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The Spanish-American consulados (merchant guilds) had their roots in medieval Mediterranean institutions formed to protect merchant interests after the breakdown of the Roman Empire. Their central feature was a tribunal to hear commercial litigation. Although rooted in Greco-Roman legal precedents, the Spanish merchant guilds derived more directly from Italian sea consulates, which were highly organized by the end of the twelfth century at Genoa, Pisa, Siena, Bologna, and elsewhere. From Italy the institution spread northwestward through Provence and Languedoc to several towns along the Aragon coast from Perpignan to Valencia as well as to Majorca. The most important of these came to be Barcelona's Council of One Hundred (Concell de Cent), which James I authorized in 1249. In the foreign ports with which Barcelona traded, it appointed consuls who could govern, judge, and punish all the subjects of the Crown of Aragon who resided in those ports. The fourteenth-century Libre del Consolat de mar of the Barcelona guild thus became one of the earliest codes of maritime and commercial law. This Barcelona sea consulate (consolat de mar), although not officially chartered until 1347, became the model for those which followed in the Spanish world. By that date it had a commercial court elected by the merchants that heard commercial cases.

By 1450 eight towns in the Kingdom of Aragon had similar commercial courts. These courts eliminated the expense of lawsuits and strife in mercantile litigation because they circumvented the legalism and obstruction encountered in the ordinary courts. In addition, the merchants usually elected a junta to represent them in negotiations with other organizations and at trade fairs, to administer the finances of the guild, and to enforce trade regulations within the area of the consulado's jurisdiction. The early consulados were closely allied to the municipal administration of their respective cities and played important roles in the economic and political structure of eastern Spain by 1450.

After the union of Aragon and Castile in 1479, Catalonian commercial customs influenced those of Castile as the Spanish Empire began to take shape. There had been merchant guilds in Burgos, Bilbao, and other northern Castilian towns for half a century before the union with Aragon, but it was not until after unification that the judicial court privileges were granted in Castile. Burgos (1494) and Bilbao (1511) were the first Castilian towns to receive royal sanction for consulados. In 1543 the Crown authorized a consulado to the merchants of Seville (Universidad de los Cargadores de las Indias), where it held a monopoly on the trade with America. To supervise the colonial trade, the Crown had established the Casa De Contratación (Board of Trade) in Seville in 1503, after the pattern of the Board of Trade established in Barcelona to supervise Mediterranean commerce in the fourteenth century. The Casa de Contratación controlled every detail of trade, and the consulado established in Seville in 1543 worked closely with it to protect the merchants of the city, strenuously resisting any curtailment of the monopoly they held on the trade with the Indies. The consulado of Seville supervised the fleet system that channeled legal trade with the Indies through the annual fairs at Portobelo for Peru and Veracruz (or Xalapa) for New Spain.

Establishment of consulados in Mexico and Lima extended the control of the Seville merchant guild. Patterned after those in the Spanish towns, they were composed of the chief importers, mostly representatives of Seville merchants. These first Latin American consulados thus served to strengthen the Seville merchant monopoly over trade with the Indies. Agitation for a Mexican consulado began as early as 1580; it was authorized on 15 June 1592 and was formally established in Mexico City in 1604. The Crown authorized the Peruvian consulado on 29 December 1593, but its organization was not completed until February 1613. In the seventeenth century these two consulados enjoyed great power as the institution of the European residents, serving as a sympathetic tribunal to hear disputes over contracts, bankruptcy, shipping, insurance, and other commercial matters. They established consular deputations in towns throughout their respective viceroyalties and developed large funds that came to be an important source for development of public works and loans to the viceregal governments.

The merchants in the viceregal capitals jealously guarded their privileged monopolies and successfully opposed any new consulados in America for two centuries, despite petitions for such institutions from other cities from the mid-seventeenth century forward. With the exception of a consulado in Bogotá, which functioned between 1694 and 1712, outside of Lima and Mexico City the only mercantile organization permitted in Spanish America consisted of some commercial deputies who exercised limited functions as commercial judges and tax collectors in an ill-defined system that frequently led to confusion, delay, and sizable backlogs of cases.

Under Charles III and Charles IV, late in the eighteenth century, the efforts to liberalize commercial activity and to reduce the Seville-Cádiz monopoly finally led to formation of several new consulados. Manila gained a consulado in 1769, with jurisdiction over the Philippines. Then, between 1793 and 1795, the Crown erected new consulados in Caracas, Guatemala, Buenos Aires, Havana, Veracruz, Santiago de Chile, Guadalajara, and Cartagena. Several of these had already been operating limited commercial courts as consular deputations of the consulados of Mexico or Lima. Although apparently never formally chartered by the Crown, consular deputations in Montevideo and San Juan also evolved into institutions operating as consulados in the early nineteenth century. All these new consulados had as their "principal duty" the protection and advancement of commerce. In addition to their judicial functions, these newer consulados came to have an important role in the development of the economic infrastructure of the colonies. There were also new consulados formed during the struggle for independence, including one at Puebla in Mexico and at Guayaquil, Cuenca, and Angostura in South America, all of them shortlived. At least one consulado, in Valparaíso, Chile, was established after independence.

Because of their close association with Spanish peninsular interests, most of the consulados were abolished during or soon after independence. The Spanish government abolished the institution in 1829, although Valencia revived its consulado in 1934. In Latin America, however, a few consulados survived well into the nineteenth century, notably in Chile until 1875, in Guatemala until 1871, and in Argentina until 1862. Representing the principle of commercial monopoly, however, all of them eventually fell before the dominance of classical liberal economic philosophy in the nineteenth century.

See alsoCommercial Policy: Colonial Spanish America .


Robert Sidney Smith, The Spanish Guild Merchant: A History of the Consulado, 1250–1700 (1940; repr. 1972), provides the best overview of the institution of the consulado in the Spanish world; Robert Sidney Smith, "Research Report on Consulado History," in Homenaje a don José María de la Peña y Cámara (1969), pp. 121-140, provides a useful survey of much of the literature on the topic. On the origins of the institution, Stanley S. Jados, Consulate of the Sea and Related Documents (1975), is useful; and on the Seville merchant society, Ruth Pike, Aristocrats and Traders: Sevillean Society in the Sixteenth Century (1972), is an excellent introduction.

Several of the Latin American consulados have received treatment. C. Norman Guice, "The Consulado of New Spain, 1594–1795" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, 1952) surveys the Mexican consulado. See also Louisa Schell Hoberman, Mexico's Merchant Elite, 1590–1660: Silver, State, and Society (1991); David A. Brading, Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico, 1763–1810 (1971); and Javier Ortiz De La Tabla Ducasse, Memorias políticas y económicas del consulado de Veracruz, 1796–1822 (1985). On the Peruvian consulado, see Lawrence A. Clayton, "Sources in Lima for the Study of the Colonial Consulado of Peru," in The Americas 33 (1977): 457-469; and John Melzer, Bastion of Commerce in the City of Kings: The Consulado de Comercio of Lima, 1593–1887 (1991). On Caracas, see Manuel Nunes Dias, El real consulado de Caracas (1793–1810) (1971), and Humberto Tandrón, El real consulado de Caracas y el comercio exterior de Venezuela (1976); on Guatemala, see Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., Class Privilege and Economic Development: The Consulado de Comercio of Guatemala, 1793–1871 (1966); on Buenos Aires, see Germán O. Tjarks, El consulado de Buenos Aires y sus proyecciones en la historia del Río de la Plata (1962). See also Susan Migden Socolow, The Merchants of Buenos Aires, 1778–1810 (1978). On the brief history of the consulado in Bogotá, see Robert S. Smith, "The Consulado de Santa Fe de Bogotá," in Hispanic American Historical Review 45, no. 3 (1965): 442-451.

Additional Bibliography

Arazola Corvera, Ma Jesús. Hombres, barcos y comercio de la ruta Cádiz-Buenos Aires, 1737–1757. Sevilla: Diputación de Sevilla, 1998.

Bustos Rodríguez, Manuel. Los comerciantes de la carrera de Indias en el Cadiz del siglo XVIII (1713–1775). Cádiz: Servico de Publicaciones, Universidad de Cádiz, 1995.

Fisher, John Robert. The Economic Aspects of Spanish Imperialism in America, 1492–1810. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997.

Hausberger, Bernd, and Antonio Ibarra. Comercio y poder en América colonial: Los consulados de comer-ciantes, siglos XVII-XIX. Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2003.

Hill, Ruth. Hierarchy, Commerce and Fraud in Bourbon Spanish America: A Postal Inspector's Exposé. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005.

Stein, Stanley J. and Barbara H. Stein. Silver, Trade, and War: Spain and America in the Making of Early Modern Europe. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

                                    Ralph Lee Woodward Jr.