Order of the Catholic Monarchs to Establish the House of Trade (1503 - 1522)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias
Founded in 1503 by a Royal Order of Spain's Catholic Monarchs, The Casa de Contratación de las Indias (House of Trade with the Indies) was responsible for numerous aspects of Spain's trade monopoly with the Americas and Asia.
Floor Plan of the Part of the House of Trade that Lay Adjacent to the Alcázar of Seville (1588-02-25)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias
It was initially housed in Seville's Royal Shipyards, from where it moved almost immediately to the Royal Alcázar, conducting its business in this building until it moved again: this time to Cádiz, in 1717.
Map of Cádiz City (1674)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias
Cádiz became the institution's home until it ceased to exist, in 1790. It occupied a number of buildings, none of which were purpose-built for it.
An Organization for Trade Administration
Plan of the Court House of the Merchants' Guild in Cádiz. (1601)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias
It was just a few years after the discovery of the Americas that the Spanish authorities became aware of the need for a series of institutions that would deal specifically with the numerous matters resulting from trade with the newly discovered lands.
The Dudum Siquidem Papal Bull (1493-09-26)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias
Successive papal bulls granted the Spanish Crown a series of exclusive privileges over the territories it had discovered. Among other things, these papal documents legitimized the trade monopoly, creating a need for a sophisticated organization.
Proposal for Transporting Quicksilver from Almadén to the Americas (1751-01-29)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias
The House of Trade (La Casa de la Contratación) was responsible for the many and varied matters relating to overseas trade. At different times, it acted as a court of law, a logistics hub, and a scientific and academic institution.
Methods of Calculating Ships' Tonnages (1714)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias
A Customs Organization
Every shipment of goods from Spain to the Americas passed through the House of Trade, where it was painstakingly documented. The aim of this documentation was to ensure that merchants paid their taxes—as they were legally required to do—in a timely manner.
Juan de Lizarraga's Coat of Arms (1609)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias
It was especially important to be able to calculate the maximum capacity of every ship, to prevent them from subsequently increasing their loads.
Unsurprisingly, not everybody always adhered strictly to the law, and throughout its existence the House of Trade had to battle against a thriving smuggling industry.
It also controlled the passage of individuals to the Indies. People making this journey had to prove, through a range of documents, that they were authorized to do so, and were not in the prohibited category.
Facade and Floorplan of the House of Trade's Prison (1608-05-20)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias
A Court of Law
It was responsible for resolving trade disputes arising from trade with the New World. It also dealt with civil and criminal cases, when they related to events that had taken place on board ships bound for the Indies. As a result, the House of Trade had its own prison, which was separate from that of the appellate court known as the Real Audiencia.
Plan of the House of Trade's Warehouses. (1616)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias
A Logistics Hub
One of its key functions was to ensure that the people and goods being transported faced the smallest possible risk of accidents. It therefore organized journeys in fleets, in which ships traveled together (in a flotilla), escorted by a fleet of warships.
Drawing Showing the Location of the Ships Bizarra and Peregrina when they Caught Fire in the Bay of Cádiz. (1760)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias
A Technical Inspection Service
To ensure that the journeys went as smoothly as they could, technicians from the House of Trade inspected every ship before it set sail. The aim was to check it was in good condition and to ensure, as far as possible, that it would be able to complete the ocean crossing successfully.
Map of the Caribbean and Lands Between Mexico and Spain (1596)Archivos Estatales
A Scientific Organization
The House of Trade compiled and categorized scientific information, in particular geographical information. This was essential for supporting commercial and exploratory missions.
Advertisement for Training in Navigation (1640-11-27)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias
An Academic Institution
It was also responsible for training and certifying the technicians who were essential to its work.
The skills required by those who worked for the House of Trade were highly specialized, and at the time these individuals were at the cutting edge of science and technology. This meant that the House of Trade often needed to train and certify its own staff.
View of Seville from the River's West Bank (1672)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias
The House of Trade with the Indies is an example of the Spanish Crown's administrative sophistication in the early modern period. It left behind an extraordinary documentary legacy, which is a testament to every aspect of trade between Europe, the Americas, and Asia, now housed in Seville's General Archive of the Indies.
Text: Javier Vélez, General Archive of the Indies
Images: General Archive of the Indies. Ministry of Culture and Sport, Spain.
This exhibition is part of the First Voyage Around the World project.