Global Capitalism from the South. The Mediterranean, Africa and the Rise of the Atlantic

Mr. Taviani, your project is looking at the dynamics of capitalism from a historical perspective. You are focusing on two topics which are at the core of capitalism, the slave trade and the famous joint stock companies. Why do we need to look at the past to face the urgency of the present days?

Capitalism is the predominant worldwide economic system. Contrary to all the predictive critical analysis of the past, such as Marxism, the capitalist system remains resistant. Although it is consistently changing, it does not appear to be waning. I am saying that without any judgment, since it does not pertain to my research agenda. However, what is interesting is the way it changes over time. I am examining capitalism and its changes in the past. History offers a huge variety of cases for reflecting on our present problems. Today, we are experiencing one peculiar form of capitalism, and we think that it has always been more or less like it is now, but it is important to historicize capitalism to consider how to relate to it in a modern context.

So, what is your project about?

My project is divided into two sections. Both are looking at the genesis of two important components of capitalism: the first one is the transatlantic slave trade in the fifteenth and sixteenth century and the other is the prehistory of the joint stock companies or corporations. This project is quite ambitious, but I am not doing it alone. I  collaborate with five other scholars from the University of Toronto, Stanford University, Harvard University, Hagen University and the State Archives of Genoa.

We are sharing all the data that we find among ourselves. This is a model common among ”hard” scientistswhich is much less used within the humanities.

How would you describe the first part of the project, the one about the history of slave trade?

The first part deals with the transatlantic slave trade and the plantation complex. These are well-studied subjects, mostly for the period between the seventeenth and nineteenth century, but scholars have pointed out that we still do not clearly understand the phases in the previous centuries. We do not know when and by whom the early slave voyages were organized. We do not know when the slave trade from the African and the Atlantic archipelagos became a regular process. We do not know how the very early plantations in the Atlantic were established. The so-called ”voyages of discovery” – such as those by Christopher Columbus or the lesser known Antonio da Noli – were conducted under the flags of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, which exploited the populations of Africa and the New World. The traditional narrative is that Spanish and Portuguese traders initiated the transatlantic slave trade.

El Mina trade post and fort, Ghana, 15th century. The place was used to keep and sell enslaved people (Foto by Damien Halleux Radermecker).

My proposal is to look back to the Mediterranean and to the Italian Peninsula during the Renaissance. Italian merchants brought investment to the Spanish and Portuguese in the early Atlantic. The manner in which this process was carried out is the missing unstudied link in a chain of transmissions that cross the Mediterranean to the Atlantic from the end of the fifteenth to the early sixteenth century – one that can help explain the genesis of the transatlantic slave trade.

Which were these groups of traders and where did they come from? Why haven’t they been studied yet?

They were primarily Genoese, but also Florentine and Venetian. One reason for the dearth of studies on these networks is that they were diasporic: the merchants lived far away from their homeland and somehow their activities have been forgotten. We are currently focusing on the merchants from Genoa. Since the fourteenth century, the islands off the West Coast of Africa were important locations of trade. In the fifteenth century, Genoese traders took up residence in the Iberian Peninsula. Over the decades, they expanded their business towards the Atlantic islands off Africa, establishing themselves in Madeira, the Canaries, Cape Verde and São Tomé. Madeira was crucial for the production of slave plantation sugar. So were the Canaries, which were ”rediscovered” by the Genoese navigator Lanzarotto Malocello in the fourteenth century. The Genoese enslaved the native people there, the Guanches, and later established sugar plantations.

The fact that these traders lived far away from their homeland explains why they have not been studied in the past. Why is it possible to study them now?

These traders operated through notaries who worked in the Italian cities. In the period from around 1450 to 1530, Italian merchants used notaries and their authority to transmit information to their business partners, to solve commercial conflicts, and to build new businesses.

During the 1950s, the famous scholar Fernand Braudel started a research project on economic history using the Genoese notarial deeds – the oldest and one of the largest such collections of documents – but he and his group soon gave up. One of the reasons for this was the amount of material they needed to analyze in order to get a clear picture of the merchant networks. Without an index the Genoese notarial archives remained an ocean of documents that was almost impossible to sift through. This has now changed. By chance, we have discovered an eighteenth century index in an old castle in Liguria. With this index, it is now possible to begin mining these notarial archives. We are now able to analyze the activities of Genoese traders from an entirely new perspective, one that eschews the traditional historiography emphasizing the importance of Europeans as ”discoverers”. We know that an extensive network of merchants was supporting this group of “explorers”.  Ultimately, the very presence of these merchants shows that they played a crucial role in the geographical expansion of empire and the systematic practices of violence underlying this expansion.

Recently, we saw how many US citizens protested against the Columbus Day holiday. Critics asserted that we have to remember that Columbus enslaved the native people in America. We can now add something more to this story: the merchant networks behind the “voyages of discovery” by Columbus and others were central in the initiation of the slave trade from Africa.

Genova, Archivio di Stato, Notai
Antichi. Date, 1451 (su concessione
del Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività
Culturali e del Turismo).

What is the second section of the project about?

We are discovering that these traders regularly used various tools to be successful. In order to start their business, capital was the first, but not the only, key factor. Economists are realizing that to understand how economy works – in the past and in the present days – it is important to look at social tools which sometimes are extra-economic in form, such as rules, norms, contracts, organizational structure, formal and informal agreements. They call them institutions. We are trying to understand which institutions were used by European merchants and to uncover the history of their use. This is the theoretical part of the project.

May you give us an example of an institution?

From the time of Max Weber and his school it has been believed that the most successful economic form – or institution – in Europe and thus in the world is the corporation or the joint stock company. Today corporations or joint stock companies are the central players in the economic world, as we know. There is a long history on how they have been created, as well as a lot of myths. It has been argued that non-European cultures, such as the Arabic-Islamic world, did not borrow this institution and therefore failed. Scholars have devoted their studies to explain why that happened.

Which is your approach on this topic and how is this related to your project?

My approach is similar to that used in the first part of the project. We change the major coordinates of time and space. We antedate a phenomenon and focus on different places. If we focus on previous periods and on a different geographical space, we can understand things differently. We propose to focus on institutions used by European merchants during the late Middle Age in the Mediterranean and will analyze their links with previous non-European institutions. This will show how some institutions were transplanted from the South – that is, North Africa – and the East – that is, the Arabic-Islamic world – to the West. European economic innovations – including the so-called ”corporate form” – cannot be considered a specific European product, since its origins are connected with non-European institutions.

We are looking at what the school of Max Weber envisaged as the two key economic institutions of the late Middle Ages: the commenda contract and the Mahona. The latter was a kind of partnership enterprise. Investors put their money together to form a partnership and, in this way, substituted the role of the state. Max Weber and other scholars have considered the Mahona as the main starting component of the corporate form. We are tracking the spread of these institutions from North Africa to Venice, Genoa, Lucca, Messina and Syria. We discovered that what has been considered as a Genoese institution is an organization which spread in the Mediterranean and possibly has Arabic-Islamic roots.We are also discovering that the commenda contract spread to South America, after the European commercial routes reached the New World. It has been proved already that the commenda’s origins come from the Arabic-Islamic world. To sum up the history of these institutions, we can say that, ultimately, even European capitalism and globalization innovated from the South and the East.

Both the transatlantic slave trade and the rise of the European economic institutions are at the core of what has been always considered the genesis of capitalism. Furthermore, these phenomena are intimately connected with the life of the people: those who have been enslaved and the slavers who used their work and the economic institutions. As one can observe nowadays standing on the secure shores of the northern Mediterranean, the biographical trajectories of the people who struggle to reach those shores from the African continent represent the juncture between powerful and productive economic phenomena and violence. In the past as nowadays these phenomena are intimately connected and we propose to study them together.


Carlo Taviani is a historian specialized in Renaissance Italy, economic history of Genoa and the Genoese diaspora. He has been fellow of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Villa I Tatti (The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies), and visiting scholar at Yale University and Chicago University. He has taught in Italy and at the University of Cape Town. He has worked as a fellow at the German Historical Institute (GHI) in Rome. Currently he is a research associate at Villa I Tatti, where he continues his research in cooperation with the GHI in Rome, leading a research group in collaboration with five other scholars, Steven Teasdale, Ingrid Greenfield, Padraic Rohan, Daniele Tinterri and Gerda Brunnlechner.

The interview was held by Martin Baumeister, Director of the GHI Rome.



Citation: “Global Capitalism from the South. The Mediterranean, Africa and the Rise of the Atlantic – Interview with Carlo Taviani”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 12.06.2018,


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