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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. Even Franz Post would transmute the tropical colors of Brazil into European tones, and Carletti, by temperament more sensitive to craftsmanship than to art, appears blind to a world of shapes and colors that was outside the range of his European experience.

This inability to escape from the limited mental horizons of the Old World is even more apparent in Carletti’s failure to draw the conclusions that flowed logically from so many of his observations. He could report in detail on the ingenuity and inventiveness of the Chinese, but their implications escape him. The antiquity and achievements of Chinese civilization do not strike him as posing any challenge to the accepted beliefs of Christendom, and he briefly dismisses as fabulous and false Chinese notions of the age of the world, which were to prove so discomforting to the apologists of Christianity a hundred years later. Firm in his religious beliefs and in the values of the Europe from which he had sprung, he does not so much evade as totally ignore the disturbing problems implicit in comparisons between Christendom and the rest of the world made possible by the accounts of travelers such as himself.

But Carletti was a merchant, not a moralist, and it was as a merchant that he surveyed the world, carefully reckoning up his profits as he moved from one exotic stopping-place to the next. By the time he was ready to leave Goa for home these profits were very considerable, and he could expect to return to Europe a rich man. But then, after he had circumnavigated the larger part of the globe without the least mishap, disaster suddenly struck off St. Helena. Dutch privateers attacked the Portuguese carrack in which he was sailing, and the fruits of eight years’ labor were politely but firmly pocketed before his eyes. The last few pages of his chronicle, as Carletti appeals in vain from one corrupt judicial tribunal to another, constitute a lament that must have been on the lips of many a merchant—a lament for the insecurity of the oceans, where the lawful business of merchants was disrupted by the irrelevant dissensions of princes.

The dividing-line between trade and piracy was not, however, quite so sharp in the sixteenth century as the lamentations of Carletti would lead one to believe. Some merchants were privateers, just as some privateers were also merchants; and, in the last years of the century, Portuguese carracks were fair game for both. It is one of the great merits of Dr. Andrews’ admirable Elizabethan Privateering that he lays bare the multiplicity of interests behind the privateers, and analyzes, as they have never before been analyzed, the parts played respectively by indigent country gentry and rich London merchants in the English privateering voyages of the later sixteenth century. Some of his conclusions will no doubt disappoint those who still cherish romantic notions about pirates. For example, it transpires that piracy was no game for amateurs: sheer professionalism in the techniques of his business was as essential for the successful pirate as it was for the successful merchant. But then, Dr. Andrews’ book is itself scarcely a book for amateurs, although it is so well written and so lucidly presented that any pirate-enthusiast with an urge to know something of the mechanics of privateering can read it with pleasure as well as with profit.

Dr. Andrews is particularly good in setting Elizabethan privateering into its proper context, both of the war with Spain and of the economic and social life of late Elizabethan England. He shows the inefficiency and corruption that prevailed in one of the least studied departments of Elizabeth’s administration, the High Court of Admiralty, where public and private interest generally conflicted, almost invariably to the advantage of the latter. His most important finding, however, is one which sharply contradicts traditional assessments of Elizabethan pirate ventures. It has generally been held that privateering was not beneficial to the English economy. Dr. Andrews asserts, on the other hand, that privateering did pay, and produces very important facts and figures to prove his point. The difficulty about any assertion of this kind is that it involves the balancing of tangibles against intangibles. It may be possible to make some estimate of the value of the booty that the privateers brought home, but it is much more difficult to assess the losses caused by the disruption of previously safe trade routes or by reprisals carried out on English merchant vessels in quite different regions. The unfortunate Carletti was, after all, the innocent victim of the new piracy—a piracy that was world-wide in its its scope, and which, in the seventeenth century, became such a menace to lawful trade that the nations of Europe had eventually to combine forces to suppress it. In contributing to the rise of this new piracy, Elizabethan merchants helped to make life more insecure for the merchant class as a whole, and to undermine the only foundations on which legitimate trade could flourish. But it is not impossible to accept the validity of Dr. Andrews’ argument about the incentives which privateering brought to a stagnant Elizabethan economy, while at the same time shedding a modest tear for the luckless Francesco Carletti.

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