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Although the subsequent history of the Bristol Merchant Venturers was by no means smooth, the royal letters patent of 1552 created a local organization that has survived as a corporate body to the present day. As it appeared in the early seventeenth century, it had a relatively large establishment of officers, including a master, two wardens, a treasurer, a clerk, and a beadle, as well as a board of twelve assistants. In addition, there was the Hall, made up of all the members, which met periodically through the year to elect the principal officials of the Society, approve or amend the Society’s bylaws, and carry out a number of other important duties.[43] Separately and together these elements performed a multiplicity of functions that were vital both to the commercial life of the city and to the welfare of the members themselves.

One major area of corporate activity was the maintenance of shipping. By the early seventeenth century, for example, many of the responsibilities for maintenance of Bristol’s port facilities previously borne by the city government had fallen to the Society, whose officers collected keyage, craneage, plankage, and wharfage to pay for them. As a result, the Hall regularly took account of the competency of pilots and port officials, the care of harbor facilities, and related matters.[44] In addition, the protection of ships on the high seas was an important issue, especially in wartime or when pirates were marauding in the Bristol Channel or in nearby English waters. Consequently, the Hall gave considerable attention to this subject, often in response to the Crown’s demands for money to mount naval expeditions.[45] The Society’s charitable activities—which by the early seventeenth century included not only the maintenance of an almshouse for aged seamen but also a schoolmaster for poor mariners’ children—were also a significant area of collective concern.[46]

Although these areas, with their demands for collective decisions and permanent commitments, helped to build a spirit of community among the Merchant Venturers, they were not the center of the Society’s corporate life. Bristol’s great overseas merchants depended to a considerable degree on national economic policy for their privileges and wealth. They were of necessity engaged in the affairs of the kingdom at large, and one of the main functions of their Society was to serve as their political agent with the state. As Patrick McGrath has put it, the Society was in some measure an economic “pressure group” for its members.[47] Sometimes the favors requested were very limited in scope, as when an official license had to be secured from the Lord Treasurer to land goods in the port from a stranger’s ship.[48] Sometimes they were large, as when new powers were begged from the Crown in the form of letters patent.[49] But often there was an air of crisis in dealings with royal officials, as when there was trouble with the royal purveyors, or when new impositions were set upon imported goods, or when disagreements arose with the Customs officers. Urgent meetings were called and streams of letters sent to the king pleading for redress of the wrong, sometimes carried by delegations of merchants ready to appeal personally to their connections in Westminster. To the Merchant Venturers the state was a source of bounty, a reservoir of favors and privileges to be tapped if they could. But in its demands for money and control, it was also a threat to commercial enterprise, something to be kept at a distance if at all possible. On the whole, the Society’s lobbying of the Crown was successful. If it did not always achieve its members’ more ambitious goals, it usually managed to alleviate the difficulties they had with royal officials.[50]

This capacity to intercede with the Crown in the interests of its membership also brought benefits to the economic lives of the Merchant Venturers. Strictly speaking, the Society was a regulated company under whose ordinances individual traders conducted their business on a private basis. Although the principle of individual enterprise generally prevailed, if a royal license was required to export a particular commodity only the action of the Society as a whole made it possible. There was joint stock, for example, to ship eighteen hundred barrels of butter a year under a license held by George Henley of London. For this purpose the entire membership of the Society acted as Henley’s partner.[51] A similar arrangement for exporting calfskins was made in 1615 between the Crown and Francis Knight, John Whitson, Mathew Haviland, Robert Aldworth, and Abell Kitchen, merchants acting in effect as feoffees for their fellow Merchant Venturers, with William Lewis, Collector of Customs at Bristol, serving as the Crown’s agent for the grant. When Knight died two years later, a new agreement was reached between Lewis and twenty-eight Merchant Venturers acting on behalf of themselves and their fellows.[52] In both cases, the licenses were acquired by a joint-stock venture managed by the Society, then divided among the participants, who shipped the licensed commodity abroad for their own account.

By far the most important public business transacted by the Society concerned the protection of trade against official or semi-official intrusion. The case of the New England fishery, which by the early seventeenth century had come to play an important part in Bristol’s trading economy, provides a useful illustration of how problems arose and how the Society fended them off. In 1621, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, acting in his role as President of the Council for New England, approached all the western ports with a scheme for the plantation of New England and for government of fishing ventures on its shores. The plan involved the creation of six “staple” towns, each with its own treasurer and group of commissioners, through which all Englishmen desiring to participate in New England enterprise must “putt in his aduenture into the Common stock of one of these Citties…Corporate togeather with the rest to bee managed by the Treasourer & Commissioners for the publique good of the Adventurers.” This proposed arrangement was heartily supported by the Privy Council, which not only threatened summary punishment of all those who might violate Gorges’s letters patent but also severely chastised the city governments of Bristol, Exeter, and Plymouth when they refused to submit to the newly formed Council for New England.[53]

The Bristol Merchant Venturers, however, were extremely reluctant to enter into such a complex and risky undertaking and used every available tactic of delay to avoid doing so, including sending responses to Gorges’s letters to a place they knew he would not be. They found his articles of plantation “so difficult,” they said, “that…they cannot Conclude” to join in his enterprise without a conference with him, followed by further deliberations among themselves. In the interim, they hoped that “if…any particular men of their Company shall set forth any shipping on a fishing voyadg for that Country,” Gorges would accept “an indifferent rate” from them for the privilege. At the conference, held in October, Gorges informed the merchants that even though his patent did not give him the power to restrain fishing, it did permit him to forbid the use of the shore to salt and dry fish, which is what he proposed to do. Since commercial fishing would then have become fruitless, the Merchant Venturers asked Gorges what he would require from those who wished to send ships just for the purpose of fishing. Gorges’s initial demand was for 10 percent of each venture, valued in shipping as well as the profits of the catch itself, but after much debate he agreed to allow them fishing rights provided they each carried over one man and £10 of provisions for every thirty tons of shipping they used, with the merchants bearing the costs of the provisions.[54]

Some of the Merchant Venturers found this an acceptable arrangement, but many hoped to avoid agreeing to it. Since Parliament was in session, they wrote to the city’s members, both Merchant Venturers themselves, requesting that these men acquire a copy of Gorges’s patent to see if he did indeed have the power to restrain Bristol’s fishing and also to seek protection in Parliament or elsewhere for “the quiet engaging of fishing.”[55] Here Bristol was especially fortunate, since it possessed at least one good friend on the Council for New England, the earl of Arundel, who earlier that year—soon after he had joined the Council—had been allowed to name the city’s new town clerk.[56] Through Arundel’s efforts and the concerted attack on Gorges’s patent mounted by the West Country fishermen in the Commons, a further concession was wrenched from the Council. Gorges finally wrote that “it is not…intended to debar any Regular or honest [traders] from a free recourse” to New England, so long as they conformed themselves to the reasonable conditions and just and lawful orders made by his Council for the advantage of the plantation. He agreed, therefore, to permit the treasurer at Exeter to grant Bristolians licenses if they wished to frequent New England, even for purposes other than fishing.[57]

What troubled the Merchant Venturers was the loss of independence that Gorges’s plan entailed. As reported by the two Bristol members of Parliament in London, the city’s merchants and shipowners liked neither the idea of forming a joint stock with the merchants of other western ports nor the prospect of being governed by the President and Council for New England. This same concern surfaced whenever the Bristolians were threatened with a loss of local autonomy in their trade, as they were at various times during the early seventeenth century in regard to the Spanish Company, the French Company, and the Levant Company.[58] To prevent this from happening they were able to use a variety of political resources at their disposal—their prominence in the city government, their service in Parliament, and their connections in London—all made the more effective by their ability to present a united front to the authorities. Had Gorges been able to win over even a minority of the Merchant Venturers to his demands, he no doubt would have been able, with the Privy Council’s assistance, to exact his due from the rest. But the concerted resistance of the Society, acting for the Merchant Venturers as a whole, made it impossible to adopt such a strategy of divide and conquer.


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