Sailing into Modernity

Recently, Professor Luca Lo Basso of the Università degli Studi di Genova shared with the Principal Investigator on our project, Dr Maria Fusaro, this rather wonderfully badly-translated and grammatically reckless declaration in the Archivio di Stato di Genova (Conservatori del Mare, 492, Libro de’ decreti 1682-1685).


© Archivio di Stato di Genova

It really sums up a lot of what our project is about. This Genoese, forbidding sailors from going ashore overnight without the ‘Speciall License, of the English Consull’, was a response to the increasing number of English sailors in the port and the Mediterranean in general. It might also have been at the instigation of the Consul himself. Picked by the merchant community, he represented their interests, and there are numerous cases in the English admiralty court of merchant shipmasters struggling to keep their crews under control, and at work, while in large ports like Genoa or Venice. The reference to ‘Tauerner, Inkeper, Ost, Betolane’ also hints at the important role played by the local population, many of whose livelihoods depended on the ‘enter, tainment’ of mariners.

This one moment was part of a much larger process, which Fernand Braudel, the grandfather of early modern Mediterranean history, called ‘l’invasion nordique’ in his La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II (for an introduction see this article, but you’ll need a login). During this ‘invasion of the northerners’, which began in the late sixteenth century, ships from the emerging economies of northern Europe like Britain and the Netherlands came to supplant those of the medieval maritime powers, especially Venice and Genoa. How and why this happened has been a topic of debate ever since: perhaps the northerners had better ships, or better guns (to protect themselves from corsairs), or perhaps it had something to do with their concurrent expansion into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans – though whether one development ‘drove’ the others is quite contentious. Our project seeks to understand this complex process.

Our particular focus is the pay and contract conditions of sailors in different countries, an area that has not had much attention so far. Did the ‘northerners’ derive a competitive edge from their economic and legal treatment of sailors? Seafaring was a multinational and fluid labour market: how did early modern states deal with that? How much did sailors themselves understand, and exploit, these systems and any differentials between them? How did all this change in the course of the seventeenth century?

The most exciting aspect of the project, for me, is also captured by this Genoese document – our comparative approach across four countries. Dr Bernard Allaire is working on France, Dr Tijl Vanneste on the Dutch. Though I admit to a twinge of jealousy that the others are researching in Marseilles, Amsterdam, and Italy, while I’m in London (which seems much less glamorous to me) it is also great that we can share findings from different national collections which offer a richer, multi-perspective approach to this story. We’ve already begun to find links that we had not expected. Perhaps I’ll tell you more about some of them, once we’ve really got to grips with them. To find out more, including about our project conference, see our webpage.

For now I have to get back to my ship. I’ve lost the ‘Stampe’ that the consul gave me…


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