Debt in Elizabethan England: the adventures of Dr Hector Nunez, physician and merchant

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'His means are in supposition. He hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies. I understand moreover on the Rialto, he hath a third for Mexico, a fourth for England and other ventures he hath squandered aboard. But ships are but boards, sailors but men. There be land-rats and water-rats, water thieves and land thieves, I mean pirates, and then there is the peril of the waters, winds and rocks. The man is, notwithstanding, sufficient' (The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 3.)

Heitor or Hector Nunez was born in Evora in Portugal in about 1520. His parents were 'New Christians', that is Jews who had been baptized by force in 1497 on the orders of King Manoel I. He received his BA degree from the University of Coimbra in 1540, and his MB in 1543.1 In 1545 a Heitor Nunes, who may or may not have been the same man, paid 1200 reis for the office of Clerk of the Orphans in the town of Gr?ndola.2 However, before long he had to leave Portugal for fear of the newly established Portuguese Inquisition.

The first contemporary evidence we have of his arrival in England is the inclu? sion of his name in the Lay Subsidy list for London of April 1549,3 although in an Admiralty Court case of 1576 he claimed to have been an English resident for over thirty years.4 Hector Nunez lived in London and used to send his uncle, Henrique Nunes, a physician and merchant in Bristol, the correct dates of the Jewish festivals.5 This shows that he was committed to Judaism. In 1554 he was elected a Fellow of the College of Physicians and thus licenced to practise medi? cine in England in accordance with the College's Charter.6 In 1563 he was elected Censor of the College. The Censors' task was to examine candidates and to decide whether they should be granted the College of Physicians' licence to practise. The post was therefore normally reserved for doctors of medicine. On his election as a Censor, Nunez is described as 'Doctor' in the College Annals. In later life, and in his will, Hector Nunez described himself as 'Doctor of Physic'. Like his uncle in Bristol, he traded as a merchant as well as practising medicine. Hector Nunez' trade was much as would be expected of a Portuguese merchant in London. He exported English cloth7 and imported dyestuffs, wine,8 figs,9 almonds,10 oil/1 sugar and Spanish wool. He dealt in jewels and spices. He was also invoked in insurance, both as an insurant and as an underwriter.12 Another activity, which must have been both profitable and time-consuniing, was prosecut? ing claims in the English courts on behalf of his correspondents in Antwerp and Portugal. This mainly involved attempts to recover ships or cargoes captured by English privateers. It is worth tracing his activities over the years, as they are revealed in\the copious commercial litigation in which he engaged. In 1563 hd sued one George Vincent of Southampton for restitution

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