Daniel Hershenzon gives UCHI Fellow’s Talk on Ransoming in the Seventh-Century Mediterranean

daniel screenOn March 1, 2017 Dr. Daniel Hershenzon, a Fellow at the UCHI, gave his Fellow’s series talk entitled, Captivated by the Mediterranean: Early Modern Spain and the Political Economy of Ransoming. Hershenzon’s field of expertise is Early Modern Spanish and Mediterranean history. His work illuminates how the close study of the motivations and categories that were mobilized in the trade of objects and people between Christians, Muslims and Jews in the seventeenth-century Mediterranean transforms our understanding of value, commodification, and by extension, narratives about the emergence of early capitalism.

In this talk, Hershenzon developed a fascinating case study to illustrate his argument, the story of 13-year-old Fatimah, the Muslim daughter of an Algerian pasha taken captive by Christians in Livorno, Italy. Fatima becomes a pawn in a vast trade network involving the capture and ransoming of slaves in the Mediterranean, that is, people being held for ransom by antagonistic religious communities. On the one hand, infidels are salable because they do not belong to the “sacred” community of coreligionists, whether Christians, Jews, and Muslims. On the other, each community leverages the moral outrage caused in its religious rivals when confronted by the prospect of loosing a soul from its sacred community. What is sacred is what is by definition absolutely singular, and thus, what cannot be commodified since its value cannot be translated in terms of any opposing value. What made someone salable, then, depended upon where they fell in terms of the boundaries that defined the spiritual community of both ransomers and redeemers.

The enslavement of religious prisoners took place in a context marked by piracy, economic competition, the fallout of the Spanish Reconquista, the dynastic rivalries of Italy, France, and Spain as well the growing rivalries in the Islamic world, between local factions in Algeria and Morocco and an emergent Ottoman Empire. As the capture and sale of religious prisoners became routinized, the ransoming of slaves became the object of specialized trade routes that included not only merchants, but also religious envoys. The collaboration between merchants and friars was a routine matter; ransoming was viewed as spiritual/social activity. (Different actors, in fact, employed different frameworks to refer to the process of ransoming – redemption of souls, liberation of kin, selling goods.) As the ransom trade became semi-institutionalized, political leaders, notably Philip III of Spain and the pasha of Algeria, began to want to exert more direct control over the ransoming process. This allowed the pasha to impose his own ransom agenda on the buyers (friars or merchants) forcing them to buy his slaves first, and then the slaves of his clients. This set up a rivalry between the state and those who had developed a business (whether they were merchants or religious groups) in the redemption of slaves. As Hershenzon noted, during this time period, “ransom created ad hoc coalitions that crossed religious and political boundaries.”

During her journey back to Algiers, the bishop of Corsica converted Fatima to Christianity. It is not clear whether Fatimah wanted the conversion or whether it was forced upon her, but once she had been converted (becoming Mary Magdalena) her status as a slave was complicated. She had suddenly become a member of the sacred community of Catholics, thus inalienable as property. She could not be considered a slave, nor could she be delivered to an unbeliever, and thus she could no longer in good conscience be traded back to her father.

Historians have tended to view the trade in slave through an economic lens: the trade in people interpreted as symptomatic of the rising tendency towards commodification and capitalism. Hershenzon uses the Fatimah example among others to complicate this narrative, by carefully re-constructing the details of how the valuation of people, the conditions for their exchange, and the networks that controlled these exchanges challenge the assumption that economic interests and categories trumped all others. In other words, the ransom market had multiple functions—sacred, social, and political—that influenced how individuals were valued (a hostage, a slave, and a converso are not quite the same). These overlapping functions force us to ask, for instance, whether the Trinitarian friars sent around the Mediterranean to redeem slaves were economic actors or pastoral ones. Meanwhile in freeing slaves, political leaders demonstrated their social and spiritual duty to free coreligionists, even as they helped themselves to a cut in taxes and licensing fees. Hershenzon thus illustrates how contingent value or even the question of salability turned out to be, defined as it was at the intersection of sacred communities and the rivalries between political and even professional spheres on an almost case-by-case basis.

For more information see http://past.oxfordjournals.org/content/231/1/61.full.pdf?keytype=ref&ijkey=VP8pcVUCqexMO1K or contact Daniel Hershenzon directly at daniel.hershenzon@uconn.edu.