March 6, 2023
From the early modern period to the nineteenth century, Mediterranean red coral was a medium for various kinds of exchange for Europeans throughout the world. Whether it was raw or worked, this merchandise helped intensify Euro-Asiatic commercial relations, and was also part of circuits for the African slave trade. Mediterranean red coral also highlights the ambivalent character of the first wave of globalization, developed and led by Europeans.
During the early modern period, Corallium rubrum (Linnaeus, 1758), a coral species practically endemic to the Mediterranean Sea, was a merchandise sold all throughout Europe by European merchants, and was also shipped to various parts of the world. Whether it was raw, polished or transformed into beads, displayed in cabinets of curiosities, or used as jewellery, amulets, or prayer beads, for Europeans it was a medium of various kinds of exchange with Africa and Asia. Mediterranean red coral was at the centre of the major circuits of the first wave of globalization, for better, with the intensification of intercontinental commercial relations, and for worse, with the trade of African enslaved peoples.
Europeans developed connections to the African continent through coral fishing. From the late Middle Ages to the early nineteenth century, this item was the object of bitterly-disputed fishing privileges in the Western Mediterranean, notably along coasts rich in deposits, such as the Algiers and Tunis regencies. During the mid-fifteenth century, the Catalan Rafael Vives founded a first trading post on the island of Tabarka, one hundred kilometres west of Tunis, and initiated a practice later adopted by the Genovese, Sicilians, and Provençal peoples. The increasing importance of coral fishing along North African coasts led to the creation of major companies by Europeans, as well as the attribution of exploitation concessions by the Barbary States. A few Provençal and Italian families made a fortune in coral from the Maghreb, such as the Lenche during the sixteenth century, who were Marseillais of Corsican background and founded the Grande Compagnie du corail des mers de Bône in 1551, with two strongholds established in La Calle and Massacarès. At the same time, the Genovese Lomellini and Grimaldi families gained control over the island of Tabarka and founded a permanent establishment there. Until the nineteenth century, Algerian and Tunisian coasts remained the centre and exclusive domain of coral fishing for Europeans. Coral from the Maghreb, which was added to the yield from the rocky coasts of Southern Europe, was primarily fashioned in workshops located in the Italian states and Provence (Genoa, Livorno, Marseille, and Cassis). During the eighteenth century, the Livorno mill belonging to the Attias, as well as La Manufacture Royale de Marseille, emerged as the emblematic establishments in this field of activity.
One of the “seven precious materials” of Buddhism, and including different types of uses ranging from mysticism to a marker of social belonging, coral was a sought-after product in Asia. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the increasing connections with this continent and growth in trade volume enabled Europeans to take full advantage of this enthusiasm. At the time, coral was, along with silver, amongst the rare items of European merchandise greatly enjoyed in Asian markets. The men stationed at the English East India Company’s trading posts in the Indian Ocean emphasized this, as did those of Surat. In 1639 for example, the latter declared: “coral is the most stable and sellable merchandise produced by Europe.” For the English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, Swedish, and Imperials, it was a reliable and profitable export item, which lessened the chronic trade deficit with the East. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the key moment in the exportation of coral to the Ottoman Empire, Persia, India, China, and Tibet. Two routes and two community-based merchant networks, who were in competition with one another, dominated this Euro-Asiatic trade from Livorno and Marseille. The Sephardic Jews were more active on the transoceanic route. Through their establishment in London and Madras, they chiefly worked with the East India Company by obtaining export licenses from the company. They also used the Carreira da India, and sometimes sold their merchandise with the collaboration of Italian merchants from Lisbon and Hindus from Goa. Armenians, especially those from New Julfa (Isfahan, Persia) who had settled in Marseille, preferred proceeding through the “échelles du Levant” (Ottoman ports, Aleppo and Smyrna), and land caravans. While they were rivals, these two networks were nevertheless complementary. Mediterranean coral served as an object of barter and payment in Asia. It favoured the arrival in the West of silk from Persia, floral indiennes (printed fabrics) from the coast of Coromandel and Bengal, diamonds from Golconda, musk from Tibet, and porcelain from China. It integrated highly distant cultures and helped make Euro-Asiatic markets more dynamic.
The history of the coral that was collected, worked, and sold by the Italians and Provençal peoples also had a tragic side, as it played a discreet but very real role in slavery, the trade of enslaved African peoples, and in triangular trade, notably during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Coral was “the best kind of merchandise brought into the cargo of a slave ship,” wrote Augustin Chambon in 1764 in his book Le commerce de l’Amérique par Marseille. It was one of the articles sought in a system of trade that enabled Europeans to provide the servile labour on which the plantation economy of the American colonies was based (sugarcane, coffee, cotton, etc.). Along the Gulf of Guinea, between Senegal and Niger, and then along the coasts of Angola and East Africa (Zanzibar, Mozambique), it served as a gift or an enticing product with which the Portuguese, British, Dutch, and French initiated relations with local dignitaries and authorities. It was also and especially used in barter—along with gunpowder, mirrors, glassware, and hardware—to pay for enslaved individuals. In Angola in 1706, a man from that country traded himself for two ounces of coral. In Benin in the late eighteenth century, a coral necklace allowed Europeans to take an enslaved person to the Americas. During the early modern period, some of the outlets for Italian and Provençal coral mills consisted of varying shaped beads, which were delivered to major slave trading ports (Liverpool, Nantes, Lisbon, etc.), and shipped by the major European companies engaged in what would later become the “shameful traffic,” such as the British Royal African Company and the French Compagnies du Sénégal and Guinée.
During the nineteenth century, criticism of the trade of enslaved peoples and slavery around the world dealt a blow to the use of this commodity in merchant exchanges with Africa. At the same time, the difficulties connected to its fishing in the Mediterranean after centuries of intensive exploitation, in addition to a new species available on international markets, Corallium japonicum (Kishinouyi, 1903), brought an end to the golden age of this singular branch of commerce for Europeans.
Translated by Emma Lingwood
🔶 Co-directed by Gilbert Buti, Daniel Faget, and Solène Rivoal, Moissonner la mer. Économies, sociétés et pratiques halieutiques (xve–xxie siècle). Paris/Aix-en-Provence: Karthala/Maison méditerranéenne des sciences de l’homme, 2018.
🔶 Co-directed by Gilbert Buti and Luca Lo Basso, Entrepreneurs des mers. Capitaines et mariniers du xvie au xixe siècle. Paris: Riveneuve éditions, 2017.
About the authors
Olivier Raveux is head of research in modern and contemporary history at the CNRS, with the UMR TELEMMe (Temps, espaces, langages, Europe méridionale, Méditerranée, université Aix-Marseille). A specialist in the economic and social history of the Mediterranean from the 17th to the 19th century, his current research focuses on Euro-Asiatic trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, mainly around the following products: indiennes (printed fabrics), coral, musk, etc., and the industrial history of Southern Europe in the 19th century, seen both from a technical and socio-environmental perspective.
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