Age of Invention: The House of Trade

The greatest R&D hub of the sixteenth century

In our current age of apps, able to tell us exactly where we are in the world at any time, it’s hard to imagine an era in which most people would never have seen a map. The average English person of the mid-sixteenth century would have had little idea of the overall shape of their own country, let alone a foreign one. And even the merchants and elites who did have access to maps did not have an entirely accurate picture. Before the systematic adoption of trigonometric surveying, as well as the ability to accurately calculate longitude by observing Jupiter’s moons using telescopes, the process involved a lot of guesstimation. When the new techniques were introduced towards the end of the seventeenth century, the results could come as quite a shock. Louis XIV, when shown a revised map of his country, allegedly remarked that he had lost more land to his astronomers than to his enemies. France was a lot thinner than everyone had supposed.

So given this general lack of geographical knowledge, try to imagine embarking on a voyage of discovery. To an extent, you might rely on the skill and experience of your mariners. For England in the mid-sixteenth century, however, these would not have been all that useful. It’s strange to think of England as not having been a nation of seafarers, but this was very much the case. Its merchants in 1550 might hop across the channel to Calais or Antwerp, or else hug the coastline down to Bordeaux or Spain. A handful had ventured further, to the eastern Mediterranean, but that was about it. Few, if any, had experience of sailing the open ocean. Even trade across the North Sea or to the Baltic was largely unknown – it was dominated by the German merchants of the Hanseatic League. Nor would England have had much to draw upon in the way of more military, naval experience. The seas for England were a traditional highway for invaders, not a defensive moat. After all, it had a land border with Scotland to the north, as well as a land border with France to the south, around the major trading port of Calais. Rather than relying on the “wooden walls” of its ships, as it would in the decades to come, the two bulwarks in 1550 were the major land forts at Calais and Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The English thus lacked the experienced mariners to take them further afield, especially if they were to search for lucrative trade routes with China. As for the risk of shipwreck or storm, there was little else they could do but pray. But to allay some of the risk – to avoid stepping completely into the unknown – they could at least look to the established strategies of Portugal and Spain.

Since 1503, the Spanish port of Seville had been home to the Casa de Contratación, or House of Trade. In one sense, the Casa was an administrative centre. It was where all taxes and duties on trade with the New World were collected. In another sense, however, it was the sixteenth century’s most important research and development hub. It was where the maps were made. Anyone who crossed the Atlantic was to check in with the Casa and share their information. There, the expert pilots, astronomers, mathematicians, and cartographers, were to sort out the sailors’ tall tales from the careful observations of coastlines. The Casa institutionalised the practice of gathering information – everything from the locations of safe havens or treacherous rocks, to the willingness of local populations to talk to strangers, to the raw materials glimpsed in newfound lands – all to be collated, evaluated, and then re-disseminated into manuals, lectures, and maps. It was where new pilots were instructed, and where navigational instruments were constructed and regulated. The Casa was a living encyclopaedia of navigation, for every would-be Spanish merchant, coloniser, or explorer to consult.

And it was something that the English tried, for decades, to emulate. Before they embarked on their first explorations of the icy seas around Russia in the 1550s, they first poached the Casa’s principal navigator, the Pilot Major, Sebastian Cabot. And later, during the few years that England and Spain were united in matrimony, under Mary I, one English navigator, Stephen Borough, had the chance to visit and glean some of its secrets. He was instrumental in having Spain’s key navigational manual translated in English, and he petitioned Elizabeth I to create an English version of the Casa. That dream never materialised, but the quest to emulate the Casa informed many of the smaller-scale projects - lectures, manuals, globes, and maps - which meant that the English did not sail completely into the unknown.

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