SESSION 20. The ‘Avería’ in the Carrera de Indias: an indicator of the maritime risk in the Atlantic trade (XVIth-XVIIth Centuries)

20. The ‘Avería’ in the Carrera de Indias: an indicator of the maritime risk in the Atlantic trade (XVIth-XVIIth Centuries).

Sergio Sardone (Università degli Studi di Napoli “Federico II”). sergio.sardone@unina.it 


Due to the growth of the commercial traffic between Spain and the New World and, above all, to the huge gold and silver remittances from the Indies, the risk of Atlantic trade grew significantly during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly through the incursions of pirates and corsairs from France, England and the Netherlands.

In order to face this specific risk, armed fleets became essential in the first years of the sixteenth century, as they provided an escort service first on the arrival route of the ships of America and, later, even on departures from Spain to the New World. All the costs of these fleets used for the protection of the Carrera de Indias’ convoys, or the route of the Spanish colonial trade, formed part of the so-called “avería»: a contribution proportionally distributed among the various owners of goods and remittances and in reason of the remittances value transported on the ships. The distribution of the avería, which according to Céspedes del Castillo represented «a form of insurance against the specific risk of piracy», was initially entrusted to the commissions formed by public officials and representatives of merchants, being then attributed to a receiver (repector) landlord, forming later, mostly during the seventeenth century, one of the main tasks of the Consulate of the merchants of Seville.

The avería rate, expressed as a percentage, would represent a great indicator of risk in the Atlantic trade, especially considering the flows of the remittances – public and private – of the American precious metals. These resources represented the main object of desire of European sovereigns, due to the ever more relevant use that these resources had in the financial and military policy of the sovereigns of Castile.

The first studies about the “avería” of the Carrera de Indias were published, almost in the midtwentieth century, by Zumalacárregui and Céspedes del Castillo, authors of two articles that were focused on the state of the matter and analyzed the organizational and legal aspects of this contribution. In particular, Céspedes del Castillo provided to the historiography the first important data, even if quite fragmented, about the avería rate which was charged for dividing all costs related to the protection of the fleets of the Carrera de Indias. Later, Otte and Martin Acosta had stimulated the interest of the historians offering concrete studies on the collections of the avería in two different moments, like the years 1507 and 1602.

More recently, Del Vas Mingo and Navarro Azcue have returned to the argument, contributing to significant approaches about the maritime risk, while Luque Talaván has focused mainly on the etymology of the word «avería». However, until today the two studies that have offered more continuity of data to the historiography are those less recents, such as the French historian, Pierre Chaunu (with his wife Huguette), and the Spanish Eufemio Lorenzo Sanz, who have tried to offer a realistic idea on the incidence of these costs in the system of American remittances.

The first objective of this paper is to offer a medium-term approach of the avería rates of the Carrera de Indias: starting from the 1520s and until the middle of the seventeenth century. Specifically, this study aims to collect, correct and integrate some of the quantitative data on the aforementioned avería rate, adding also unpublished data and revising partially erroneous values for a part of the historiography. This analysis is based, in particular, on the systematic tracking of some of the unused Proposal by Sergio SARDONE – Università degli Studi di Napoli “Federico II” or not completely exploited sources by the main scholars who have analyzed this issue: the notarial protocols and the treasury books of the Casa de la Contratación and the Consulate of Seville, which will complement those already mentioned by Chaunu and more by Lorenzo Sanz and Céspedes del Castillo.

The study also has the ambition to fill an information gap that refers particularly to the reign of Carlos I (1516-1556), a time of the least investigated by the specialists of the avería, due to the few and intermittent data collected and to the limitation of the available records, being the main documentary series of the receptores de avería -exploited yet by Chaunu- available only from the second half of the sixteenth century. Another object of the study is offer an acceptable indication of the maritime risk in the Carrera de Indias, which is pursued through a weighting of the damage rate with the value of the remittances received in Seville. In this way, the failure rate would be refined from a distorting element such as the entity of the precious metals brought from America, which suffered significant fluctuations according to the time considered.

Finally, it will be focused the most critical moments of the period considered, offering, in the limit of the possible, the negative and economic impacts of the corsair attacks suffered by the convoys of the Carrera de Indias.