previous chapter
Mere Merchants
next section

The Marchants Avizo indicates that this hard-won credit was to be directed primarily toward obtaining the scarce luxuries carrying high profit margins that came from the import trade. According to John Browne, a young merchant was to have an expert knowledge of such wares as pepper, cloves, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, sugar, calicos, cochineal, olive oil, white soap, and wine.[51] To this list we should add alum, woad, madder, indigo, tobacco, dried and fresh fruit, sweet wines, and such items of mercery and haberdashery as silks, velvets, laces, ribbons, linens, hats, handkerchiefs, fancy gloves, and other finery. The motives for purchasing such wares is suggested in the “caueat” Thomas Aldworth gave to his young nephew John:

[N]euer think the same ware which is best cheape and is most bought vp, that it will be best to bestowe your money theron, for ordinarily it falleth out, that the best cheape wares that is brought home, hath smaller vtterance and lesse profite, than such deare wares as there commeth but verie little quantitie of.[52]

The scarce, the exotic, and the small and easy to transport were the ideal wares. They might carry the highest prices abroad, but they yielded the greatest profits at home.

In consequence, overseas trade was essentially a well-orchestrated effort on the part of the city’s merchants to maximize imports. Monies received abroad were immediately paid out again to purchase spices, wine, oil, or some other scarce commodity. Restrictions on carrying coin or bullion out of Spain and other markets made this procedure essential for returning home with the proceeds of one’s sales. “And if after you haue bought al these wares,” Thomas Aldworth wrote to his factor, “there may be any surplus money remaining: do you bestow it in good cochenele, so far as it will rise.” The attraction of the import market was so strong that Bristolians were also willing to borrow or to use ready cash in order to participate in it. John Smythe in the 1540s not only transferred funds to the Iberian peninsula by bill of exchange but also shipped coin to Bordeaux and northern Spain to acquire commodities there. Thirty years later Robert Aldworth, acting for his uncle Thomas, borrowed money in England on bills of exchange to make his purchases in Spain. For the Levant trade, paying in cash was essential. Currants, it was said, “haue such an attractive power that noe discouragement can withhould the marchants of England from sending readie money and shippes to buy and lade the same” and “noe Commodities of this Kingdome (worthy the mentioning)” could be vented to purchase them “according to the vsual course of commerce.”[53]

A good picture of commerce conducted on these principles is offered by Smythe’s ledger. Despite his preference for venture accounting, periodically Smythe cast up his total profits from his export-import tallies. A look at his summary for the period January 1540 to November 1543 shows a gross profit of about £1,540, of which sales of exports accounted for about 38 percent and sales of imports for about 62 percent. Against these gains was almost £112 in losses, making a net profit of nearly £1,428, of which about 40 percent came from exports and about 60 percent from imports (Table 9). When Smythe’s exports are closely examined, his difficulties in turning a profit on them become clear. The English commodities upon which his outward trade relied in 1540–1543 were cloth, leather and skins, and beans and wheat. Later in the 1540s he also traded in lead, either newly smelted from the Mendips or old lead from the roofs and furnishings of the local monasteries. Cloth was his major trading item, but his profits on its sale were very meager. In August 1540, he laded thirty-eight of John Yerberry’s better fabrics aboard two vessels bound for Lisbon and Andalusia. Their value “clere abord” was £4 per cloth, or £152. When sold in Lisbon they earned net just about 8 percent profit. In several instances cloth was sold at no profit. For example, fabrics worth £150 were taken to Biscay aboard the Trinity in December 1539. When their sales were complete in June 1540, they had earned Smythe only about £145, a loss of over 3 percent. Two voyages to Lisbon and Andalusia in 1539–40 and one to Bordeaux in 1541 showed net losses as a result of similarly poor sales of cloth. In one case, sixteen trunkers were left unsold in Spain and were finally disposed of six months later for £6 less than they had cost. Profits were earned, however, on wheat and leather.[54]

9. John Smythe’s Trading Profits,
19 January 1540 to 27 September 1543
Exports £-s-d Imports £-s-d Total £-s-d
Source: Jean Vanes, ed., The Ledger of John Smythe, 1538–1550 (Bristol Record Society 28, 1974), pp. 132–33.
Gains
  Bordeaux 7-06-08 Oils 117-16-03  
  Biscay 301-15-01 Iron 481-12-07  
  Lisbon
   and Andalusia
282-18-03 Woad
Raisins
43-17-09
3-05-09
 
  Leather license 1-04-08 Salmon 15-00-00  
    Wine[a] 289-12-01  
    Total 588-04-08   951-04-05 1,539-09-01
Losses
  Bordeaux 1-14-04 Salt 6-18-03  
  Lisbon
   and Andalousia
20-07-02 Sack
Bad debts
22-13-04
60-00-00
 
    Total 22-01-06   89-11-07 111-13-01
    Grand Total 566-03-02   861-12-10 1,427-16-00

Smythe’s ledger suggests that mid-sixteenth-century Bristol merchants were assembling their outbound cargoes largely as a means to transfer capital to foreign markets. Exports produced only uncertain profits, with cloth sometimes showing losses, leather and wheat requiring licenses for legal shipment, and the demand for grains depending upon fluctuating harvests both in England and abroad. Imports, however, consistently produced handsome returns, with salmon and wine leading (Table 10). Through the inward-bound commodities traffic not only were Smythe’s foreign earnings brought home, but gains were regularly made on domestic sales.

10. John Smythe’s Profits and Losses on Sales, 24 march 1540 to 27 September 1543
Exports Gains (%) Imports Gains (%)
Source: Jean Vanes, ed., The Ledger of John Smythe, 1538–1550 (Bristol Record Society 28, 1974), pp. 132–33. The table does not include bad debts or losses at sea that do not reveal profit margin.
Bordeaux 3.10 Oils 16.51
Biscay 11.06 Iron 14.88
Lisbon
and Andalusia
 
16.31
Woad
Raisins
15.62
7.26
Leather license 3.84 Salmon 31.25
    Wine[a] 21.11
    Salt -10.63
   Average 12.55   16.40

The experiences of John Smythe and his fellow merchants in the 1540s were conditioned by English currency devaluations, ending in 1551, which drove up domestic prices while stimulating cloth exports. Smythe also relied more heavily upon the Biscayan trade than merchants did in the second half of the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, Bristol’s merchants of Elizabeth’s reign conducted their business affairs on much the same basis as Smythe had. As is revealed by the Aldworth papers in The Marchants Avizo, imports remained the foundation of commerce. The particular remembrance which Thomas Aldworth supplied his apprentice gives the prices at which fine broadcloths, stammel, and wax had been purchased; Robert Aldworth’s accounts show the prices at which these goods were sold in Lisbon. The broadcloths, for example, cost “clear on board” £12 per piece and were bargained for 53 ducats 4 reals each in Portugal, or approximately £13 7s; the stammel cost £17 and was sold for 75 ducats, or about £18 15s. Together these transactions provided a gross profit of almost 9 percent. But deducted from the final sale prices were charges for “barking,” “landing,” “Marco customs,” “measuring,” “wyndage,” “brokerage,” and “auerage,” plus a 2.5 percent factor’s fee. This reduced the net profit to a bit less than 5 percent. The sale of wax was even less lucrative. It had cost Thomas Aldworth £5 12s per hundredweight and was sold for 23 ducats 5 reals per hundredweight in Lisbon, or just under £6 the hundredweight. The gross profit here was about 5 percent, and the additional charges and fees reduced this already meager sum to only a bit over 1 percent.

For Aldworth’s imports there are no equivalent figures; only the prices paid in the Iberian peninsula have survived. But we can estimate the profit margins. According to merchant custom, sale of pepper by the dozen pounds was considered a wholesale transaction. Aldworth paid 52 ducats per kintal of one hundred twelve pounds in Lisbon, or just over 27s per dozen pounds. Between 1575 and 1584 the average price of a dozen pounds of pepper in England was around 36s, which suggests a profit margin of about 23 percent, less freight charges and customs in England. For other commodities it is necessary to rely on English retail prices as a guide. Sack was bought by Aldworth for about £5 per butt, or 9.5d per gallon. In the years 1575–1584, a gallon of sack usually sold for 2s 8d, for an estimated gain of just over 70 percent between original purchase and final sale, less freight, customs, and other charges in England, which were steep. Still, this suggests a merchant’s profit in the same range as that achieved by Smythe in the 1540s. The picture we get is of an import-driven trade, in which a merchant could expect to make a substantial profit on the goods he brought from abroad, but little, if any, gain from his exports.


previous chapter
Mere Merchants
next section