawn in Cartagena and the pictures taken of the same landscape.

Figure 6- A southerly view of Cartagena Harbour (author’s own).

Figure 7- Field sketch of the same landscape found in Figure 6 (author’s own). There is a clear focus on the cultural landscape (jetty, oil platform, ship). 

A comparison was also possible for the Roman amphitheatre. With influence of the Romans, ancient flows are visible into Cartagena, predating Minard’s work. This links to Castells’s work on “hubs and nodes” to view Cartagena in the light of being a node in the Roman naval network.

Figure 8- A panoramic view of Cartagena, featuring the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre (author’s own).

Figure 9- Field sketch of the landscape seen in Figure 8 (author’s own).

The key ways that Cartagena has been shaped by its relationship with the sea however are the influence of the Spanish navy, and the sea has moulded, and been moulded by, the landscapes of Cartagena. The architecture of Cartagena has also been shaped by the Navy. For example, the modern-day Naval arsenal takes up a prime position alongside the harbour (see Figure 10). 

Figure 10- The southern wall of the naval arsenal at Cartagena, adjacent to the N-332 road (author’s own).

Cartagena also has a Naval Museum, which hosts the Peral Submarine. This was the first ever electric submarine and was built by Isaac Peral for the Spanish Navy. Despite its innovativeness, the submarine experienced a number of technical difficulties which prevented its operational use (Mitiukov, 2013). Historical navy buildings are now being reclaimed by civilians of Cartagena, as seen with the repurposing of the naval prison into the university. 

The Spanish Navy reclaimed a large portion of land opposite their Headquarters (see Figure 11). This was primarily used as a place to conduct military parades. The sea itself has still kept an influence on this area however- it is now a civilian recreational promenade, with a marina for boat owners. This brings flows of people to the settlement and spend money in the local area. 

Figure 11- The reclaimed land opposite the Navy Headquarters (author’s own)

To draw upon Sauer’s ideas, this is not the only example of a natural landscape being morphed into a cultural one in Cartagena. One of the lagoons was drained to be built over by the Spanish Navy. In addition to this, we can see Cartagena being shaped by its relationship with the sea in the destruction of a hillside in 1875 with dynamite (see Figure 12). This was to create cool air flows into the city centre, to provide relief from summer temperatures of up to 40C in Cartagena (Moreno-Grau, 1998).

Figure 12- A view of the passageway created for cool air flow into Cartagena, created by dynamite (author’s own).

Purposeful interview

Ignacio was asked four questions by the author, and his responses are as follows:

  1. On a scale of 1-10 (1 being the lowest, 10 highest), to what level has Cartagena been influenced by the sea?

Response: “9”

  • Why do you think this?

Response: “The city has always lived through people coming from the sea”.

  • How would you describe this area in three words?

Response: “Friendly, illuminated, deeply-rooted”.

  • Has this landscape changed much in the last forty years? If yes, how has it changed?

Response: “It has. Everything tourists see today is less than 25 years old. There’s also been land reclamation”.

The first response shows there is a clear local belief the sea has a huge influence on Cartagena. Leading onto response 2, this clearly links with the concept of flow being observed in Cartagena throughout history, and particularly flows of people being important. We can see this with the civilisations mentioned earlier in the report. In response three the choice of ‘illuminated’ brings to mind the impact of culture on Cartagena’s landscape and how it relates to the sea, for example, scuba divers were observed in the harbour, the abundance of museums, and the university being located in what was the naval prison. The wording for response 4 was chosen as forty years is the approximate date of Franco’s death and the start of democracy in Spain. The impact of the last 25 years shows the earlier point about Roman architecture cannot be a key way how Cartagena has been shaped by its relationship with the sea. 


It is clear to see that the concepts of flow and both cultural and natural landscapes are embedded within the data to demonstrate how Cartagena has been shaped by the sea. In the three key findings mentioned throughout this report, we see this. It appears that the work of Sauer and Castells is most appropriate to examine Cartagena’s relationship with the sea and how it has been shaped by it. 

When considering the limitations to the methods of data collection, there are a few areas to show caution for this study. With conducting a purposeful interview comes an element of trust in what the interviewee is saying is true. This is remedied by Ignacio being a journalist- telling the facts is a key part of his job, and Ignacio was found by the university, and this has a certain level of accreditation that comes with it. 

Reference list:


Castells, M. (2000). Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society. The British Journal of Sociology. 51(1), pp. 5-24.

Conradson, D & Latham, A. (2010). Transnational urbanism: Attending to everyday practices and mobilities. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. 31(2), pp. 227-233.

Robinson, A.H. (1967). “The Thematic Maps of Charles Joseph Minard.” Imago Mundi, vol. 21, pp. 95–108

Hartshorne, R. (1939). The nature of geography: a critical survey of current thought in light of the past. Lancaster, PA: Association of American Geographers

Lincoln Y.S. & Guba E.G. (1985) Naturalistic Inquiry. Sage Publications, Beverley Hills, California. 

Mitiukov, N. (2013). Isaac Peral’s Submarine and World Shipbuilding. Voennyi Sbornik. 1(1), pp. 4-12.

Moreno‐Grau, S., Bayo, J., Elvira‐Rendueles, B., Angosto, J. M., Moreno, J. M., & Moreno‐Clavel, J. (1998). Statistical evaluation of three years of pollen sampling in Cartagena, Spain. Grana37(1), 41-47.

Morse J.M. (1991) Strategies for sampling. Qualitative Nursing Research: A Contemporary Dialogue, Sage, Newbury Park, California, pp. 127–145. 

Pratt, G. (2009). The Dictionary of Human Geography. (5th ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. pp 257.

Sauer, C.O (1925). The morphology of landscape. University of California Publications in Geography 2(2). pp 19–54. 

Sauer, C.O. (1963) [1925]. The morphology of landscape. Reprinted in J. Leighly, ed., Land and life: selections from the writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. pp 315–50. 

Schivelbusch, W. (1986). The Railway Journey- The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century. (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Wylie, J. (200)9. The Dictionary of Human Geography. (5th ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. Pp 409.


Hempworth, M. (1989). Geography of the Information Economy. London: Belhaven Press. 

Grandjean, M. (2015). Historical Data Visualization: Mapping Migration Flows in 1862. [Online]. [26 March 2019]. Available from:


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