Merchants and Pirates

My Voyage Around the World

by Francesco Carletti, translated by Herbert Weinstock
Pantheon, 270 pp., $5.00

Elizabethan Privateering

by K.R. Andrews
Cambridge, 297 pp., $7.50

Francesco Carletti was a Florentine merchant who set out from Seville in 1594 on a short slave-trading expedition which turned into an eight-year round-the-world tour. What prompted the change of plan? Carletti himself gives the answer in an account of his travels which now appears in a serviceable, if ungainly, English translation. He extended his trip, he explains in his brisk, matter-of-fact manner, “partly out of curiosity to see the world and partly because of our interest in business.” In the event, he displays considerable business acumen, and a curiosity which, although lively, is narrow in its range and limited in its implications. Here, after all, is one of the first Europeans to travel as a passenger all round the globe. He visited not only Mexico and Peru, but also exotic eastern regions on which few Europeans had set eyes—Japan, Macao, Malacca, and Goa. Yet the resulting account of his travels is in many ways unrevealing and remarkably unexotic.

A modern reader’s first impression is likely to be disappointment with the total impersonality of the narrative. After eight years of traveling with Carletti we know him no better at the end of the voyage than we knew him at the beginning; even in emergencies there are no sudden revelations of unexpected quirks of character perhaps because there was none to reveal. Carletti was a competent professional merchant who knew what interested him and had a good eye for detail; a solid and reliable traveling-companion, no doubt, but uninteresting as a personality and uninspired as a writer. Yet it is this very ordinariness of Carletti which gives his chronicle such interest as it possesses. For here is a typical sixteenth-century European faced with the task of describing the non-European world to those who have never seen it, and it is safe to assume that the things that interest him are also likely to be the things that interest them. This makes his scale of priorities revealing. He has no eye for landscape, but devotes much space to descriptions of trees and plants, particularly those with medicinal properties. He is very interested in new types of food and drink, especially those which he considers beneficial to the health. He makes passing references to strange animals, like llamas, and to insects when they bite him. And he is fascinated by the social and sexual mores of the inhabitants of Asia.

Pragmatic and practical, as befits a merchant, Carletti is always precise, and even photographic, in his descriptions—but strictly in black and white. For one of the most striking characteristics of this chronicle is the absence of any sense of color. This is not, I think, a deficiency peculiar to Carletti. Sixteenth-century Europeans seem to have found it difficult to see the world in any other light than that to which they were accustomed, and the brilliant colors and exotic landscapes of the newly discovered continents were somehow too strange and too different to be easily assimilated by the European consciousness …

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