A Spanish galleon on the high seas, c. 1550. The primary function of the Casa de Contratación was to organize the trade fleets that sailed between Spain and the Indies.
The Catholic kings founded the Spanish Board of Trade (Casa de la Contratación de las Indias, hereafter referred to as Casa) in January 1503 as the institution responsible for the regulation of trade and movement of goods with the Indies. The Crown did not hold a monopoly, as was the case with the Portuguese Casa da Guiné e Mina and the Casa da India, but rather allowed individual merchants to take the initiative. The Casa was established in Seville because this was the main Spanish center for Atlantic trade, a principal location of merchants and capital, with a port, customs facilities, a population of 40,000, and an extremely productive rural hinterland. Its first factor and controller was Francisco Pinelo (d. 1509), a Genoese who had settled in Seville.
The duties of the Casa consisted of: (1) organizing the monopoly of the traffic of goods during the preparations for expeditions to the Indies; (2) licensing and registering the ships involved and their cargo; (3) nominating those in charge and accepting bonds; (4) controlling passengers; (5) repatriating the belongings of those who had died; and (6) holding the money from this trade that was the property of the king (the so-called quinto real, or “royal fifth,” on precious metals and other imported goods, other taxes, etc.). From 1511 it held civil and criminal jurisdiction over everything relating to trade and shipping for the Indies, and its three main officials were known as jueces oficiales (official judges). The Consejo de Indias (Council of the Indies), founded in 1524, was the court of appeal for criminal cases and civil suits involving amounts of more than 40,000 maravedis, and the Consulado, or Universidad de cargadores a Indias in Seville, established in 1543, was responsible for lesser cases. In 1579 the role of president of the Casa was created, and in 1583 the Casa was divided into two distinct courts, administrative and judicial.
The main duty of the Casa was to organize the fleets that went on the Carrera de Indias. Although it was already common for ships to sail as a group in the early years, for safety reasons this practice became the norm because ships were so often captured by pirates (189 between 1536 and 1568). Philip II (1527–1598) made it compulsory to travel in a fleet from 1561 onward. The fleets sailed from Seville-Sanlcar de Barrameda in April and August and, after a stopover in the Canaries, reached the Caribbean. From either La Dominica or Guadaloupe, where one fleet sailed on to New Spain (Veracruz) and the other to Tierra Firme (Cartagena de Indias/Nombre de Dios or Porto Bello). The return trip went via Havana, where the two fleets and the royal armada, which had spent the winter there, were reunited before August to avoid the hurricanes. The journey home, which had a stopover in the Azores, lasted two months. The number of ships in each fleet varied, although it was normally between ten and thirty. The frequency of voyages eventually was reduced from twice a year to once and, by the seventeenth century, to a fleet every two or three years. This pattern was maintained in the eighteenth century. The establishment of registered shipping from 1754 and the regulations on Comercio Libre (free trade) of 1765 and 1778 meant the end of the fleets, which remained, although in a much reduced form, for Venezuela and Mexico until 1783.
The Casa came to be the first genuine naval academy in Europe (Pérez-Mallaína 1992). In 1508 the king established the post of piloto mayor (master pilot), which carried the duty of drawing up the padrón real (royal register) showing the results of geographical discoveries. From this register, sailing charts were copied for use by pilots onboard ships. The master pilot also had the task of testing those who hoped to be pilots on the route to the Indies. The first master pilot was Amerigo Vespucci (d. 1512). In December 1552 a chair in Cosmography and Navigation was established in the Casa, the first of its kind, because of the need to train an increasingly large number of pilots to undertake the Indies voyages.
The controlling duties exercised by the Casa meant that it became an ideological filter of the books and people that traveled to the Indies, with the explicit intention of avoiding any “spiritual risk” to the natives or the colonists, as well as preventing spying. The following were thus forbidden: foreigners, Jews, Muslims, converts who had been disciplined or reconciled by the Inquisition, along with their children and grandchildren, gypsies (from 1570), clergy without royal permission, and unmarried women and slaves, unless either of these latter groups were in service. As far as books were concerned, carrying nonreligious works such as romantic, “chivalrous” novels was banned. The export of prayer books was encouraged, and Philip II granted a monopoly to the monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial for their sale in the Indies.
The fleets generally sailed from the bay of Cadiz in the last third of the seventeenth century to avoid the dangers and high accident rates of sailing the Guadalquivir. The change was also the result of the growing influence of merchants from Cadiz. The Casa officially moved to Cadiz in 1717. The administrative arm (Sala de Gobierno) disappeared, for its functions were transferred to the Intendencia General de Marina; only the judicial part remained (the Sala de Justicia), continuing to regulate the licensing of sailing and travel to the Indies, administering the possessions of those who died in the Indies, and resolving civil suits of the stevedores and sailors. However, trading conditions had already changed a great deal, and the Comercio Libre decrees of Charles III (1765, 1778) put an end to the remaining duties of the Casa. In 1783 the teaching and examination of pilots was transferred to the Colegio de San Telmo in Seville. Finally, in June 1790, a port court was created in Cadiz, and the Casa disappeared for good.
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