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By the middle of Elizabeth’s reign this new import-driven pattern of commerce was firmly established. At a time when English overseas traffic was focused primarily on the Netherlands, Bristol specialized as a center for the Spanish and Portuguese trades, assembling diverse cargoes of exports in order to supply England with this market’s lucrative wares. In later years this same interest in highly profitable commodities became the foundation for extending trade beyond the Iberian peninsula into the Mediterranean and to the New World. Before proceeding to a description and analysis of this expansion, let us look at the overall structure of Bristol’s trade as it had formed by the second half of the sixteenth century, examining the commerce of a single trading year to get a snapshot view. This technique is somewhat problematic, since the evidence of a single year hardly guarantees a general trend, any more, as Aristotle said, than a single swallow makes a summer. Each trading year has its peculiarities caused as much by chance events—of wind, weather, war, and international politics—as by underlying features of the trade cycle. But we need a clear picture of the interrelationships existing among the various elements of Bristol’s commerce and, given the spottiness of the surviving customs records, the only way we can draw it is by looking at a single complete year, focusing primarily on the structure of trade and checking our findings against related records for different years. The year chosen runs from Michaelmas 1575 to Michaelmas 1576, the first year for which Bristol was treated separately from Gloucester in the customs.[52]

When we compare Bristol’s trade for this year with annual shipments in the fifteenth century, it seems extremely meager. In all, only a little over six hundred tons of wine and seven hundred and forty-nine cloths were shipped—hundreds, even thousands, less than were traded in the best periods of the previous century.[53] Nor had much happened to take up the slack. Lead and coal were being exported, but not in large amounts. In addition, a trade developed in cheap-quality “cottons” and friezes, both of which were coarse woolen fabrics, and in lightweight half-worsteds. But these were not exported in large enough quantities to counterbalance the diminished shipments of traditional woolens. For imports the picture is much the same. Salt, a relatively cheap commodity, was shipped in substantial amounts, and olive oil, train oil, woad, and spices also were brought to Bristol. It is doubtful, however, that they made up for the decay in the wine trade.[54]

Nevertheless, Bristol’s character as a port specializing in trade with southern Europe gave it a commercial strength that belies these dismal figures. If we concentrate on the grand totals for shipping for 1575–76, Bristol’s trade seems remarkably in balance, with ninety vessels of just over four thousand tons burden departing the port and eighty-two vessels, also totaling just over four thousand tons, entering during these twelve months. But analysis of the various geographical components of Bristol’s trade shows this image of commercial equilibrium to be illusory. Comparing voyages to and from the continent or the Atlantic islands belonging to Portugal and Spain reveals inbound traffic to have been one-tenth greater in tonnage than the outbound and one-sixth greater in the number of vessels involved. Even more startling is the distribution of shipping. In the northern trades, nearly equal numbers of vessels were used in the inbound and outbound traffic, but almost 40 percent more tonnage left the city than entered. In the south, however there were about 40 percent more inbound ships, totaling about 50 percent more tonnage. In other words, import trade from the south dominated the picture. Almost equal tonnage departed Bristol for northern and for southern ports, but about twice as much arrived from the latter as the former. The tonnage of all southern voyages, moreover, exceeded the figure for northern voyages by over 40 percent, even though the number of ships used in the north was almost 70 percent greater than in the south.[55]

But tonnages alone do not tell very much, since often the largest vessels did not carry the most valuable goods.[56] To understand the relative importance of the various aspects of Bristol’s commerce, we must study the goods in which the city traded. The northern trades were dominated by imports of salt and iron, and exports of lead, coal, and cheap textiles. Only relatively meager shipments of wine and citrus fruit break the monotony of this workaday traffic. By using the customs rates to determine the value of the city’s dealings in the north, we can see that the trade was heavily concentrated around La Rochelle and the Bay of Biscay, largely bypassing Bordeaux. Assuming that the customs rates for goods taxed ad valorem varied roughly in proportion to their market value—admittedly, a somewhat risky assumption—the figures also suggest, very tentatively, a trade imbalance in favor of imports of at least 60 and perhaps as much as 100 percent, since on a conservative estimate the woolen fabric shipped to this region was worth perhaps £8 per whole cloth, whereas the wine imported was worth between £10 and £15 per ton.[57]

As we move south, however, we enter a different world, one in which subtropical and tropical wares were preeminent. Seventeen ships totaling about sixteen hundred and fifty tons left Bristol for markets in this region during 1575–76, and twenty-four vessels totaling some twenty-five hundred tons returned thence. But trade in this market was richer and more vibrant, focused primarily on high-priced wares, some of them necessary raw materials such as olive oil and dyestuffs and most of the remainder luxury items such as fruits, spices, sugars, and fine wines. The only bulky cheap commodity in the traffic was salt. The city’s exports to the south consisted largely of textiles, although lead also played an important role. The picture is of a commerce in which Bristol sought to tap the riches of the southern trades with outgoing cargoes assembled for their barter value from its own hinterland in south Wales, the Severn valley, and the west Midlands, within which it in turn distributed the fruits of its foreign enterprises. The key was the value of the imports, not the worth of the exports. As measured by value, the import trade exceeded exports by an even larger percentage than was true in the north. Using the same tentative wholesale prices for cloth and wine we just employed in estimating the value of the northern trades, imports from Bristol’s southern markets were worth anywhere from 120 to 150 percent more than its exports to that region (Table 6).[58]

6. Value of Bristol’s European Trade, 1575-76
  Outward Inward  
  Goods[a] Cloth
(cloths of assize)
Goods[a] Wine
Source: Public Record Office, E 190/1129/11, 1129/12. Value estimated using £10 per whole cloth and £15 per ton of wine, to the nearest £.
Northern £1,151 87 £ 1,171 190 £6,042
Southern £1,527 662 £10,861 415 £25,233
Total £2,678 749 £12,032 605 £31,275

Comparing the estimated values of the northern and the southern trades leads to two firm conclusions. First, for the European trade as a whole, Bristol’s imports were worth between two and two and a half times the value of its exports. Second, the southern trades, concentrated primarily in the Iberian peninsula, overwhelmed the northern. Bristol’s European trade was largely focused on its highly valued riches, particularly of the southern trades, which the city purchased primarily with less expensive English goods. Although the prices of Bristol’s imports and exports were no doubt lower at their sources, where they were in relatively good supply, than in their final markets, where they were scarce, this trade pattern implies regular deficits which had to be made up in coin or by bills of exchange. In addition, since the textile and mining industries, which provided the bulk of Bristol’s exports, were highly labor-intensive, Bristol was acquiring the high-priced commodities of Europe not only with the resources of its hinterland in the Severn valley, the Midlands, and the West Country, but indirectly with the plentiful labor of the region as well.

The Irish trade was the other major component of Bristol’s commercial economy. It accounted for almost 40 percent of the ships entering and leaving Bristol in 1575–76 and for about 13 percent of the tonnage. Virtually all of this traffic was in the hands of the Irish themselves.[59] In terms of goods shipped, this trade had the classic form of colonial commerce. Ireland sent its English customers basic foods, industrial raw materials—particularly agricultural products such as wool—and cheap manufactures, in return for which it received better-quality manufactures, reexports of luxury wares from Europe, and some essential agricultural commodities, such as hops, that it did not produce itself.[60] The most striking feature of this trade is the large quantities of small wares that made their way to Ireland through Bristol. These were acquired at the two Bristol fairs, one in January and one in July, to which great throngs of Irish merchants and tradesmen came each year in their small vessels.[61] But the Irish trade only complemented Bristol’s traffic with its European markets. In terms of value, Ireland accounted for probably less than 10 percent of the total trade of the city.

It might be protested that too much attention is paid in studies of sixteenth-century trade to high-price, high-profit goods, since these commodities were usually sold only in small quantities. In 1575–76, for example, Bristol imported only eighty hundredweight of sugar, while salt, which was much more useful, was carried in far greater quantity. But the customs value of sugar was thirty-three times higher than salt, while retail prices for sugar were on the order of three thousand times higher than for salt. For the same volume of trade, then, the profits were much higher for sugar than for salt.[62] From the point of view of the merchant, as Fernand Braudel has observed, what mattered most was not the tonnage shipped but “the rate and facility of gain, the accumulation of capital.”[63] Because the Bristolians followed this precept, by the middle of Elizabeth’s reign their trade had become settled primarily on the southern routes, with the Iberian coast from Lisbon to Puerta Santa Maria absorbing the bulk of the trade. The shift away from the city’s old market in Gascony had now firmly established Bristol as an Iberian port. At the same time, the emphasis on imports begun in Henry VII’s reign was continued. Bristol, once a great exporter of cloth and outlet for commerce with Bordeaux, had become primarily a trader of foreign wares drawn from the subtropical regions of the known world.

A similar pattern is discernible in the customs accounts for the rest of Elizabeth’s reign and for the early Stuart period.[64] The southern trades remained the most important part of the city’s traffic, providing the richest returns and commanding the greatest attention from the Bristol merchants. But there were significant changes within this structure of commerce. Activity increased and new markets were opened up with the addition of trades to the Netherlands, the Baltic, and the western Atlantic, while interest in the Atlantic islands and the Mediterranean was strengthened. Bristol’s old haunts on the Iberian peninsula came to play a smaller role as a more complex trading system emerged. This expansion, moreover, helped to stimulate a number of developments in the domestic economy, including the growth of the mining, shipping, cloth, and other industries. But throughout the period the underlying theme was the quest for imports, which yielded the highest profits and therefore encouraged the undertaking of risky new ventures. We can see the persistence of this pattern if we look closely at trade in 1624–25, fifty years after the annual trade cycle we have just studied. Again, this procedure has obvious shortcomings, but employed with appropriate caution it allows us to see in some measure how the overall structure of Bristol’s trade evolved during this period.[65]

Again, a conservative estimate, using tentative wholesale prices for cloth and wine as well as the totals for goods paying customs ad valorem, suggests that import value was at least double that of exports (Table 7).[66] In addition, whereas the outward trade for the year is almost equally divided between the northern and the southern region, with the south having a slight edge, for the inbound trade the southern region shows a marked advantage. But the great strength of the southern trades now lay away from the Iberian peninsula. On the inward leg, Marseilles, together with Toulon, accounted for 40 percent of the goods paying ad valorem duties, while Marseilles alone accounted for the bulk of exports to the southern region in this year. In part this was a consequence of the impending war with Spain, which caused Bristolians to bring back their investments from the Iberian peninsula as quickly as they could and prompted them to invest their profits in southern France and Italy. But, as we shall see, the main reason behind this pattern is that the Mediterranean and other southern markets were playing a greater role in Bristol’s trade in the early seventeenth century than they had in the previous period. The wine trade also showed dramatic improvement in 1624–25. The total shipments for this year are almost three times greater than they were in 1575–76, with the traffic in French wine more than five times what it had been fifty years before. This, too, is part of a general pattern of trade in the early seventeenth century. French wines led the recovery, with Bordeaux’s position as the queen of the trade restored, if not to glory, at least to respectability. In addition, wines from the Iberian peninsula, the Atlantic islands, and the Mediterranean were gaining in significance, with direct shipments from Málaga and the Canaries now playing a major role. The picture for the Irish trade is virtually the same as in 1575–76. The general impression is that by the mid-1620s the value of Bristol’s trade had grown considerably from its level in the middle of Elizabeth’s reign.[67]

7. Bristol’s Customs Payments, 1624-25
  Outward Inward
Ports Subsidy (£-s-d) No. cloths[a] Subsidy (£-s-d) Wine
Source: Public Record Office, E 190/1135/6.
A. Northern European:
Norway     9-13-03  
Amsterdam 9-11-03   39-00-08  
Le Havre 18-14-00      
St. Malo, St. Briac-sur-mer 35-10-07 56-04-04 9 tons 1 butt[b]
Le Croisic 1-02-04   5-01-00 9 tons
Le Pouliguen     15-00-00  
Nantes 13-12-00   5-00-00  
Lucon 0-10-00      
Bourgneuf Bay 7-05-08   1-10-08  
St. Martin 1-05-00   1-15-00  
La Rochelle 30-12-01   30-08-04 9 tons 1 pipe
Bordeaux 141-08-02 103 5/12 34-14-05 986 tons 1 terce
Bayonne 4-03-00      
St. Jean de Luz 42-12-00 2⅙ 10-01-00  
San Sebastian     8-19-06  
Bilbao 24-11-06   10-01-00  
   Customs A 330-17-07 109⅚ 227-09-02 1,014 tons 1 terce
   Value A 6,617-11-08   4,549-03-04  
B. Southern European:
Oporto     83-06-08  
Lisbon     77-05-10  
San Lucar     10-18-00 18 tons 1 butt
Cáadiz 8-10-00   38-06-10 444 tons
Máalaga 40-12-00 11 123-11-10 138 tons 1 pipe 1 hhd
Madeira 3-01-00 16⅔ 49-08-04 2 tons
Canaries 30-18-07 20 36-13-08 78 tons 1 pipe
São Miguel 15-00-06 23¾ 25-12-06  
Marseilles 251-12-04 50⅔ 222-03-10  
Toulon     76-19-06  
Leghorn 1-13-10 2⅔    
Candia (Crete)       100 tons muscadels
   Customs B 351-08-03 124¾ 744-07-10 781 tons 1 butt 1 hhd
   Value B 7,028-05-00   14,887-00-00  
   Customs A–B 682-05-10 234 7/12 971-17-00 1,795 tons 1 butt 1 hhd 1 terce
   Value A–B 13,645-16-08   19,436-03-04  
C. Atlantic:
Newfoundland 2-00-00   45-01-01  
New England 1-16-00   0-18-00  
Somers Islands     57-10-00  
   Customs C 3-16-00   103-09-01  
   Value C 76-00-00   2,069-01-08  
D. British Isles:
Scotland     2-04-08  
Ireland 384-01-04 14⅔ 617-06-06  
   Customs D 384-01-04 14⅔ 619-11-02  
   Value D 7,681-06-08   12,391-03-04  
   Customs A–D 1,070-02-02 249¼ 1,694-17-03 1,795 tons 1 butt 1 hhd 1 terce
   Value A–D 21,403-03-04   33,896-08-04  

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