Sketches from the Life of Ragusan Merchants in London in the Time of Henry VIII
By Veselin Kostic
Dubrovnik Annals, Vol. 12 (2008)
Abstract: A fairly numerous colony of Ragusan merchants lived in London in the first half of the sixteenth century. Their business activities can be reconstructed to a considerable degree from the preserved notarial and customs records, but there is very little evidence of the other aspects of their lives in England. The article presents three episodes which tell us something of their private lives as well.
Introduction: The reign of King Henry VIII (1509-1547) saw a rapid growth of Anglo- Ragusan commercial relations, so that a fairly numerous colony of Ragusan merchants sprang up in London. Its members were mostly merchants who were based in the English metropolis or who managed the English branch of commercial companies with the central office in Ragusa. It also included a number of young Ragusans learning the trade in the London firms of their older countrymen who had already developed commercial links in London and other trading centres.
The Ragusan merchants in London were engaged mostly in the export of English woollen cloths, then highly valued and in great demand in the Balkans and on other Eastern markets, with which Ragusa maintained a steady trade, and their imports consisted of Cretan wines and, to a lesser extent, products of the Italian manufacturing centres. The London colony was occasionally augmented by Ragusan seamen, whose large ships—called argosies in England—brought wares from the Eastern Mediterranean to the ports of London, Margate and Southampton, and loaded English products for their return voyage.
We have not much information of these Ragusans living in distant England in the early sixteenth century. What we can get to know from the extant records are mostly their business affairs, for considerable evidence of these activities has been preserved in the Ragusan notarial books or in the English customs accounts and port books. What else they did, who they associated with, how they passed their free time—we know next to nothing. Because of the nature of the preserved documents, observed an expert on the English history of this period, the man who had no quarrels has no history. Indeed, we owe the scant light that falls on the private lives of these Ragusans in London mostly to the moments when they appeared in English courtrooms either as plaintiffs or as defendants. On these rare occasions we can learn something about their friends and foes, about their character traits, their attitude to that foreign country in which they made their temporary home, about their interests outside the commercial, banking or seafaring spheres, and about their love affairs.