Casa de Contratación
Casa de Contratación
The "House of Trade," was established by the crown in Seville in 1503, initially with the limited but vital brief of overseeing the purchase, transport, warehousing, and sale of merchandise exported to and imported from Spain's newly discovered American territories. As discovery and conquest spread during the next two decades from Hispaniola to Cuba and Jamaica, Venezuela, Central America, and Mexico, the Casa's commercial and financial responsibilities multiplied. Moreover, as the only crown agency competent in this period to deal with American affairs as a whole, it also regulated the flow of passengers and assumed a wide range of additional responsibilities, including the training of pilots, the preparation and provision of maps and charts, the exercise of probate in respect of the estates of Spaniards who died in America, and the resolution of legal disputes concerning commerce.
The broader administrative responsibilities of the Casa were curtailed by the creation of the Council of the Indies in 1524. Thereafter, the Casa functioned primarily as a Board of Trade. It was headed by three key officials: a factor, responsible for the provisioning and inspection of shipping and the purchase on behalf of the crown of strategic commodities required in America, including arms, munitions, and mercury; a treasurer, entrusted with the registration and safe custody of all bullion and jewels landed in Seville; and an accountant-secretary, responsible for maintaining accounts relating to the Casa's internal and external activities. These functions were exercised from the body's splendid headquarters in the Alcázar of Seville, a prestigious base that emphasized the importance to the monarchy of the regulation of imperial commerce, not only in terms of the provision of revenue—the Casa oversaw the collection of the Almojarifazgo, or tax on maritime trade, the Avería, or defense tax, and other taxes—but also as a means of preserving America as a uniquely Spanish, Catholic environment.
In this and related matters, including the control of contraband, the Casa, like other Hapsburg organs of government, tended by the seventeenth century to become obsessed with bureaucratic detail, losing sight of the broader need to adjust commercial policies and practices to take account of the changing economic conditions in America. Its registers of shipping, passengers, and cargoes were meticulously maintained, for example (and constitute a source of fundamental importance for historians of imperial trade), but little consistent effort was made to curb widespread fraud and contraband even within Seville, let alone in American ports.
The history of the Casa is closely related to the role of Seville as the only Spanish port licensed to trade with America for the greater part of the Hapsburg period. By the end of the seventeenth century this monopoly had been transferred, in effect, to Cádiz, which enjoyed easier access to the sea (and, thus, to the foreign manufactures required for re-export to America), although administrative inertia delayed the transfer of the Casa to Cádiz until 1717. It functioned there with diminishing efficiency until 1790, when it was abolished in the wake of the radical restructuring of imperial trade undertaken in 1778–1789.
Eduardo Trueba, Sevilla marítima (siglo XVI) (1986).
Antonia Heredia Herrera, Sevilla y los hombres del comercio (1700–1800) (1989).
José Miguel Delgado Barrado, "Las relaciones comerciales entre España e Indias durante el siglo XVI: Estado de la cuestión," in Revista de Indias 50, no. 188 (1990): 139-150.
Romano, Ruggiero. Mecanismo y elementos del sistema económico colonial americano, siglos XVI-XVIII. México: El Colegio de México, Fideicomiso Historia de las Américas: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2004.
Topik, Steven, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr L. Frank. From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500–2000. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.
John R. Fisher