A Captivated Audience

Daniel Hershenzon explains the “economy of ransom” in the seventeenth century Mediterranean

On Friday, March 1, professors, alumni, and students filed into Eliot Hall 314 for a lecture on the role of ransom in the seventeenth century Mediterranean. The lecture was sponsored by the history, Spanish, and religion departments, and was given by Daniel Hershenzon. Hershenzon is an associate professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of The Captive Sea: Slavery, Communication, and Commerce in Early Modern Spain and the Mediterranean. His forty-minute lecture, based on his latest book, gave listeners a glimpse of Mediterranean life during the 1600s and the centrality of human trafficking in shaping new geopolitical realities. It was followed by an extensive Q&A session which engaged the audience, and clarified important details of Hershenzon’s argument.

Hershenzon identified three main claims for his lecture. First, he argued that ransom functioned as a “transnational political economy” in the Mediterranean region during the seventeenth century, shaping and shaped by forces including religion, politics, and social obligation. Second, he rejects the so-called “Northern Invasion,” a theory which seeks to explain the modernization of the Mediterranean with Dutch and English influence. According to Hershenzon, this common historical viewpoint neglects the internal factors affecting and transforming the region. Finally, he argued that the pre-existing maritime networks, established through a system of captivity and ransom, would continue to shape European and Mediterranean regional and national identities long after the seventeenth century.

To frame his broad claims about the political and social changes brought on by a system of captivity, Hershenzon returned time and time again to the anecdotal example of Maria Aurora von Spiegel, born Fatima. Fatima was an Ottoman elite living in Algiers before she was taken captive by the Holy League and sent to Italy. Her father was a distinguished figure in the Algerian hierarchy, and fought hard to try to bring her back, even attempting to enlist the King of Spain as an aid in the negotiation process. A group of Trinitarians sent on a ransom mission were held hostage in Ottoman Algiers at around the same time, and their return was to the return of Fatima. However, Fatima was forcibly converted to Christianity and baptized in Corsica shortly after being taken captive. This changed the negotiations considerably, as it was clear that she was now a Christian, albeit an involuntary one. The commitment to her return diminished as questions about her true religious loyalty arose, and neither she nor the Trinitarians were able to return to their native lands.

Fatima’s is an example of failure within the system of captivity and ransom. As a result, it functioned primarily as a demonstration of the complexity and limits of the political economy of ransom. For instance, conversion decommodified captives in many cases, resulting from the religious motives for many captives’ release. However, the main goal of Hershenzon’s lecture was not solely to describe ransom situations gone wrong. He also spent a great deal of time discussing the system as it functioned typically.

Hershenzon identifies three main actors in the system of human commodification across the Mediterranean during the seventeenth century: rulers, captives, and traffickers. Captives were further divided by religion, with Hershenzon focusing primarily on Christians and Muslims and specifically, the interactions between the Spanish king on one side and the Ottoman sultan on the other. Both sides took their fair share of captives, and the system grew increasingly legitimized over the course of the century as the respective rulers codified systems and procedures for the fulfillment of ransoms and the transport of captives from one port to another. This legitimation increased the number of captives who were taken, but it also sought to streamline the processes of ransom and human trafficking and place them under certain restrictions.

The two main groups from Spain rescuing captives and paying off ransoms were friars and merchants. Friars were motivated by a religious duty, but also through the notion of reciprocity: showing the generosity of God would hopefully motivate freed captives to increase their commitments to the church. Spanish merchants, on the other hand, were primarily motivated by monetary gain; the premise of freeing captives gave them legitimacy for conducting commerce in regions in which they would otherwise not be permitted to engage due to Muslim occupancy.

A third group soon entered the scene, and was eventually effectively endorsed by the king: Jewish and Muslim intermediaries, who transported captives from one port to another, bringing them closer to Spain so that massive expeditions didn’t need to be launched but ultimately increasing the price of captive recovery. The Janissaries, Muslim converts from Christianity who held a great deal of power in African Ottoman possessions, heightened tensions by rejecting compromise between the king and the sultan.

Hershenzon concluded his lecture by summing up the consequences of examining this period through the lens of human trafficking. The systems established through ransom economy highlight differing geopolitical and cultural value systems in the Mediterranean. But they also demonstrate how European and North African interactions were well-established early in the modern period, and how they facilitated future processes of state formation. This understanding of the region’s transnational commerce forces us to revise views about the seventeenth century “modernization” of the countries in the Mediterranean Sea.

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