Spanish Navy


Historical Background - Hydrography - Armada Española - Ministerio de Defensa - Gobierno de España

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Wednesday, 17 January 2018 - document to 11:48:46

Historical Background Hydrography

The Instituto Hidrográfico de la Marina as we currently know it did not operate under such a name from the start, and it was not even based in Cádiz as it is now.

To find the roots of the activities carried out by the Instituto we should go back to the Casa de Contratación, established in the Atarazanas at Seville in the early 16th C, specifically in 1503, by the Catholic King and Queen. The Casa de Contratación, despite being subordinated to the Consejo Real y Supremo de Indias in 1524, directed for a long time the discovery, colonization and commerce with the New World. This latter subject is of the utmost relevance, as it was there that the first complete world charts were compiled, which makes it the first nautical university as well as the first organisation to coordinate and produce nautical cartography on an official and organized basis.

When the Casa de Contratación was officially ended in 1790, it was evident the need for some body to fill the gap that this disappearance had left. Although there was a Hydrographic Deposit since 1770, the edition of the "Atlas Marítimo de España" (Maritime Atlas of Spain) by Vicente Tofiño -the most important cartographic work in Spanish History-, prompted the creation of some organization for the co-ordination and standardization of the cartographic production. So, by the R.O. dated 17 December 1797 it was established the Dirección de Trabajos Hidrográficos or Dirección de Hidrografía (Directorate of Hydrographic Works or Directorate of Hydrography). Among its initial works, we should note the edition of the first charts of the celebrated Malaspina Expedition (1789-1794), one of the brightest episodes of the Eighteen Century.

The Directorate of Hydrography had a little over one century of indefatigable work. At the middle of the 19th Century, the Hydrographic Commissions of the Peninsule, Antillas and Philippines were established, in order to re-survey Peninsular waters and to create cartography covering Spanish possessions overseas. This enormous task resulted in one of the largest and finest collections of nautical cartography of its age.

Hydrographic works in Spain were completely re-organized at the beginning of the 20th Century. The Directorate of Hydrography was terminated, and its tasks were distributed among several organizations.

In 1908, the Specialization of Hydrography in the Navy was officially acknowledged, and the Steamboat "Urania" was designated as Academy for Hydrography. In 1942 it was replaced by the former Royal Yatch "Giralda".

In 1921, Spain became a Founding Member of the International Hydrographic Bureau, an organization established to foster cooperation and standardization among Hydrographic Offices of their Member States.

In 1927 the Observatorio de Marina de San Fernando established its Section IV, Servicio Hidrográfico de la Armada (Navy Hydrographic Office).

It was then that Surveying Vessels "Tofiño" and "Malaspina" were built and, after a tumultuous beginning due to the Civil War, they carried out enormous cartographic work covering the Canary Island and Spanish colonies in Africa until the 70's. Also, the former was the site of the Escuela de Hidrografía (School of Hydrography).

Establishment of the IHM

In 1943, considering the need to further hydrography, the hydrographic service was detached from the Observatorio de Marina and so the Instituto Hidrográfico de la Marina was born by law dated 30 December, sited in Cádiz and as an organization under the Navy Staff to promote cartography and achieve wider action in all functions related to hydrography and navigation. The first director was future Rear Admiral D. Fernando Balén García. All staff, equipment and supplies previously at the Observatorio de Marina de San Fernando, were gradually moved to the new Office. The facilities of the Instituto were destroyed in August 1947, when a mine depot in the nearby Submarine Defense Base accidentally detonated. Rebuilding was finished in 1955, when the new building received again all sections and branches, previously disseminated in barracks and private houses.

In 1970, the Instituto Hidrográfico de la Marina became a Navy Organization directly under the Admiral Head of Staff by Law no 3853 dated 31 December. The Law on the Organization of Cartography (7/1986) states that the production and maintenance of basic Nautical Cartography belongs to the State Administration, through the Instituto Hidrográfico de la Marina. So, it has the same competence level as the Instituto Geográfico Nacional (National Geographic Institute) with regards to the production of official basic cartography, of compulsory use for mariners.

In 2004, Instruction no 81/2004 dated 12 April the Admiral Head of the Navy Staff established the Maritime Action Force (Fuerza de Acción Marítima, FAM), tasked with the protection of national maritime interest and the control of maritime areas of national sovereignty or interest.

The aforementioned instruction determined that the Instituto Hidrográfico now depends organically from the Admiral Head of FAM as a Specialized Centre, and assigns the Director with organic and operative command of Hydrographic Vessels and the Group of Portable Hydrographic Launches to fulfil such hydrographic and scientific tasks as were assigned to the IHM from its inception.

On 1 December 2007, Royal Decree 1545/2007 dated 23 November entered into force, regulating the National Cartographic System. This Decree further regulates some aspects of aforementioned Law 7/1986, which were still undeveloped. Basically it reiterates the same principles, and it specifically states: “It belongs to the Instituto Hidrográfico de la Marina all planning, production scheduling, creation and maintenance of nautical cartography”.

To fulfil its mission as a scientific and technical organization, it has a number of main tasks which are detailed in the “Tasks” section of this site.

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