Saturday, 15 April 2017

La Casa de Contratación

In May this year celebrations will take place to mark the tercentenary of the arrival of the Casa de Contratación de Indias in Cádiz. It had first been established near the quayside in Sevilla in 1503 by royal decree of the Catholic Monarchs, Fernando and Isabel, and its purpose was to control  a monopoly on the vast trade with recently discovered Spanish America. It also collected 20% tax for the crown of Castilla on all imports. The archives of the Indies are still there, occupying no fewer than 8 kilometres of shelving. Sevilla soon became the nerve centre of the Spanish empire and ships plying the Indies route came and went from here on the river Guadalquivir, with Sanlúcar benefiting considerably. Here many traders established themselves as Cargadores de Indias, supplying wine, provisions and cargo to the ships, and some of their houses still survive, usually with a bodega and store on the ground floor and living quarters above.

The original in Sevilla, now lost (

As cargoes continued to increase, 600 ton weight limits had to be imposed on ships sailing up the Guadalquivir, and many found it more convenient to dock at Cádiz, which by 1680 had overtaken Sevilla in importance. King Felipe V therefore decided to move the Casa de Contratación to Cádiz in 1717, and after using various rented buildings, a new neoclassical purpose built complex was completed in 1783, containing the customs, mercantile consulate and the Casa de Contratación itself. It now houses provincial government offices. Among the main exports were textiles, iron goods, wine - mainly Sherry - oil and wheat, while imports included cochineal, indigo, copper, tin, tobacco, sugar, cacao and precious metals.

One facade of the Casa de Contratacion in Cadiz (

The city became very prosperous and looked like it. 1,000 heavily laden ships were coming and going every year and the population had nearly doubled, with many foreigners living there, but this prosperity began to decline with the arrival of free trade in 1790 when Cádiz lost its monopoly and ships could trade where they liked. The XIX century was very unkind to Spain as it suffered invasion from Napoleon and gradually lost nearly all of the colonies. The tercentenary will be celebrated with a mixture of pride and sadness.

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