The Welser’s and the Malabar spice trade

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Perhaps we give too much credit to the Portuguese when it came to the Malabar trade. In a manner, it is right as they possessed the might and the control of the sea route to make it all happen. But what most casual readers of history gloss over is the simple fact that the finances and string pulling at times, originated elsewhere. Two major players were families who had hands on the strings, and one being the Fuggers, whom we had come across briefly in a previous article (then again, there are plenty of books written about the Fuggers). But the pioneering family of the two, were the risk taking Welser’s from Augsburg, Germany. Not much has been written about them in English and only recently has substantial information surfaced. They were an enterprising family, so let’s meet them and take a quick look at their connections to the Malabar spice trade.

The Welser’s claim descendance from a very interesting person, a general from the 6th century, named Flavius Belisarius, the man who today is connected to the so called small force theory used by militaries of the world (Including the US army which documents his strategies in field manuals) especially those used by him in the Battle of Dara (Oghuz in south east Turkey) where he and his forces took on a larger Persian army. The Welser’s of the 16th century as we will see were strategists all right, but they fought their battles in the economic and banking fronts but remained behind the scenes. The difficulties in tracing their complete stories is the fact that their records were mostly lost due to their economic collapse in 1614, which we will eventually come to.

The Welser’s were by the 15th century one of the premier burgher families of Germany (Burgher is a hereditary family tile, they were privileged, with the heads reporting directly to the emperor) and first rose into prominence, trading in Germany and were controlled by the four brothers Bartel, Jacob, Lucas and Ulrich. They became prominent after connecting up with another well-known trader, Hans Vohlin of Memingen who had direct links to emperor Maximilian. This was a period when the four richest cities of Germany were Augsburg, Memingen, Nuremberg and Ravensburg. The Venice division of the Vohlin trade dealt with cloth, pepper and spices in addition to salt and silver. Their relationship was cemented when Lucas’s son Anton Welser married Vohlin’s daughter (Lucas’s other sons Lucas and Jacob had their own Wesler branches but they became extinct in 1628 and 1878 respectively). After spending some time in Memingen with his wife’s family, Anton returned in 1496 to Augsburg to form the Anton Wesler Conrad Volhlin Company. It was a well spread company with some 18 associates, though decision making was difficult, with so many voices. While the Fugger’s concentrated on mining, the Welser’s traded in textiles, spices, silk and dyes. They formed part of the higher echelon Patricians of Augusburg, which the Fugger’s were not.

It was the same year, as part of an agreement between himself and Isabella that the King of Portugal decreed all Jews must convert to Catholicism or leave the country. John II had decided on enriching the monarch’s treasury by usurping commerce and long distance trade, taking a page from his ancestor Henry the Navigator. He decided to find the sea route to India and the reports from Covilha and Pavia had reached Lisbon in 1490 (see article). Bartholomew Diaz had circumvented Africa and India was beckoning. Soon America was discovered and proved to be of no great commercial consequence and not befitting the glowing descriptions of ‘Zimpango’ of Marco Polo.

Like it is usually, it was a war that propped up Lisbon as an attractive alternative to European
Bartholomew Welser
businessmen and adventurers. Despite the setbacks in the struggle against the Turks, at the end of 15th century, with 180,000 inhabitants, Venice was the second largest city in Europe after Paris and probably the richest in the world and the premier port of trade. In the same year the Ottoman sultan moved to attack Lepanto by land and sent a large fleet to support the offensive by sea. Antonio Grimani, more a businessman and diplomat than a sailor, was defeated in the sea Battle of Zonchio in 1499.Preferring peace to total war against the Turks, Venice surrendered the bases of Lepanto, Modon and Coron. The War of the Holy League with the French and the pope followed.

The war with the Ottomans and later with the Pope, coupled with the disastrous fire at the Fondaco die Tedeschi had put Venice which was their base, on notice and as always, the moneymen fled with their purses. Their new destination was Lisbon which was in a state of elation after the great news about the far eastern voyages and the return of Vasco Da Gama.

The responsibility of captaining the first Portuguese voyage to the East, as we know, went to Vasco Da Gama. Not much is known behind the reasoning to select Gama, still an inexperienced explorer, to lead the expedition to India in 1497. But he did just that, for on July 8 of that year, he captained a team of four vessels, including his flagship St. Gabriel, to find a sailing route to India and the East. As we know he reached Calicut in May 1498 and opened the lucrative sea route to Malabar’s spice markets, something that was eagerly awaited in Lisbon. The profits of that voyage and successive voyages convinced that the long distance trade with Malabar was eminently feasible. A year later Cabral had accidentally discovered another jewel named Brazil. The lucrative trade with these new countries beckoned and the traders rushed to Portugal.

Anton Wesler’s company located in Augsburg and his large fleet of ships working off Antwerp were making good money. It was the third-largest city in the south-west of Bavaria, and third-oldest City in Germany. Founded by the Romans as Augusta Vindelicorum, it was named after the Roman emperor Augustus. Augsburg was to become the home of two families, replacing the Medicis as Europe's leading bankers, namely the Fugger and the Welser families. Due to the presence of the business families of Welser and Fugger, Augsburg developed into a considerable trading center bringing in material from Venice and also became a center for printing.

In Welserland
At the very first sign of the decadence of Venice, when the tide of the East India trade turned towards Lisbon, we see Simon Seitz, an agent of the Welser’s of Augsburg, installed in the capital of Portugal in 1503. He was later succeeded by one Lucas Rem, who left behind a complete diary (Welser Codex). Lucas Rem was associated with Augsburg’s Welser firm through his maternal relatives (his mother was Magdelena Welser, the daughter of Lucas Welser). Lucas spent his initial years starting in 1494 in Venice learning the ropes in an organization which had many other relatives. Between 1502 and 1509, Rem seems to have been relocated to the Welser’s Lisbon office.

We also observe that King Manuel had attracted German capital from the Welser and other German families by granting them some privileges of lower taxes (also accorded citizenship, right to dress in their own clothes, ride on their own horses and donkeys!!) and the right to deploy their own ships in the sea trade if they opened offices in Lisbon. This ploy proved to be quite profitable for the Welser’s participating in a German consortium for the famous Asia Contract which the Portuguese Crown granted to these German merchants. Let us now get to the details.

The Germans did see the immense advantages in getting into the India trade, seeing the differential in spice costs and market prices and one of the first to give it a try was the Fuggers through Genoa, with Coelho and Vespucci, sailing around South America, which proved to be a failure.  The first to seek a special India concession for the Germans was Simon Seitz, who negotiated with the Portuguese monarch. Valentin Fernandez, a Moravian printer stationed in Lisbon assisted with the introductions. Due to the fact that the Germans controlled the production and supply of tradeable raw material such as silver, tin, copper and lead, King Manuel decided quickly to grant them a special concession upon the deposit of 10,000 ducats as surety. This was the juncture at which Lucas Rem, an agent of the Welser’s arrived at Lisbon and coordinated the discussions with the monarch to participate in direct trade with Malabar.

Vasco da Gama had come back after his second and ruthless voyage and so had Alfonzo Albuquerque (interestingly at the same time, the Welser’s obtained a Genoese copy of a large Portuguese world map, which is an important aspect because the Portuguese had been zealously guarding their copies). 

The 6th voyage captained by Lopo Soares was under planning and the Welser’s wanted a part of that. Armed with letters of recommendation from Emperor Maximillian and Archduke Philip, as well as 20,000 ducats worth of metals for trading, two Wesler agents were deputed to Lisbon, but King Manuel would not budge from his stand that the crown held monopoly over the India voyages. The 6th Armada sailed off.

But economics convinced Manuel to change his stand as the price of spices crashed due to oversupply while at the same time, Lucas Rem and others increased pressure on the Portuguese court. The king’s stipulation was that the Germans pay a 30% duty and ensure that pepper was not sold below a 20 ducat ceiling. The next planned voyage was the 7th armada captained by Almeida in 1505.

Many Germans contributed to the Almeida voyage, with the Welser’s putting in 20,000 cruzados while the Fuggers and Hochstetters put in 4,000 each. Other German and Italian families put in the balance 37,000 odd cruzados. Balthasar Sprenger boarded the fleet as the Wesler agent (Imhoff and Mayr were other German agents who joined the group). They came back with 12,000 quintals of pepper and made a nice 150% profit or even more, selling it. As expected there were a number of disputes and problems between the King and the Germans since the cargo was loaded on the German ships which had arrived first, with the King trying to apply the monopoly rule retroactively to ensure that the king’s stock of spices were sold first before the prices came down. It dragged on for the whole of 1506, nevertheless the Welsers profited hugely.

The profits were reinvested, the company installed an office in Madeira and acquired sugar plantations in the Canary Islands. But the 1506 fleet where the Welser’s invested over 3000 ducats turned out to be a failure. Whether Seitz, Fernandez or Rem had the prime contact with King Manuel is not entirely clear, but all three represented the Welser’s (Lucas Rem who complained bitterly of being underpaid, eventually moved on to create his company Endres Rem and Co later).

The Casa da India or India House facilitated the flow of goods from Europe to India, items such as copper and silver ingots, and also tried a hand at controlling the saltpeter trade. All imports and exports were stored there for registration, customs, freight expenses were met, sales were arranged, ships were chartered, loaded and unloaded at the Armazem da India or the India dockyard in Lisbon, inspection for contraband was carried out and crew payments were made. All registers were held there for safekeeping, so also all routes and maps, in strict secrecy. In addition, it was also a premier center for cosmography and cartography.

Lucas Rem during his tenure at Lisbon also acquired exotic birds and other items from the ships which were sent to the Augsburg headquarters. The Augsburg city recorder and Wesler’s political and legal representative Conrad Peutinger, collected news of Portuguese expeditions from Valentin Fernandez in Lisbon and translated a text on East India into German together with his brother in law Christoph Welser. We had previously studied the account of Balthasar Springer and Burgkmair’s woodcuts in an earlier article of mine. We also find that the few of the first Malabar slaves landed up in Augsburg (purchased by Anton Wesler, Hoichstetter and Vohlin) Germany, moved on to Swabia and were models for the Burgkmair woodcuts.

The Welser’s as well as the Fugger’s had losses in the following voyages and the profitability of the expensive India run out of Lisbon was in question. Again, the Portuguese monarch had a change of mind and decided to monopolize the spice trade in India. As this was going on, the importance of Lisbon went into a decline and the emergence of Antwerp could be noticed. The Welser’s and the Fuggers continued secondary trading of various items without direct involvement in the financing of the India run. The Welser’s instead ran ships between Antwerp and San Domingo in the West Indies.

Unlike the Welser family, the Fugger's participation in the overseas trade was relatively cautious and conservative, and the only other operation of this kind Jacob invested in was a failed trade expedition to the Maluku Islands led by the Spaniard Garcia de Loaisa. It is believed that he financed Magellan's famed voyage through the Flemish trader Christopher de Haro, but kept it secret as the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies were at loggerheads.

The Augsburg German families next changed tack and concentrated on Imperial Spain where they got similar concessions with the Welser’s leading the fray. In 1516, Charles, the son of Philip, arch-duke of Austria and grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, upon the death of Maximilian, was elected emperor of Germany, thus for a time uniting the interests of Spain and Germany. The sad financial situation of Spain, having spent all her money in American discovery pursuits forced Charles to look to the rich Germans for finance. Large loans were provided by both the Fugger and Welser families in return for land concessions in South America, which was controlled by Spain. The northern part of South America fell to the portion of the Welser family, and became known as Welserland, now Venezuela. The southern portions went to the Fuggers. By this time, the Welser organization were run by Anton and Bartholomew, sons of Anton and branch offices sprung up in Nuremburg and Ulm.

Charles V continued to borrow heavily from these families and it is said that in all, he owed these two families over 12 tons of gold as debt (over 4 million ducats from Welser’s and 5 million from the Fuggers). By late 1528, Ehinger and Sailer, Wesler’s envoys had taken over Venezuela and were tasked to finding and shipping 4000 slaves every year to the royal colonies in the West Indies. Weslerland or Venezuela was thus the first and only German colony, and fully owned by the Wesler family.

500 Germans moved to the new colony, which covered a large tract extending from the Province of San Marta well towards the Atlantic Ocean. The distance into the interior was evidently unlimited. The Weslers were the first to colonize the so called new world, even before the Spanish conquest of Mexico or Peru. Later around 1541, Bartholomew Welser was deputed as Governor of Welserland and things were not too rosy, as no gold or El Dorado was discovered. Welser and Von Hutten were brutally murdered by Spaniards acting under instructions of a notary and temporary head of Coro, a fella named Juan De Caravajal. With that the Welser’s lost interest in South America and before long, the Spaniards cancelled the assignment of Welserland after a murky case where the Welser’s were accused of harsh cruelty against the Venezuelan Indians by one Las Casas. Apparently the underlying cause was mostly due to the German’s heretic Lutheran beliefs. In the year 1553 the elder Bartholomeus retired from the firm, as the company was reconstructed under the name of Christoph Welser and Company. The Weslerland concession, known as Klein-Venedig (little Venice), was thus revoked in 1546 and all special rights the Welsers had were lost with the abdication of Charles V in 1556.

Meanwhile their involvement in India continued. Schwertzer a Welser agent in 1534 used to buy and transport stones to Hans Welser in Augsburg. Welser sold them to Charles V. While we do know that both the Welser’s and Fuggers had their factors in India such as Ferdinand Cron, the next major event involving the Welser’s (and the Fuggers, since the Wesler credit worthiness had deteriorated) in the India trade was the 1586 Welser and Fugger contract. Until this contract was finalized, Konrad Rott another Augusburg trader dealt with the Portuguese. After his business collapsed, the Portuguese negotiated with Fugger and Wesler (Marx and Matthaeus Welser owning 5/12th), and under the leadership of one Rovellasca, signed a six year contract to finance 6 ships to India, to procure 30000 quintais of pepper at 170,000 cruzados. This contract was extended with other parties joining in until 1598, a full 100 years after Gama had reached Calicut. As the Dutch entered the scene, the Portuguese again took full control and kicked the Germans out. In the end, it turned out that these spice ventures were not too lucrative due to the loss of many ships and attacks by English pirates.

It was 1589 when Ferdinand Cron arrived in India as a factor for the Wesler, Fugger companies. It was a period when pepper production, procurement and sales increased significantly. A very interesting character, he first worked out of Cochin before going on to Goa. In his checkered career, he rose to great fame and finally fell into disfavor with the Portuguese at Goa. I will retell his story in more detail, another day.

In the banking operations of the Welser’s, a large part of it was made up by loans to monarchs (mainly to Charles V and to the French kings). The failure of their foray into Venezuela, and the problems with various debtors to honor their obligations undermined the Welser firm. After Bartholomew's death the business was carried on by three of his sons and two of his nephews. Bartholomew's niece the beautiful Philippine Welser (daughter of his brother Francis), married the Archduke Ferdinand, son of the emperor Ferdinand. Interestingly when Jacob Fugger started on his Fuggeri project, the first sale of land for the same was by the Welser’s. The fuggeri in Augsburg was created by Jacob for charity, to house the poor.

A well-known member of the Welser family was Antony's grandson, Marcus (1558-1614). Educated in Italy, Marcus became burgomaster of Augsburg, but was more distinguished for his scholarship and his writings. Among Welser's correspondents were a number of Jesuit scholars, such as Christoph Claviuswho convinced Welser that Galileo's telescopic discoveries were real. Towards the end of 1611, the mathematician Christoph Scheiner, wrote three letters on sunspots to Welser, and Welser published them early in 1612 at his own press. He sent Galileo a copy of these asking for his opinion. Galileo identified sunspots as markings on the sun, confirming that the sun rotated monthly. But he had his own problems on the business and personal health fronts.

While the Fuggers favored the Hapsburgs, the Welsers even entered into financial negotiations with the French government, thereby suffering not only from the bankruptcy of Spain, but also on the failure of the finances of France in 1557. Mark in the meanwhile suffering painfully from gout and weighed down by thes efinancial problems of his firm, took his own life in June 1614. The bankruptcy of the Augsburg Welser’s, thus occurred in 1614, a week later, following in the wake of Spain’s bankruptcy and a refusal by Rudolph to pay his debt.

Perhaps the Welser’s and the Fugger’s were all affected by the pepper curse, just like the Dutch EIC. The EIC was formed in 1600. The Dutch VOC which spelt a death knell to the Estado Da India was born around 1602. As history proved, the English EIC, the Casa da India, all which thrived on pepper collapsed under the weight of their own greed. They also collapsed eventually with the Casa da India burnt to the ground during the Lisbon earthquake.

Whatever happened in Malabar? As I concluded in the article Economics of Portuguese trade - The toiler who tended to the pepper vines in Malabar did not prosper in succeeding years, decades or centuries, nor did the Nair and Namboothiri land holders prosper. The Moplahs were affected severely as their livelihood was under threat and after their relationship with the Zamorin and the Hindus were affected following the Kunjali debacle, their turmoil increased further. The Zamorin’s owing to his continued warring with Cochin racked up large debts and his power in fragmented Malabar declined steadily till he was virtually bankrupt.

Economics and Politics of Peasant Production in South Germany, 1450—1650 – RP Dees
The Two Sides of Innovation: Edited by Guido Buenstorf (Innovation in the age of the Fuggers – Rolf Walter and Maximilian Kalus)
Mapping Ethnography in Early Modern Germany: New Worlds in Print Culture - S. Leitch
Proceedings and Addresses, Volume 7 - Pennsylvania-German Society
The Fugger’s of Augsburg – Mark Haberlein
Indo-Portuguese trade and the Fuggers of Germany – KS Mathew
Portuguese Cochin and the maritime trade of India 1500-1663 – Pius Malekandathil

Related articles
Some Welsers probably migrated to Pennsylvania and other parts of USA, and are mentioned in this family slide show though renamed as Weslers (I am not sure if they belong to the Welser family).

Casa Da India