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The Familiarity of Strangers

The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period

Francesca Trivellato
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 480
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  • Book Info
    The Familiarity of Strangers
    Book Description:

    Taking a new approach to the study of cross-cultural trade, this book blends archival research with historical narrative and economic analysis to understand how the Sephardic Jews of Livorno, Tuscany, traded in regions near and far in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Francesca Trivellato tests assumptions about ethnic and religious trading diasporas and networks of exchange and trust. Her extensive research in international archives-including a vast cache of merchants' letters written between 1704 and 1746-reveals a more nuanced view of the business relations between Jews and non-Jews across the Mediterranean, Atlantic Europe, and the Indian Ocean than ever before.

    The book argues that cross-cultural trade was predicated on and generated familiarity among strangers, but could coexist easily with religious prejudice. It analyzes instances in which business cooperation among coreligionists and between strangers relied on language, customary norms, and social networks more than the progressive rise of state and legal institutions.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15620-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Note on Terminology and Units of Measurement
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    In the past two decades it has become increasingly common to refer to Jewish merchants and other trading diasporas as “cross-cultural brokers.”¹ But although these diasporic communities have attracted more and more scholarly attention in conjunction with a global turn in the practice of historical writing, the study of cross-cultural trade has not progressed at the same pace. Though the expression is often invoked, an understanding of cross-cultural trade remains elusive. Rarely do historical studies offer a descriptive and analytical explanation of the ways economic cooperation worked across geopolitical, linguistic, and religious boundaries. To add to this conceptual murkiness, historians...

  6. 1 Diasporic Families and the Making of a Business Partnership
    (pp. 21-42)

    In April 1747 the partnership of Ergas and Silvera was settling its bankruptcy. In a note accompanying the legal agreement signed by the required two-thirds of their creditors, Ergas and Silvera declared that they had run a commercial house in Livorno for more than 160 years.¹ They were exaggerating: the firm had been in business only since late 1704. But its senior partner, Abraham Ergas, could claim legitimately that his ancestors had been reputable merchants in Pisa and afterward in Livorno since the 1590s. A lesser family in the Tuscan port, the Silveras owed much of their affluence and prestige...

  7. 2 Livorno and the Western Sephardic Diaspora
    (pp. 43-69)

    In March 1744 the War of the Austrian Succession grew into a maritime conflict between England and France that extended into the Mediterranean. Early that summer an English warship captured a vessel sailing a French flag from Smyrna to Livorno that belonged to the Francos, likely the wealthiest of the Sephardic families of Livorno with branches in London. Once news of the seizure of the ship reached the Tuscan port, Ergas and Silvera promptly informed Benjamin Mendes da Costa, another prominent Sephardic merchant in London, about what happened. In their letter they implored God to return the rich cargo, which...

  8. 3 A New City, A New Society?: Livorno, the Jewish Nation, and Communitarian Cosmopolitanism
    (pp. 70-101)

    Thus wrote Captain John Foss about Livorno, where he stopped on his return voyage to Boston in the 1790s after having been freed from captivity in Algiers.¹ Foss’s views reflect opinions that were well established at the time, in spite of their inaccuracy: Jews were not heavily taxed, for example. Only a handful of Muslims came and went as freemen; the vast majority worked as forced laborers on the docks and galleys, and a fortunate few were employed as unpaid domestic servants. The entry in Foss’s journal appears to derive less from any genuine impression that the Tuscan port made...

  9. 4 Between State Commercial Power and Trading Diasporas: Sephardim in the Mediterranean
    (pp. 102-131)

    In his landmark study of the early modern Mediterranean, Fernand Braudel maintained that toward the end of what he called the “long sixteenth century,” Jews and Armenians became “the successors, in the Levant, of that rich Italian bourgeoisie which once controlled the entire Mediterranean.”¹ The French historian was specifically interested in the activities of non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean after the 1540s, when the sultan curtailed the privileges that Italian merchants previously had enjoyed in Ottoman ports. His interpretation has become a classic: the “Italian bourgeoisie” turned its back on commerce in favor of landed...

  10. 5 Marriage, Dowry, Inheritance, and Types of Commercial Association
    (pp. 132-152)

    The characteristics of long-distance trade in the early modern Mediterranean examined in Chapter 4 help explain the active participation of Jewish merchants in certain branches of the trade between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. With the exception of the English Levant Company (1581–1825), few monopolistic companies licensed by European states operated in the Mediterranean until the Compagnie Royale d’Afrique was created in France (1741–93), and even this company only controlled exchanges with North Africa.¹ Investments in the stock market never sustained Mediterranean commerce in the same way in which they helped finance English and Dutch transoceanic ventures. Rather,...

  11. 6 Commission Agency, Economic Information, and the Legal and Social Foundations of Business Cooperation
    (pp. 153-176)

    All merchants involved in long-distance trade, especially before modern means of transportation, communication, credit rating, and international arbitration came into existence, took great pains to make sure that their agents and correspondents overseas were both competent and reliable. As Ergas and Silvera wrote to another Sephardic merchant in Venice in 1732, what mattered to them most was to be able to rely on a trustworthy and diligent person (“persona de confianza y deligente”).¹ A commission agent was normally rewarded with a percentage of value of the transactions that he conducted on behalf of a third party and for which he...

  12. 7 Cross-Cultural Trade and the Etiquette of Merchants’ Letters
    (pp. 177-193)

    A common language was a prerequisite for the development of credit relations across vast geographical distances and involving disparate groups. In most port cities, professional translators were thus available for hire. But comprehension alone was not a sufficient condition. Merchants also needed ways to send signals about reputation and pressure their agents into abiding by tacit expectations and explicit agreements so that recourse to the courts would be a last resort. Business letters are the most vivid documents we can use to gauge the communication codes used by merchants in these efforts. And yet historians, and economic historians in particular,...

  13. 8 Ergas and Silvera’s Heterogeneous Trading Networks
    (pp. 194-223)

    From everything I have said so far it should be clear that for Sephardic partnerships, kinship and religious ties were not necessarily inward-looking. Ergas and Silvera skillfully combined legal, rhetorical, economic, and social resources to build bridges to communities beyond their own. This chapter and the next look closely at the principal destinations of their commerce and the variety of business agents with whom they traded in each locality. I pursue two only apparently contradictory aims. I stress the adaptability of a partnership that neither traded solely with coreligionists nor always favored informal modes of governance. As we saw in...

  14. 9 The Exchange of Mediterranean Coral and Indian Diamonds
    (pp. 224-250)

    Eighteenth-century commentators unfailingly noted the widespread involvement of Livornese Jews in the trading of both Mediterranean coral and Indian diamonds. Today the connection between the two and the importance of coral for the Mediterranean economy are largely forgotten. Early modern trade with the East Indies is generally associated with the powerful European companies importing spices and textiles. With the degradation of the coral reefs and the marginalization of the Mediterranean in the scholarly literature concerning eighteenth-century commerce, the subject has been relegated to a few specialists. This chapter describes the organization of coral fishing and manufacturing, as well as the...

  15. 10 The “Big Diamond Affair”: Merchants on Trial
    (pp. 251-270)

    In 1737 a Persian Jew named Agah Menasseh, son of Messiah Misdrachi of Hamdan, in western Iran, traveled to Aleppo carrying a sixty-carat diamond that he owned along with two other Persian Jews.¹ An important market for gemstones and jewels, as well as a commercial center that linked Europe to Asia, Aleppo was a likely destination for anyone from Iran seeking to sell such a stone. The diamond’s size, on the other hand, was extraordinary. Elijah Silvera, the head of Ergas and Silvera in Aleppo, knew something about precious stones and was an acknowledged leader of the Western Sephardic community...

    (pp. 271-278)

    In the increasingly interconnected world of the early modern period, individuals changed religious affiliation, spied on their friends, assumed new identities, and gained recognition as rulers of provinces whose languages they did not speak; wars and forced migrations altered the composition of vast regions and compelled groups to relocate and adjust to new environments; ideas and texts traveled back and forth across longer distances than ever before. Meanwhile, early modern Europe remained a highly segmented and hierarchical society—a society of orders, in which religion and ancestry for the most part determined legal status, kinship and communitarian structures tended to...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 279-384)
  18. References
    (pp. 385-446)
  19. Index
    (pp. 447-470)