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It is a commonplace that trade within the transatlantic empire of the Spanish Habsburgs and Bourbons was penetrated by foreigners, making a mockery of the supposed Spanish monopoly. In this monograph, however, Catia Brilli explores a rather unusual aspect of that foreign penetration. Instead of considering the role of the Dutch, English and French, she discusses that of the Genoese. The Genoese republic (in the Middle Ages the doyen of the Italian commercial republics) had early on established a niche for itself within the nascent Spanish empire, and, in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Genoese finance oiled the wheels of Spanish imperialism. The Spanish bankruptcy of 1627 brought to a close what has often been thought of as a golden age of Genoese finance, although the republic’s loans continued to keep many a state afloat in Europe down to the French revolution. However, it is Genoese trade (or rather the commercial activity of Genoese, subjects of the republic, down to its disappearance in 1804, a rather different thing) and migration which is Brilli’s concern, rather than finance. After 1627, Genoese merchants continued to play an important role in trade between Genoa and Spain, that is Cadiz, and in that between Cadiz and Spanish America before and after the liberalisation of the latter by Charles III from the 1760s onward. (In 1771, first-generation Genoese merchants represented the second largest group of non-Spanish wholesalers in Cadiz after the French.) The Genoese participated in various ways, including exporting paper (one of Genoa’s chief exports to Spain, and beyond to Spanish America) and participating in abortive Spanish efforts in the eighteenth century to develop a Spanish paper industry to supply its own needs. The Genoese were able to establish themselves in Cadiz but—and this is a crucial element of Brilli’s argument—they did not do so with the help of a republic which was not a major power and which preferred neutrality to intervention. For their part, Genoese merchants in Cadiz were reluctant to fund the republic’s official agent there, the consul. Nor, although they were happy on occasion, and when necessary, to take advantage of Genoese links, did they see themselves as outriders or agents of the republic. (Some, however, built on their commercial success in Spain to enter the Genoese ruling oligarchy.) Instead, they sought to embed themselves in, and to integrate into, local society. This preferred route to success abroad contributed to the ‘invisibility’ of the Genoese which, says Brilli, explains why they have hitherto largely escaped the attention of historians. The movement of men and goods was facilitated by networks of informal and flexible co-operation which helped overcome the lack of support in and from Genoa. The generation or half-century which followed the French Revolution upset and reconfigured the pattern prevailing before 1789. The collapse of Spain, Spanish American independence, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and the disappearance of the independent republic of Genoa—incorporated into first the French Empire and later the kingdom of Sardinia as part of the Vienna settlement—all played their part in this transformation. The collapse of the Spanish American monopoly undermined the role of Cadiz, where the Sardinian consulate was finally closed in 1854. But it was not all doom and gloom for the Genoese. Some Genoese had already begun to establish themselves across the Atlantic in the viceroyalty of the River Plate, now emerging as Argentina. Some of those who had migrated fought for independence, including perhaps the most famous or celebrated exponent of this aspect of the diaspora, Manuel Belgrano (b. 1770), whose father had migrated from Liguria to Spain in 1750 and within the decade was married and living in Buenos Aires. (However, first-generation migrants were probably less likely to be in favour of Spanish American independence, their minds being on other things and grateful—like earlier migrants—for the protective mantle of the Spanish empire.) In many respects, in inserting themselves into local, Buenos Aires society, and a changing economy, the Genoese followed the same route as they had earlier in Cadiz. The support of their state of origin (now the kingdom of Sardinia) was less important to them, while they both took advantage of links with other Genoese, locally and in Genoa, but also rejected them. Thus, the Genoese community in Buenos Aires (which totalled 5,000 c.1835) proved very disappointing ground for those Mazzinians who hoped that community might identify with the movement for unity. Nevertheless, the great migratory movement from Italy to south America which began c.1860 and which was so strong in the direction of Argentina was, in some respects, following a well-worn path, one which ensured an easier landing than for those heading to other parts. This is an interesting and thought-provoking study, one with important implications for the role (or lack of it) of the state in commercial expansion in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is founded on a wide range of sources: notarial records, censuses, consular reports, inventories, testaments and more. But what is, or was, Genoese? Manuel Belgrano’s father in fact migrated to Spain and then Buenos Aires not from the dominions of the republic but from the tiny Sardinian enclave in those dominions of Oneglia, making his inclusion in a study of Genoese migrants at least debatable. Subsequently, Genoese investment in small retail outlets in Buenos Aires in 1837 is analysed by counting Ligurian surnames, but this means of identification too is by no means problem-free. Brilli might have discussed more fully, finally, the view (1836) of the first Sardinian consul in the Argentinian capital that many of the Genoese there were political exiles. But, these issues apart, this is a well-founded work which will prove useful to all who are interested in the history not only of the unduly ignored republic of Genoa and its people, at home and abroad, in the ‘long’ eighteenth century, but also in that of mercantile diasporas more generally and their contribution to European and global commercial growth. Brilli’s study will also interest historians of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Spain; the first decades of independent Argentina; and the kingdom of Sardinia in the generation before Cavour. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Jun 2, 2018
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