Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2015
by Kellen D. Smith
Starting in the 15th century, the Spanish explored and conquered much of Southern, Central, and the southern part of North America and many of the islands in the Caribbean Ocean. As these conquistadors came upon these new lands and the inhabitants, they discovered many riches they would soon plunder. These riches included many things from precious metals, such as silver and gold, to new types of food, such as corn and honey. Since Spain had claimed these lands and what they included, as its own, the Crown started a trading system between Spain and its colonies. With the development of a trading system, a way to control that trade became necessary. This control came by way of La Casa de Contratación, the House of Trade. The Casa de Contratación had the power of regulating commerce among Spain and the colonies, had judicial powers concerning trade and navigation, helped with communication overseas, contributed to educating "pilots" in navigation, geography, and pilotage, and had several other duties (Mabry 90). Also, the House was the main mint of gold and silver received from the Americas, and many Spanish emigrants sailed from here to the New World (Seville).
The Crown created the Casa de Contratación on January 20, 1503 in the city of Seville, and the monarch gave a monopoly of trade with the Americas (Romans). This was the first step in the development of an administrative system to control trade and navigation between Spain and the New World (Haring 21). Although Casa de Contratación means trade or commerce, it acted more as a private house of commerce for trade between the Crown and the Indies (the Americas) (Haring 22). Once the Casa was created, the Crown appointed three officials to control the new body. These three positions included the tesorero (treasurer); the factor (businessman); and the escribano-contador (secretary and comptroller) (La Casa). These were the three main positions, and for many years, they did not change. The duties expected of the officials were to correspond with the royal factors in the colonies, pay close attention to the needs of the new settlements, determine the best time of the year for shipping, and decide which vessels were the most convenient to send. Other offices were created throughout the history of the Casa, but the ones that remained the same were the three main offices.
The Casa controlled trade between the colonies and Spain. One example of this control is, under Isabella and Ferdinand, new ordinances in 1503 revealed a desire of a governmental monopoly of American trade (Haring 26). These new ordinances, however, thwarted the colonists' economy and future expansion of the colony Hispañola. After many complaints and numerous petitions, the Crown lifted many of the restraints on the trade, and it allowed people of Hispañola and Castillians free trade for ten years. By only letting subjects of Castille, the Crown limited the practice of free trade with the New World (Haring 26). Another way the Crown regulated trade was by setting up corresponding Casas, called royal "factories," in the colonies. For instance, two months after the origination House in Seville, the Crown set up one of these factories in Hispañola to supervise the king's trade (Haring 26-27). However, as time and the idea of a monopoly passed, the royal factories became nothing more than customhouses; they fell under the direction of officials, like those of the Casa of Seville, including the treasurer, factor, and comptroller. These three officials shortly became known as the "royal officials"(Haring 27). Although these were the royal officials, they were limited to not much more than collecting customs and registering cargoes. They did not deal much with the regulation of commerce(Harring 27). The Casa did heavily regulate the commerce through the correspondence between the officials and the Crown by way of having the officials issue licenses, receive and answer dispatches, contracts, etc.(Haring 30). Also, the officials were to keep track of the market, buy or trade only when profitable for the crown, and keep detailed records of those transactions (Haring 22). And, if they wanted to trade or purchase goods of their own, the officials would have to keep separate accounts and send this information to the king. Having to do all of this kept the occurrence of such trade at a minimum (Haring 31). Later, it became prohibited for any officials, their deputies or servants to trade with the Indies, under penalty heavy fines forfeitures, and loss of office(Haring 34). Regulations and new ordinances were created and dispersed throughout the rest of the life of the Casa to keep the commerce under the Crown's control.
Not only did the House regulate trade, but also it presided over judicial matters concerning trade and navigation. Around 1507, the Casa started having conflicts with the law courts over its entitlement of "jurisdiction in cases involving its rules," and collided with the "municipality over questions of tolls and the privileges of its officials" (Haring 29). From very early on, the Casa was a court for cases relating to violations of its regulations, disputes among merchants and mariners involved in trade with the New World (Haring 40). The House composed a panel something like the "consulados" of Spanish merchants in many Spanish cities. The Casa did not have much power over criminal matters because they, more than likely, relied on the municipalities to take care of these types of troubles. This division created much tension between the city and the House (Haring 40). As a result years of tension and interference of city officers into the Casa's business, King Ferdinand issued a decree explaining the areas of rule the Casa was to have(Haring 41). These categories included "all lawsuits involving contracts or partnerships in American commerce, insurance or freights, procedure to be governed by the rules and customs of the consulado of Burgos"(Haring 41). The Casa also had the authority, both civil and criminal, in all cases of barratry. All people arrested by the Casa were to be imprisoned in the town in which they were arrested. And, finally, the House had the power to hire "carpenters, smiths, calkers, and other workmen to repair" and make fit the vessels intended for American navigation(Haring 41). All appeals were brought before the royal justices in Seville, and later, those appeals in the colonies were taken to the Council of the Indies(Haring 41-42). The House of the Indies was created to control the judicial and political matters of the Americas (Haring 42). The Casa's power in the courts began when the passengers and the crew were on board and the cargo was loaded, and ended when the ship had been returned and the voyage was over. In 1543, the passing of an ordinance created a type of merchants' gild. With this, the merchants came to the Casa, in Seville, on the second day of each year to select from among the merchants a Prior and two Consuls. These elected officials took charge of civil pleas that the Casa had no time for anymore(Haring 43-44). Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Consulados were set up in the New World in major cities, such as Mexico and Lima (Haring 45).
Communications increased between the Americas and Spain through the Casa. As trade increased between the House and the colonies, correspondence between the Crown and the New World was bound to increase. This occurred because merchants were required to keep detailed purchases, detailed logs were kept on voyages, the royal officers recorded all transactions in the colonies and reported them to the king, etc. Also, all judicial matters had to go to the Casa in Seville until the Council of the Indies was created. This created a mandatory communication between the two bodies.
Another large contribution that the Casa provided was the creation of the Hydrographic Bureau and School of Navigation, in the first part of the sixteenth century. This was the earliest and most important of its kind in the history of modern Europe(Haring 35). The head of the school was the pilot major, an office that was created in 1508, and first given to Américo Vespucci(Haring 35). One of the duties of the pilot major was "to construct charts of the American discoveries, and teach and examine pilots for the navigation to the New World"(Haring 36). Many experienced mariners helped the head pilot with his duties. Also, the position of cosmographer came about around 1523, and it included the tasks of chart making and the "manufacture and improvement of nautical instruments" (Haring 36). Many of the pilots that were later titled, rarely did any navigating again after being given their title. Therefore, instead of being pilots, they were nothing more than geographers. Due to this, the only title employed later in the century was that of cosmographer (Haring 37). The instruction of mariners was transferred from the pilot major to the professor of cosmography. However, the pilot major still had the responsibility of the final examination, and he had "general supervision over map and instrument making whether within the Casa or by individuals outside" (Haring 38). In the seventeenth century, only two cosmographers were assigned to the Casa: the "catedrático," professor, and the "fabricador," map and instrument maker(Haring 38). The title of naval captain, "capitán de mar," was given to a few "foreigners of distinction." They were noted because of their nautical training and scientific accomplishments. The Crown was especially impressed with a few of them and employed them, letting their salaries be determined by the Casa de Contratación (Haring 38). Although the Spanish tried to exclude foreigners, especially the Portuguese, from American navigation, many of their naval captains or mariners were foreign born. For example, Vespucci was a Florentine; Sebastian Cabot was born in Venice; Ribero, Magellan, the Faleros, and others were Portuguese (Haring 38-39). The Portuguese produced the most "cosmopolitan and competent mariners for distant enterprise"(Haring 39). As well as its function, the nautical school drew much attention from visitors from the north of Europe. The well-renowned navigator, Stephen Borough, visited Seville in 1558 and was invited to visit the Casa de Contratación. This was a great honor as only masters and pilots are admitted to the Casa. As a result, in 1563, "Borough was appointed chief pilot and one of the four masters of the Queen's ships in the Medway"(Haring 39). Not only was did the Casa help with the advancement of navigation practices, but it was also famous all over Europe for its skill and teaching facilities.
The Casa de Contratación, or House of Trade, was a major institution in the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Spain and its colonies. As the colonies grew, so did the practice of trade. Not only did the Crown want the exploited riches of the colonies to be transported back to Spain, but the colonies also needed supplies and goods from Europe. Oftentimes the Casa restricted the trade to certain people and to certain ways, and frequently prevented the growth of colonies, physically and economically. However, regulations and deregulations again returned some of the privileges to the colonies. The House contributed much to the development judicial practices in the colonies. Also, the improvement of navigation systems and nautical instruments were crucial to the success of Spain and its colonies. The Casa was not always, however, viewed as a good thing. Because of all of its harsh regulations and stiff rules, the colonies would sometimes suffer due to lack of supplies and such. The officials systems also created room for abuse of power in the New World. This abuse was on both ends--meaning the officers would abuse their power as far as the colonists were concerned and they would also abuse their power by not adhering to the guidelines set by the Casa. This affected how things were said they were run and how things actually were run.
The main years of thriving for the Casa de Contratación were during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It controlled commerce, navigation, judicial services and much of the communication with the New World until its decline and eventual abolition in 1791.Works Cited Page
Haring, Clarence Henry. Trade and Navigation Between Spain and the Indies. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1918.
Mabry, Donald J. Colonial Latin America Colonial Latin America. Coral Springs,Florida: Llumina Press, 2002.
Rosati A., Hugo. "La Casa de Contratación." La Administración Colonial. 1996. Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. June 19, 2003 http://www.puc.cl/sw_educ/historia/america/html/1_1_1.html
"Romans, Moors, Christians and Jews…the history of Seville." Luxury Traveler. 2003. Moorehouse and Co. June 19, 2003. http://www.luxurytraveler.com/seville.html
"Seville." FreeEssays. 2002. FreeEssays. June 19, 2003