The Consulado of Bilbao, an offshoot of the Consulado of Burgos, was conceived in principle as a common space for merchants and shipmasters, traders and carriers, in which each group had a more or less important role to play. The Consulado's first ordinances, which included working regulations and which may therefore be considered its deed of foundation, were drafted in the sixteenth century and remained in effect until the mideighteenth century, although not without a number of modifications. These modifications were basically dictated by experience and referred almost exclusively to trade. Indeed, the fact that such modifications affected mercantile issues and not transport suggests the extent to which the interests of shipmasters and carriers lost ground to those of merchants and traders. Throughout the sixteenth century, and particularly in the first half of the seventeenth century, the maritime importance of Bilbao diminished as it gained prominence as a commercial centre.
The increasing influence of the group of merchants in the Consulado, a result of Bilbao's burgeoning economy and, to some extent perhaps, the decline of Burgos, enabled the city on the Nervión river to consolidate its position as a trading centre, and brought with it the typical consequences of such a development. The Consulado found itself dealing increasingly with litigation and disputes between merchants while at the same time having to develop new areas of mercantile activity and to adjust its ordinances to the new situation thus created.
Throughout the seventeenth century, all kinds of measures were introduced to endow Bilbao with the qualities necessary to compete, within its limits, on the same level as the major European trading centres. This meant, essentially, upgrading its commercial tribunal, to deal with the growing number of disputes; developing and regulating the credit market, consisting mostly of bills of exchange and promissory notes; keeping a close watch on the way the merchants as a whole worked, and even inspecting their books; providing the city with resources to tackle insurance and contraband-related problems; and, finally, strengthening its competitiveness on the international market by offering a tax situation as good as, if not better than, other places and consolidating its export offer, as a guarantee for the growing import activity.