Saturday, December 12, 2009


Bernard Doumerc

Henceforth, the state owned the merchant fleet, chartering galleys to merchants who operated them. The operator was the highest bidder in the auction for charters. Only nobles were allowed to participate in this auction, an exclusive privilege that gave them control of the financial and commercial operations of the fleet, in return for which they were expected to respect rigorously the specific terms and conditions of the charters. After 1420 all merchant galleys were constructed on the same model according to the plan of the ‘galley of Flanders’. This was a vessel of 250 tons burden, delivered as a bare hull (a ‘barebones charter’) for which the operator furnished all the necessary equipment – sails, cordage, oars, and maintenance materials. The Commune thus freed itself completely of the need to invest in those lesser items. On the other hand, the merchant, knowing that the necessary capital for naval construction was provided by the state, could keep most of his financial resources free for the commercial transactions that were the goal of the expedition. In addition, the winning bidder who took charge of the galley (called the patrono) got priority in loading the most precious goods and a monopoly in the transportation of these goods at fixed prices. These incentives earned the merchants’ approval because they no longer dreaded aggravated competition amongst themselves, the law was the same for everyone, the costs of transport were fixed and conditions on board were identical for all galleys.

There is often a feeling of modernity about a state when its economic functions predominate. This would make Venice of the Quattrocento a real laboratory of modernity.20 The economic stakes involved in these operations were very high. In 1409 a muda to Flanders carried in its holds merchandise worth 460,000 ducats, equivalent to a tonne and half of gold! In the 1430s, cargoes of spices and drugs loaded on galleys voyaging to Alexandria were often valued at more than 150,000 ducats. Figures like these justify the care taken by the authorities to supervise such transactions, which, after all, provided the bulk of the state’s tax revenues.21 This was remarkable for the time since surely a patrician merchant, following his own bankruptcy, would not have turned to the communal authorities expecting financial assistance. On the contrary, it was to improve competitiveness and to establish its supremacy that the government accepted a transfer of power to merchants even while introducing a measure of coercion into the process. The organisation of the maritime economy took on the characteristics of a mixed economy, promoting private interests while safeguarding the public interest. This was the strength of the Venetian system.

Consider two examples of constraints freely accepted by the operators of merchant galleys. The first concerns the financing of the expeditions. As was mentioned above, it was necessary to invest a considerable amount of capital. At the end of the fifteenth century, the cost to charter a merchant galley for one voyage was 9200 ducats (33 kg of fine gold). Not only was it necessary to pay for the charter of the galley but also the cost of operating the vessel during a voyage of five to eleven months – depending on the destination – including victualling and salaries for a crew of a hundred and fifty rowers and some twenty specialists and officers. The Commune required that a company be established to manage the operation of the galley so that a complete bankruptcy caused by insolvency of any of the partners might be avoided. A magistracy, the avogaria di Comun, supervised all financial commitments proposed by the patrono. The total amount of the estimated cost for the operation of the galley was divided into twenty-four equal shares (carati) as was the case for the purchase of a ship. The value of a share varied according to the actual length of the voyage, any unforeseen expenses, and risks at sea. An adjustment was made when the convoy returned to Venice allowing the distributed operating expenses to be deducted from the profits of the voyage. Merchant literature is full of descriptions of these temporary companies aimed at limiting each partner’s financial risk, because the cost of operating a galley exceeded the investment potential of a single entrepreneur. Such associations were indispensable, and since the objective was to verify financial investments and the quality of commercial transactions, the patrono’s family played an essential role. In these cases, the family enterprise was preferred above all other options, especially the fraterna , which created a core of investors around the brothers of the patrono.22 Little by little during the fifteenth century, the circle of the financial partners was limited to the members of a single family. This cut down considerably on the number of shareholders from an average of twelve in the 1450s to, in many cases, as few as two by the beginning of the sixteenth century. Under these conditions the prevailing commercial regulations benefited certain participants who were henceforth free to set sale prices as they wished because they had the advantage of a transportation monopoly. This perversion of the incanto system eventually caused its demise and its being denounced by Marino Sanudo in his Diarii.

The second constraint imposed on merchants engaged in the state-controlled sector concerns the presence of a capitanio, an agent of the government elected by the members of the Great Council and paid by the Commune. The capitanio of the galley convoy supervised the activities of the patroni of the individual galleys, enforcing adherence to the terms of the charter to maintain regularity, speed, and security during these long voyages.23 It was also the responsibility of this state representative to decide, in accordance with the merchants, to change course or to shorten a stay in port when circumstances warranted. As guarantor of the common interest, he had to limit the ambitions of entrepreneurs who would not hesitate to compromise the interests of their rivals if, by so doing, they could increase their personal gain. Disagreements were numerous and litigation frequent, but in the event of a serious breach of the rules of the incanto, a patrono could be banned from participation for a period of several years.24 The role of the capitanio was essential to the regulation of this complex mixed management system and crucial to the smooth operation of the voyages. The reports read in the Senate upon return of the muda were complicated because of the difficulties encountered by these agents of the government as they confronted the representatives of capitalist enterprise. Despite it all, and this was part of the miracle, the collusion of interests maximised profits for both individuals and for the enterprise as whole.

This system of managing the merchant galleys hid a little-known aspect, which was in fact the keystone of the success of the Venetian thalassocracy in the Mediterranean during the closing centuries of the Middle Ages. Until now, historians have placed the Venetian system of navigation only in a context of maritime transport and trade. In fact, the political decision by the Senate to manage maritime commercial expeditions of the merchant galleys directly by organising them in convoys was exemplary and innovative in more ways than one. First, the government avoided maintaining a naval patrol squadron outside of the Gulf. It would have been a vain hope to eradicate the plague of piracy in the waters extending from the Channel to the Aegean Sea. Instead, the captains of the mude were ordered to intercept and to neutralise any pirates that they met and sometimes to engage in hot pursuit, even if it meant diverting from their planned course. However, the Republic did not supply letters of marque or of reprisal to ships’ captains hoping to participate in the guerre de course. To maintain control of these high-risk activities that might put the vital interests of the state at risk, the Senate almost always preferred to entrust them to meticulously organised expeditions, avoiding any improvisation with the attendant possibility of dangerous and harmful consequences25 Often, the communal galleys of the cities of the stato da mar participated in these operations to police the seas but, on the whole, this tactic did not produce satisfactory results. Second, another lesser-known aspect of Venetian policy must also be taken into consideration: the requisition of merchant galleys. After having encouraged the development of regular convoy routes, which may have seen as many as fifty great galleys in service, the Venetian government in 1465, forced to react to an unfavorable military situation, found that its fleet, as a whole, did not contain enough warships.26 Social concerns regarding the employment of a large number of seamen on board the ‘man-eating’ galleys, and fiscal considerations resulting from the fixed pricing of the noli (charters) and the control of cargos which this facilitated, concerns which were as important as worries about the defence of merchant ships, led to the galley becoming a privileged instrument of Venetian maritime expansion. The choice of the Venetian authorities in favour of convoys of merchant galleys (mude), however, must have been somewhat detri mental to the profitability of the unarmed naves that remained in private operation.

The security of trade relations was the source of all profits, so an argument was put forward that the companies of the wealthiest aristocrats should be favoured by making them the only ones authorised to organise the profitable mude. Over the years this point of view became a determining factor in the evolution of the place of the galere da mercato in the complex whole of the Venetian maritime economy, reviving the basic debate, which set in opposition the objectives of the private managers of the voyages and the objectives of the government. The great network of navigation routes favoured the noble entrepreneurs who collaborated with the authorities within the system of the incanto. Whenever an accident of circumstances threatened the regularity of the voyages, the state encouraged the mude, sometimes forcing independently equipped and operated ships to remain inactive in port. This transfer of activities worked to the profit of the galleys as demonstrated by the creation of the route to Aigues Mortes in 1415 and then to the Barbary Coast in 1436 in response to the problem of maritime insecurity. Indeed, the senate announced that it was preferable ‘in any case to fit out two galleys on the Aigues-Mortes route for one alone does not seem safe’.27 Here is the heart of the debate: the Venetian muda was a merchant unit but also a combat unit and it is necessary to consider that it made a permanent contribution to the naval forces placed at the disposal of the government’s military commanders. These galleys were armed ‘for war and for trade’ and the terms of their charter agreed to after the auction provided that the government could exercise its right of requisition at any time. During the fifteenth century this procedure was often used. This was the third element of Venetian maritime supremacy.

 It is necessary to see the activities of the mude in another context as well. The galleys provided the state with a very efficient naval potential for general tasks aimed at preserving the supremacy of the Empire. From the beginning, the Senate specified that the patroni of galleys had to accept some missions ‘in the service of the Signoria’ in return for the numerous advantages from which they benefited.28 What did this mean? A few examples make the Senate’s intention clear. The least coercive of these requirements concerned the transportation of officials designated by the government, baili and ambassadors, as well as colonial administrators. These voyages were always made aboard communal galleys protected by the flag of St Mark. Sometimes the captain of the merchant convoy played the role of government representative in dealings with local authorities in Tunis, Alexandria, or London. In 1438, the Senate asked the captain of the Aigues Mortes convoy to agree to the request of the Grand Master of the Order of St John of Jerusalem who wished to travel from the great Provençal port of Marseilles to Rhodes. The clamour of protest from the expedition’s investors had no effect on the Senate’s decision and for several weeks the galleys remained far off their planned course. Another kind of requisition for peaceful missions concerned the transportation of funds or strategic materials destined for the administrators of the cities of the overseas empire. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the mude of the Levant carried a considerable quantity of oars, yards, and cordage, as well as timber and cut stone in order to renovate the arsenals of the Peloponnese and Crete. In the middle of the fifteenth century, these requisitioned services were frequent because it was then necessary to add the transportation of troops and the repatriation of refugees resulting from an expansion of the area of hostilities.29 In addition, the capitanio was often assigned to inspect the strongholds of the colonial domain to provide an objective report on the needs, genuine or not, put forward by the rectors ‘of our overseas possessions’. During the Venetian–Genoese war in the 1430s, and then again during the one against the Turks in the 1460s, the mude participated in naval actions under the orders of the Captain General of the Sea. The dramatic break in ranks at the defeat of Zonchio in 1499 revealed the reluctance of the crews and merchants to assume the task of national defence. Strikes broke out among crews ‘who refused to fight so often’ and demanded a salary increase of 30 per cent. The investor’s mistrust was often in evidence, putting the effectiveness of the government in peril.30

The only mission willingly accepted by the patroni of the galleys was to hunt for corsairs. This service of policing the seas was profitable to their private activities since they were all owners of cargo vessels operating in the unregulated shipping sector. Be that as it may, the government had succeeded in reducing unproductive investment in a permanent naval squadron. The evolution of international political conditions among the countries along the coasts of the Mediterranean requiring increasing participation by the merchant galleys ‘in the service of the state’ had grave consequences for the peace of mind of the entrepreneurs. Indeed, the threat of a requisition always hung over every departure and the meagre and consistently tardy indemnities from the government discouraged the sailors as much as the ship-owners.

20 B. Doumerc, Il dominio del mare, 123.
21 J. Day, ‘Les Instruments de gestion du monde’, in Venise 1500, la puissance, la novation et la concorde: le triomphe du mythe (Paris, 1993), 142–56.
22 B. Doumerc, C. Judde de Larivière, ‘Le Rôle du patriciat dans la gestion des galères marchandes à Venise au début du seizième siècle’, Studi veneziani, 36 (1998), 57–84.
23 B. Doumerc, D. Stöckly, ‘L’Evolution du capitalisme marchand à Venise au XVe siècle, le financement des mude’, Annales H. S. C., 1 (1995), 133–57.
24 B. Doumerc, ‘La Crise structurelle de la marine vénitienne au XVe siècle: le problème du retard des mude’, Annales E.S.C., 40 (1985), 605–25.
25 A. Tenenti, ‘Venezia e la pirateria en Levante: 1300–1460’, in A. Pertusi, ed., Venezia e il Levante fino al secolo XV. Atti del i convegno internazionale di storia della civilta veneziana , 2 vols. (Florence, 1973–4), I, 705–71.
26 B. Doumerc, ‘Le Rôle ambigu de la muda vénitienne: convoi marchand ou unité de combat’, in Histoire maritime: thalassocratie et période révolutionnaire, Actes des 114e et 115e Congrès Nationaux des Sociétés Savantes (Paris, 1989; Avignon, 1990; Paris, 1991), 139–54 and R. Cessi, Storia della Repubblica di Venezia (1968), 191.
27 Archivio di Stato, Venice, senato, misti, reg. 53, fol. 29, and Antonio Morosini, Annali, extraits de la chronique de Morosini relatifs à l’histoire de France (Paris, 1898), I, 374.
28 B. Doumerc, ‘Les Flottes d’état, moyen de domination coloniale à Venise (XVe siècle)’, in M. Balard and A. Ducellier, eds., Coloniser au Moyen Âge (Paris, 1995), 115–29.
29 Doumerc, ‘Le Rôle ambigu’, 152. 30 Marino Sanudo, I diarii (Bologna, 1969), vol. I, chapter 30.

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