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Slavery in the Mediterranean region during the Early Modern Age

Although Naples and Valencia were important slave markets during the 16th and 17th centuries, little is known about the slaves themselves. But new research is using archival sources to shed light not only on who these slaves were and where they came from, but also on the dynamics of the Mediterranean slave trade of the Early Modern Age.

Society

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Naples and Valencia were two of the most important trading cities in the Spanish Empire. But with commerce being largely driven by forced slave labour, these two cities were, in general, also important slave markets in the Mediterranean region. Despite the essential role that slaves played during the Early Modern Age, little is known about the slave trade or the slaves themselves. Now, thanks to new research being done as part of the EU-funded Men of Value project, this is starting to change. “This project was born and developed with the intention of studying the slave markets of Valencia and Naples, not only from the perspective of supply and demand, but also by analysing the social and institutional relations that influenced the price of slaves and prisoners,” says Fabrizio Filioli, a researcher at the University of Valencia and Men of Value project coordinator. This research was undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

Interesting insights

Using archival sources, the project began reconstructing the biographies of some of the period’s slaves, learning where they came from, their ages, religions, and what jobs they were required to perform. “Answering these questions opened the door to better understanding the dynamics that governed their selling price,” notes Filioli. For example, from this work, Filioli concluded that a slave’s value was the result of not only such local issues as the need for low-cost labour, but also the more abstract geopolitical issues existing well beyond the cities’ walls. “Because of alliances and globalisation, slaves were traded from port to port, making their way to Europe,” explains Filioli. “As a result of this complex, global network, we see slaves in Valencia and Naples coming not only from nearby sub-Saharan Africa, but also from as far away as Goa.” Filioli also uncovered some interesting insight on the cost of slaves and how their exchange rate was determined. For instance, by studying the case of the oarsmen who filled the galleys of Naples’ substantial fleet, Filioli found that a prisoner’s ransom, or ‘exchange value’, was significantly higher than his value as an oarsman. “Such variables as the amount of money that his family was determined to spend to redeem him and his social status prior to capture had a profound impact on the cost of ransom,” adds Filioli.

New opportunities ahead

Filioli says his research has led to numerous new opportunities. “This project would simply not have been possible without the support of international experts and the exchange of scientific reports.” He feels being able to work in the archives of Valencia, Naples, Madrid and Rome, and having the opportunity to participate in various international conferences, allowed him to build a truly important trajectory of study. Having secured a fellowship at the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies, Filioli plans to expand on the work he began during the Men of Value project. “This is a very prestigious postdoc fellowship that allows me to continue my investigations on slavery in the Mediterranean,” he concludes. “I’m excited to see what new insights we will unlock in the coming months.”

Keywords

Men of Value, slavery, Mediterranean, Naples, Valencia, slave market, Early Modern Age, Spanish Empire, slave trade

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