previous chapter
Mere Merchants
next section

The driving force in these processes of social and economic change was the growth of the Iberian trade, which, with its emphasis on valuable, exotic, and highly profitable import goods such as spices, dyestuffs, silks, sugar, and tobacco, ended the domination of the cloth traders and turned Bristol into a city of “merchantmen, grocers, mercers, haberdashers,” dealing largely in the wares of southern Europe.[15] This same transformation of Bristol’s commerce brought into being a more complicated trading network that became evident by the early seventeenth century. In order to acquire the riches of the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean, for example, fish were transported from the Grand Banks, which in turn demanded purchases of ships’ timber in Amsterdam, sailcloth in France, and salt in Spain and Portugal. To accomplish this, a variety of export wares were necessary, most of them far different from the English goods demanded in Marseilles, Leghorn, or Madeira. At the same time, a more integrated system emerged that demanded sophisticated financial and managerial techniques. Few traders operating entirely on their own were able successfully to marshal the capital or the managerial skill to conduct enterprises linking Welsh butter and calfskins; Mendip lead; Kingswood coal; Dean’s Wood iron; western, northern, and Welsh cloth; Newfoundland fish; French, Spanish, and Portuguese salt; and American, Mediterranean, Iberian, and French specialties into one system of commerce.

One of the first consequences of this new demand for coordination was a contraction in the size of the trading community, even though Bristol’s population remained remarkably constant, at ninety-five hundred to ten thousand inhabitants, until about 1575.[16] Around 1550, for example, a leading Bristolian, probably himself a merchant, thought that only about one hundred and twenty-five of his fellow citizens then had the wherewithal or credit to be merchants in the city, compared to the two hundred and fifty who had traded fifty or seventy-five years earlier.[17] By the mid-1570s the number of active overseas merchants had fallen to fewer than one hundred; from Michaelmas 1575 to Michaelmas 1576, for example, only ninety-five Bristolians shipped goods to or from foreign markets, and this figure seems to have remained fairly constant into the early seventeenth century, when Bristol’s population had grown by at least 25 percent.[18]

These quantitative changes not only show a contraction in the number of traders engaged in foreign commerce but suggest a concentration of their activities. They signal the emergence of a new commercial order in Bristol. Entrepreneurs whose businesses encompassed a full range of undertakings from the Grand Banks to the Levant required the assistance of their fellows both at home and abroad to achieve their goals even more than did those who had less far-flung or ambitious businesses. Sitting in their countinghouses with their ledgers and journals, they necessarily conducted their affairs through agents and colleagues. The new forms of commercial organization that emerged in Bristol during the sixteenth century depended first upon the existence of these close personal ties and the mutual trust they engendered among overseas merchants.

No matter how cautious or wealthy the entrepreneur, a great variety of events, often of the most prosaic kind, stood ready to disrupt his affairs and threaten his businesses. John Browne, merchant of Bristol and the author of The Marchants Avizo, saw this as a basic fact of a trader’s life. “Let not thy expenses be equall with they gaines,” he warned, “for either sicknes, naughtie debtors, let of trade and misfortune at sea or land, may soone ouerthrow thee.”[19] Merchants were men who might encounter danger at every turn of their professional existence, by placing their goods and sometimes their lives in jeopardy in hopes of returning a profit.[20] According to Alderman John Whitson, this made for an exceptionally “burthensome kind of Life.” “Abundance of Riches…rob a Man of his Quiet,” he said,

and take away his Time either in the account of ’em or in the Disposing of ’em. For what Care is there to be had of Rents? What Caution and Wariness to be had of bad Debtors? What Fear of Losses and Casualties? What Distrust and Suspicion of our best Friends? What Vigilance and Diligence, that we be not over-charged in our Bargains? What Grief, if we be overthrown in our Suits, and vex’d with Fines and Amercements? To be brief, what Toil and Weriness throughout our whole lives? Eithere we are troubled with getting or cumber’d with keeping, or afflicted and heart-broken with losing, and never at Rest, paying and receiving.[21]

Whitson knew whereof he spoke. The inventory of his estate at his death showed him to be owed £3,000 in “desparate debts” in addition to the more than £5,400 in moneys, bonds, leases, merchandise, household stuff, and other movables for which his executors acknowledged responsibility. His “goods debts” and his “hopeful debts” came only to about £1,400.[22] To other Bristolians the truth of Whitson’s remarks was confirmed by numerous examples of fellow citizens brought low by accident or circumstance—of multiple mishaps destroying men “heretofore of some wealth and nobility,” or poor judgment and bad practice bringing calamity down upon men’s heads.[23]

Whitson’s lament envisions the mercantile profession as composed of isolated individuals, each single-handedly confronting the pitfalls of the marketplace, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Rather than plying their trades alone, Bristol’s merchants habitually aided one another by dealing in partnership, by serving as factors and agents, by acting as intermediaries in the delivery or receipt of coin or goods, and by jointly transporting merchandise. Precisely because trade was such a precarious form of endeavor, it was essential for everyone to be certain of his fellows’ trustworthiness. Only those who were known to be competent and honest in their trade could be relied on to pay their just debts or to handle another’s wares and monies safely. A close community of merchants was a necessary precondition to the conduct of business. Signs of its existence appear nearly everywhere, making it—somewhat paradoxically—difficult to study. Nevertheless, a convenient method can be employed to study its operating principles in the mid-sixteenth century.

We have already mentioned a document dating from about 1550 naming those men who were deemed worthy of membership in the merchant community. It lists one hundred and twenty-seven individuals.[24] Not all were exclusively overseas traders; several, such as “Smythe the boke bynder,” must have maintained retail shops. Unfortunately, the author’s hand is unknown, but since the list is found inserted in the ledger of John Smythe, one of Bristol’s most important merchants in this period, we can assume it came from one of his circle and that the names in it represent the vast majority of those in Bristol for whom long-distance wholesale trade was the foundation of business. It was just such men who became known as “mere merchants.”[25] Smythe, in his capacity as an exporter of cloth, lead, and leather, an importer of wine, iron, oil, woad, fruit, and the like, and a shipowner, had economic ties with fifty-seven of the men named in the list. He depended on them to aid in his business dealings from time to time, to freight his ship the Trinity Smythe, and to serve him either as suppliers of export goods or as a subsidiary market for imports. A survey of his dealings with them can help us see something of the socioeconomic bonds that held together the Bristol merchants of his day.

Smythe’s overseas trade was centered in the Iberian peninsula. There he often relied on his fellow Bristolians for help in conducting business. Cash loans were sometimes necessary to complete transactions. Edward Pryn, for example, acting as the “taker” on a bill of exchange, lent Smythe £25 to be received in Andalusia through Hugh Tipton, Pryn’s agent there. On other occasions Smythe himself lent money in Spain to facilitate the trade of fellow citizens, for which he was repaid at home, sometimes in goods. Merchant colleagues were also frequently entrusted with valuables for Smythe, as when 100 ducats were left for safekeeping with Thomas Harris in Seville, or when Francis Codrington carried a large sum of money overland to Smythe’s resident servant in San Sebastian. But in most instances these duties were left in the hands of Smythe’s own servants who traveled overseas with his goods.[26]

More important were the partnerships and other joint ventures in which Smythe engaged with his Bristol colleagues. In 1539, for example, Smythe joined with John Cutt and Giles White, who was Smythe’s servant at the time, for the sale of Málaga raisins. But unlike some of his colleagues, Smythe participated in few such short-term partnerships as this. Joint export licenses were more important to his business. He combined with Edward Pryn and Robert Poole of Gloucester in a license for the export of leather in 1539, and he sold shares in his licenses for grain exports to a number of fellow Bristolians. Several of these ventures were conducted as true partnerships, with the participants buying, shipping, and selling the goods together under the terms of the license. Such an agreement seems to have been in force with Francis Codrington and William Carr, with whom Smythe participated in several licenses between 1538 and 1540. Edward Pryn, too, was a frequent partner in the shipment of restricted commodities. But more often the licensees were merely shareholders, lading their goods independently.[27]

Usually partnership agreements among merchants were for a single voyage. They came into being to combine capital or spread risk in only one enterprise and ended with the clearing of accounts several months later, after the venture had been completed. However, longer-term associations occasionally existed in which a number of individuals combined for mutual benefit, either to trade generally for a period of time or, less commonly, to trade jointly in one commodity over several years. Smythe belonged to one “firm” of the latter type in the early 1540s. Its purpose was to “Adventure in company” to the Azores for woad for six years. Eleven merchants participated in it, including seven of those mentioned in our list of merchants. The total capital was 5,200 Portuguese ducats, worth £1,300, divided into eight shares. Nicholas Thorne, William Spratt, and Smythe himself each held one full share. Single shares were also held by three partnerships, with one possessed by Edward Pryn and Robert Butler, another by Francis Codrington and William Carr, and a third by William Ballard and Francis Fowlar. The final two shares were jointly in the hands of the partnership of Francis Blanckley and Pedro Goncalez. To manage the firm’s interests a simple administrative structure was established, with Edward Pryn “admytted for mynester here in Ynglande & the seid Frances Blanckelley & Pedro Goncalez for mynesters beyond the see.” Thus, the Azorean woad enterprise reveals the existence not only of the main partnership but of several smaller merchant firms of sufficient permanence to hold shares in it.[28]

Shipping is another way that Smythe was bound with the membership of the Bristol merchant community in mutual endeavor. Of the fifty-seven merchants on the 1550 list with whom Smythe dealt, twenty-six used his ship at one time or another to conduct their trade. The vessel was occasionally chartered for long voyages, as by Francis Codrington and William Carr in 1538. More usually, however, merchants merely laded their goods aboard Smythe’s vessel either in Bristol or abroad when it was in his own charge. As an overseas merchant, however, Smythe’s own shipping needs could not be satisfied by his Trinity. Given the risks involved in all seaborne traffic, he would in any case have often sought to ship a portion of his exports and imports on vessels belonging to others. Frequently he laded his goods aboard vessels owned by fellow Bristolians. At one time or another, charter parties for ships owned by Thomas Tison, John Gorney, and Thomas Harris were recorded in Smythe’s accounts. Occasionally Smythe chartered vessels jointly with merchant colleagues, as when he and Edward Pryn together hired the Primrose of Bristol to carry beans and wheat for them to Spain. Sometimes these ties were renewed several times over a relatively short period, reflecting the common business interests of the parties. For example, the Harry of Bristol, owned by Thomas Hickes, Francis Codrington, and William Carr, frequently carried Smythe’s cargoes from 1538 through 1540, when all four men were engaged in other enterprises together.[29]

Foreign trade was not the only realm in which Smythe’s ties to the Bristol merchant community proved significant. His activities in the domestic market also depended heavily upon his economic relations with his fellow merchants. Perhaps most important, these merchants provided a major outlet for his imported goods. Although they traded overseas in their own right, Smythe supplied many of them with commodities to supplement their businesses. Thirty-two of the fifty-seven merchants on the 1550 list with whom he dealt were his customers at one time or another. Spanish iron was the most frequently purchased item, perhaps reflecting Smythe’s special command of this market, but he also sold wine, olive oil, woad, and raisins to other Bristol merchants. In return, Smythe sometimes received goods for his own stock from his fellow merchants. John Gorney and Thomas Harris both sold him wine, and Harris also sold him prunes; Thomas Tison, raisins and alum; William Appowell, cork and spices; John Cutt, cordovan, the red or purple dye known as orchil, and oakum; John Capes, salmon; James Bailey, orchil; William Cary, Walter Roberts, and Robert Saxy, various fabrics. In many of these instances the goods were exchanged to clear debts owed Smythe. Tison and Cutt, for example, paid their freight charges on the Trinity in the goods mentioned; Roberts paid for iron and wine, and Appowell for iron, wine, and woad. John Capes provided the salmon in return for an advance payment for the fish and the sale of wine and vinegar to him for his enterprises.[30]

Along with buying and selling with each other, Smythe and his colleagues also indirectly facilitated trade by acting as intermediaries for one another in domestic transactions. Often merchants well known to Smythe stood surety for lesser tradesmen who bought on credit from him. Usually the bonds were issued to strangers with no long-term ties to Smythe. Richard Pryor, for example, stood surety for William Bemer of Langford on a bond for the payment of £24 for a butt of sack; similarly, William Ballard provided the security on a bond for Richard Apris of Hereford for £10 worth of wine. Sometimes Bristolians whose credit was unknown or suspect also found it necessary to have surety for their bonds, as Richard Browne of Bristol, grocer, did for £6 worth of iron bought in 1540. A more common action was for merchants to pay the debts of their own business associates. This was particularly convenient when the debtor was a stranger, resident at a distance from Bristol. For example, the money owed by William Nowle of Bromwich for iron was paid for him by William Spratt, who in turn probably owed Nowle money. Smythe himself had such an arrangement with William North of Bruton, vintner, who often purchased wine from Smythe. In January 1543, Smythe paid a debt of £8 owed by North to John Gorney, in return for which North paid John Yerberry of Bruton, clothier, for cloths that Smythe had bought. The Bristol merchants also cleared their debts with each other in this fashion, as when Francis Codrington paid Smythe for freight charges owed by Thomas Hickes and Hickes paid Codrington for debts owed by Smythe.[31]

Behind the multifaceted ties connecting Smythe and his fellow merchants stands the credit relationship. Nearly all the fifty-seven merchants whose associations with Smythe have been traced were indebted to him at least once in the years 1538 to 1550. In some cases the form of the debt was a direct loan of cash, as when John Gorney received 20s from him in London in 1546 or when Thomas Harris received £10 in 1547–48. More often, however, it represented shop credit carried on the sale of goods or for the payment of freight charges. The terms were usually “3 monthes and 3 monthes” or “half in hand” and half at a stated date in the future, usually three months or six months hence. Rarely was the full amount paid on the spot for anything. No mention is made of interest charges, but higher prices on credit sales probably concealed them. Just what was done when payments were late, as often occurred, is not revealed. Just as credit helped sustain ties between a merchant and his suppliers or clientele, a network of close personal relationships grew as indebtedness was spread throughout the merchant community. At any given moment Smythe, or any of his contemporaries, not only owed large sums to his fellows for freight or goods or both, but also carried substantial “accounts receivable” on his books. Only those without sufficient credit or reputation were required to find formal security for their obligations. In most cases the evidence of the account book alone was sufficient to prove the debt. Indebtedness created recurring, even nearly permanent, links among close business associates. Often merchants became newly obligated to their creditors as their old accounts were cleared, reinforcing and perpetuating their relationship.[32]

previous chapter
Mere Merchants
next section