« AnteriorContinuar »
looked directly after its own interests. burgh of export, officials, known as custumars, were appointed—the persons chosen being usually one or two of the leading burgesses." It was the duty of these custumars to see that no commodities were shipped to foreign countries without the payment of the fixed tariffs, and only when the tariffs were paid did the owner receive the cocket or certificate which licensed him to proceed on his voyage. It was only on exports that duties were exacted, for it is an interesting fact that in Scotland till the year 1597, with the exception of harbour dues, no tariffs were levied on imported goods. In that year, however, James VI. and his advisers awoke to the fact that Scotland was the only country where this exemption prevailed, and came to the conclusion that His Majesty, as "ane free prince of ane soverane power,” had as good a right as any other potentate to custom on imports.” Specially interesting at the present moment are the views of the Convention of Scottish Burghs on this new departure on the part of the Crown. With all the
means at their command they opposed the innovation, and denounced it
“ane intollerabill custome.
But foreign trade had to be guarded not only in the interests of the Crown, but also in the interests of the royal burghs whose monopoly it was. In the first place, these burghs had to see that nonburgesses, though resident in the town, had no part
in such trade, and, in the second place, to exercise similar vigilance in the case of the non-privileged burghs. Let us take an example of the procedure that was adopted in either case.
At Aberdeen, in 1561, it was discovered that non-burgesses were infringing burgess privileges by directly purchasing the cargoes of ships arriving in the town port. The measure adopted to check this illegality, it may be noted, was one which we find applied in the burghs alike of England, Wales, and Ireland. 19 The captain or owner of the newlyarrived vessel was to report his cargo to the town custumar, who, in his turn, was to lodge information with the provost and bailies. The provost and bailies were then to proceed to the vessel and purchase the cargo, which thereafter was to be sold to such persons in the town as had the right of dealing in foreign merchandise. But this distribution was a delicate process that required precise and careful handling. The persons privileged to buy were divided into four “quarters,
" 20 who were each in succession to have the opportunity of purchasing the cargoes of such vessels as arrived in the port. Should any of the quarters refuse to buy, they were not to have another opportunity for the space of a year. Finally, it was further decreed that
any person whatever who was found to have made a direct purchase from the owner of the vessel was to be fined £10—the purchased goods being escheated to the common good."
Of all the royal burghs, Edinburgh appears to have had the greatest difficulty in maintaining its privilege of foreign trade. This was due to the peculiar relation in which it stood to the town of Leith, over which it had claimed superiority since the arrangement made with Logan of Restalrig in 1398. Leith not being a free burgh, it did not possess the privilege of exporting what were known as the staple goods of the country—that is, the chief commodities out of which any profit could be made. But with the opportunities of surreptitious foreign trade so conveniently at hand, it was not to be expected that the inhabitants of Leith would scruple to evade regulations which they considered an intolerable grievance. Evasion on the one hand, therefore, and jealous vigilance on the other make up the history of the relations of the two communities to each other. Before a foreign-bound ship could leave the harbour of Leith, its owners, its skipper, and its freight were all alike subjected to the closest scrutiny by the Edinburgh authorities. Its cargo had to be shipped in presence of the Dean of Guild, one bailie, one of the Town Council, and the town clerk. Only the goods of freemen-that is, free burgesses of Edinburgh-were allowed to be shipped, and owners, skippers, and even passengers must be provided with a "ticket” from the superior burgh.” The regulations for incoming vessels were equally stringent. On the arrival of the vessel in port its cargo was examined by deputed officials from Edinburgh, who, after putting a value upon it, saw that it was directly transported to the Market Cross of Edinburgh, for at the harbour itself no buying or selling was permitted. Deposited at the Cross, the wares were then disposed of to freemen in the first place, and, after they were served, to unfreemen at the price that had been officially determined.23
Under such regulations as have just been noted it might seem that the burghs were sufficiently secure against any invasion of their privileges connected with foreign trade. But there were further restrictions imposed on individuals which were an additional safeguard against illicit traffickers. By an ancient law of the Scottish burghs no merchant was allowed to leave the country without licence from the king or his chamberlain,24 and the spirit of this law was still operative in the time of Mary. Before a merchant could take ship he must appear in the Tolbooth before the assembled Town Council, with whom it lay to decide whether he should sail or not. If the Council decided in his favour, it communicated its decision to the captain of the ship in which he proposed to make his voyage ; but without this authorisation no captain could take any merchant as his passenger. Another express condition attached to foreign trade was that the merchant must own half the cargo of the ship with which he sailed, or, if he did not own it himself, be the responsible factor of
others for that proportion. The object of this enactment is satisfactorily explained by the context. By the passing of certain "simple” persons into foreign countries in vile array, we are told, the country was made ridiculous in the eyes of the world. With justifiable national pride, therefore, the Town Councils of the burghs insisted that merchants trading in foreign countries should have respectable coats on their backs, and that the cargoes they exported should prove that they were men of some substance. 26
These various restrictions on foreign trade may at first sight seem sufficiently irrational, and even expressly fitted to check individual enterprise and the natural development of commerce.
We have to remember, however, the peculiar conditions under which trade with other countries was carried on in the sixteenth century. As we have seen, the voyage of a merchant ship across the German Ocean was a veritable venture, in which the chances of miscarriage were as great as the chances of
If the winds and waves proved favourable, there were the pirates of all nations on the vigilant watch for every ship whose cargo was worth the trouble of lifting. And not only the cargo, but the merchant himself was a valuable asset, as he could be held to ransom till his friends saw their way to disburse a round sum for his release. In engaging on a voyage, therefore, the foreign trader took at once his life and his goods in