The Maltese merchant colony in Barcelona

After the confrontation with the Confradia de St. Julia dels Mercers Botiguers de Telas in the earlier part of the century, the Maltese presence in Barcelona seems to have evolved along somewhat different lines from the communities in other parts of Spain.

In contrast to the essentially retail nature of Maltese business elsewhere, merchants in Barcelona were, in the main, dedicated to the wholesale trade in cotton and, as a consequence, there was no need for a substantial permanent presence on the ground.159

In fact, as we saw earlier, the number of long-term Maltese residents in Barcelona probably never exceeded the figure of around sixty which we encountered in 1791, although Maltese merchants passing through Barcelona may have doubled this number at any one time.

Vilar has made reference to a few specialized Maltese merchants resident in Barcelona whose names appear in all accounts.160 This was probably more evident in later years but in this one year, 1778 - 1779, for which we have full details of shippers of cotton, a somewhat different picture seems to emerge.

A list of Matriculados Extranjeros Transeúntes submitted on 19 January 1780 by the Conde de Asalto in Barcelona gave the figure of 34 Maltese out of a total number of foreigners registered with the consuls of 77.161 Other sources show at least another 7 Maltese in Barcelona at this time, and yet a contemporary report talks of a, "multitude of Maltese with no fixed abode trading in cotton which they supplied to the Indiana factories".162

The key to these two seemingly contradictory views may lie in the presence of different types of cotton merchants in Barcelona: the permanent and the transient.

The first and, undoubtedly, the most important type was the merchant who was more or less permanently resident in Barcelona and acted as an agent in the disposal of other people's cotton, as well as selling his own. Although it is possible that some Maltese merchants were already established in Barcelona in the earlier part of the century, it is doubtful that the level of activity warranted more than a token presence.163

In the beginning it is more probable that established Catalan businessmen provided local support. Thus a 1753 lawsuit makes reference to Antonio Jover Corredor de Cambios del Número y Colegio de esta Ciudad de Barna and cites a Llibre de Comptes dels Maltesos comensant en lo any mil set cents quarenta y set, containing the accounts of Maltese companies and individuals who were introduced into the business by Antonio Jover.164

Brokers or Corredors d'Orella or Corredores de Cambio seem to have enjoyed a special relationship with the Maltese which was perhaps not unrelated to the former's attachment to the Indiana industry.165 Gironimo Farasola or Jaume Ferrusola was, apparently, the first broker to represent the Maltese, on the Catastro, and perhaps also as a consul sometime in the early 1740s166 He was succeeded by Buenaventura Canet, Gaspar Malet (1746 - 1755), Bruno Peramás (1755 - 1768) and the Burgés brothers.167

Bruno Peramás, in particular, seems to have been very active in this respect and there are many references to him in business correspondence. He was the consul for Malta in Barcelona and this placed him in an excellent position to do business. He was, for example, the general agent for the Maltese commercial company, Juan Bautista Attard, according to Molas.168 His relationship with Francesco Bertis and Company was apparently an even closer one. There are references to Bertis, Peramás e Compagnia in a statement of accounts for the period 1761 - 1769.169 The statement shows Bertis making payments to knights of the Order on behalf of Peramás, as well as sending him important quantities of cotton in addition to coffee, indianas, carpets and other items from the Levant.

Relations between the two may have soured or business may have increased so much that Francesco Bertis seems to have decided to send Giuseppe Bertis to Barcelona, at some point in the early sixties, to represent the company's interests. He was to stay there until his death in 1802.

In 1766, we have definite confirmation of a break between Peramás and the Maltese merchant comunity. On 16 January 1766 Francisco and Carlos Cini and eight other Maltese merchants who had shipped cotton to Barcelona to be sold on their behalf by Bruno Peramas and Tomaso Cachia, perhaps Peramás's latest Maltese associate, demanded that Peramás hand over the 17 bales of cotton which he still had in his possession.170 Peramás and Cachia declared that the cotton had already been sold.

This period, namely the late fifties and early sixties, seems to mark some sort of watershed in the history of the Maltese presence in Barcelona, and the establishment of a permanent community seems to coincide with the increasing demand for cotton associated with the Indiana industry.

The first generation, consisting of people like Joseph Bertis, Felipe Camilleri, Francisco Carlos Cini, Pasqual Delceppo and Joseph Depares, was subsequently succeeded or joined by another, which included Francisco Xavier Cini, Palmo Frendo, Fortunato Gilibert, Pablo Laferla, Salvador Magro and Giuseppe Audivert. These are the handful to which Vilar is referring to. Their names appear continually in the records of the Fondo Comercial of the Archivo Histórico Municipal de Barcelona and of the Corredors Reials de Canvi at the Colegio de Corredores and Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya. They also appear frequently as parties in commercial litigation in Barcelona's Tribunal del Consulado.171

They were the lynchpin of Malta's domination of Barcelona's cotton market, sending back priceless market information, arranging for customs clearance and warehousing, selling, collecting and remitting proceeds, arranging for return cargoes and so on.172

In a letter dated 23 March 1987 for example, Fortunato Gilibert in Barcelona informed his principal, Pasquale Delceppo, concerning cotton prices and market conditions.173 He also gave him information concerning the prices of grain and different types of beans as well as the level of stocks available in Barcelona. Delceppo, who had previously been a cotton merchant in Barcelona, but had by then re-established himself in Malta as a cotton exporter, insurance underwriter and financier, sent Gilibert eight bales and two boxes of cotton yarn via Saverio Fiorini in Marseille for sale on the Barcelona market.

Gilibert seems to have had some freedom in determining selling prices etc., but other agents would be given exact instructions, for example, concerning the minimum prices to be asked for the cotton. Salvador Bartolo in Malta wrote to his agent Francisco Rizzo in Barcelona on 8 April 1800 giving him specific instructions concerning 23 bales sent by Bartolo as part of a cargo of 69 bales shipped on the brigantine Santissimo Crucifixo y Santa Anna, captained by Vicente Miralles.174

Having handled and sold the cotton, the Maltese merchant was confronted with the potentially much more irksome task of collecting the money and sending it back to his principal in specie or in kind, and it is the former task that probably constituted the principal rationale behind the maintenance of a permanent Maltese presence in Barcelona.

This is evidenced by the contents of the lawsuits involving Maltese merchants in Barcelona's Tribunal del Real Consulado de Comercio, the overwhelming majority of which involve debt recovery of some form arising out of the practice of habitually selling cotton on credit.175

The granting of credit facilities by the Maltese seems to have been one of the keys to their success in both the cotton business in Barcelona and, as we saw earlier, in the retailing of cloth elsewhere in the Peninsula.

Grau and Lopez have suggested that it was one of the reasons which had permitted low initial levels of investment in the setting up of the Indiana industry.176 Jacobo María de Espinosa, fiscal of the Real Audiencia in Barcelona, wrote in 1786 concerning the Maltese, "it is their industry and commerce which has permitted the Indiana factories to reach their present importance particularly by allowing credit of up to a year or a year and a half".177

Thomson seems to believe that the granting of credit may not have been so critical.178 It is nevertheless worthwhile noting that the annual cotton bill in the early sixties was estimated at around 500,000 pesos.179 This is more than four times the total amount of investment in Indiana factories in nearly 30 years from 1740 to 1769, namely 222,980 Catalan libras, equivalent to around 119,946 pesos.180 Though not proposing some direct relationship between credit facilities on raw materials, at this time probably the most important item of expenditure in the production process, and the industry's setting-up costs, it does help to give some idea of the order of magnitudes involved.

What does seem clear is the fact that, independently of the genesis of financial resources for investment in the industry, the manipulation of credit terms and prices was the mechanism used by the Maltese to retain control of Barcelona's cotton market.181

The operation of such a system in an epoch of slow communications must have required people on the spot able to swiftly adjust to, and even letter anticipate, market conditions, grant credit and collect on the due date.

Having secured the promissory note or bill of exchange, the cotton merchant could hang on to it until its due date or negotiate it, the relaix.182 There seems to have been a lively discounting market with bills changing hands continually. Maltese merchants resident in Barcelona were prominent actors in it.The problems normally started when bills were not honoured on the date due.183

Litigation concerning outstanding debt abound and it is clear that collecting moneys due and chasing up debts was an important service rendered by members of the resident Maltese community to transient Maltese cotton traders as evidenced by the numerous powers of attorney to be encountered in Barcelona's notarial archives.

Having secured the money due, the resident merchant would have to arrange either for it to be invested in a return cargo or for the proceeds to be remitted to Malta. Whenever possible Maltese merchants seem to have preferred specie, because of the additional profit that could be secured on the foreign exchange markets. This could be done legally or illegally.

If they chose the first option they would make an application to Hacienda which would, in principle, authorize the export on payment of the duty, but in practice, exports of specie were sometimes suspended.184 If, on the other hand they chose the second, illegal, option they had to decide between the sea or the land route.185

When they were not prepared to run such risks they could receive funds, without the benefit of the extra profit to be made on foreign exchange, via a clearing system operated by Malta's Camera de Comercio in conjunction with the Order's receivers.186

If, on the other hand, merchants chose to reinvest the proceeds of the sale of cotton on a return cargo, then the resident Maltese agents could also make suitable arrangements. In a letter, from Malta dated 8 April 1800, Salvador Bartolo confirmed to his agent, Francisco Rizzo in Barcelona, the receipt of an invoice for sugar, leather and alum shipped to him from Barcelona and makes reference to the expected arrival of other goods.187 We have encountered very small quantities of colonial and other goods being sent directly from Barcelona to Malta in 1778 - 1779, but as we saw earlier, these seem to have increased substantially by the end of the century and the beginning of the next.

The nature of business in the opening decades of the nineteenth century is, strictly speaking, beyond the scope of this work but there is inevitably a measure of overlap, and the Maltese general merchant of early nineteenth century Barcelona, described by Martínez Shaw, had normally started out in the cotton trade typical of the eighteenth century.188

Salvador Magro, archetype of the Maltese merchant in nineteenth century Barcelona, had apparently settled in Spain in 1790, according to his application for naturalization in 1806.189Our earliest documentary evidence of his presence is in 1798, importing cotton.190 In 1802 he appears as a very prominent importer, but his business interests still seem to concentrate almost exclusively on cotton.191 He first appears as a contributor to the Catastro, in 1802, whilst living in Calle Ancha but by 1804 he had moved to "Volta de Bonelly".192 By 1810, when he contributed to the war effort, he had gone back to Calle Ancha.193

By this time, namely 1810, he was already involved in other types of business because he took a certain Bonaventura to court over the delivery of 400 measures of liquor which Magro had bought.194 Bonaventura claimed the French had drunk it.195

According to Martín Corrales, Salvador Magro was particularly important in this period as a grain merchant, receiving at least 17 shiploads of grain from Muslim countries.196

Salvador Magro even found time to get involved in a long and complicated legal wrangle with his father over sums Salvador was supposed to pay him. Francisco Magro was finally obliged to come to Spain to get what was due to him, claiming that he had used up his wealth in favour of his son but having been reduced to poverty he had felt obliged to come from Malta and present his case.197

As Martínez Shaw has indicated, Salvador Magro was undoubtedly the most prominent member of the new sort of business which typified the closing chapter of the Maltese story in Barcelona.198

These operations in sugar, coffee, wine, etc., on the one hand, and grain, beans and other agricultural products on the other, do not detract from the fact that throughout the major part of the eighteenth century Malta's trade with Catalonia was overwhelmingly a one-sided one, based almost exclusively on the export of cotton. It is only in the latter part of the century, but particularly in the opening decades of the nineteenth century, beyond the chronological period imposed on this work that Catalonia seems able to narrow the trade gap. Malta apparently imported more from other ports in Spain, although, as we saw above for woollen goods, exports by Maltese merchants based in Barcelona directly to different ports of the Mediterranean, other than Malta, may have been of greater consequence.

In addition to handling and selling incoming cargoes of cotton as well as minor quantities of beans, grain and other goods, collecting the proceeds and remitting them in specie and goods or negotiating bills of exchange Maltese merchants in Barcelona provided other services to fellow nationals.

In August 1800, for example, a consortium of 28 underwriters insured a cargo of wine which Felipe Bartolo and his uncle Salvador were to load on the Santa Rosa for 6000 pesos.199 Commanded by Bartolo, the Neapolitan registered ship fell prey to corsair captain Juan Bragrizan, off the coast of Catalonia, in October 1800. Fourteen of the 28 Barcelona-based underwriters were Maltese.

Similarly supportive was the way prominent members of the community, such as Francisco Xavier Cini, Bertis, Damato and Brifa came forward in 1798 to stand bail for 28 Maltese merchants accused of contraband.200

Another service was the payment of tax. Before individual payment of taxes to the Catastro became the rule, certain leading Maltese merchants paid on behalf of all Maltese merchants thus replacing the Corredors d'Orella who had previously exercised this function. In 1772 Felipe Camilleri and Francesco Cini complained that many Maltese merchants were leaving Spain without contributing their share to the taxes due.201

Two aspects with which we were particularly intrigued, in view of the bias of much Spanish historiography, concerned the level of participation of the Maltese merchant community in Barcelona in the actual manufacture of Indianas as well as the trade to the Americas.

Concerning the first and, despite their symbiotic relationship with Barcelona's Indiana industry, the Maltese never seem to have been tempted into setting up as manufacturers in a big way, although we have encountered occasional mention of it. The earliest refers to Benito Sacco, one-time candidate for the post of Maltese consul in Barcelona, whose nomination was apparently not acceptable to the Spanish authorities. According to the Governor of Barcelona's 1793 report, Sacco had two sons employed in an Indianas factory, while he himself had a share in the firm of Indiana manufacturers Josef Guiol y Pujolar.202

Another Maltese merchant who, apparently, had an interest in manufacturing was Joseph Depares a partner in the Indiana company Depares, Torres i Cia in 1794 - 1804.203 Regrettably we lack any further details.

We have more information concerning Juan Bautista Dimech, who is described as, a Maltese manufacturer of Indianas who owned a meadow in the Parish of San Martin de Provensals, where he employed a foreman or mayordomo de la fabrica.204

In 1798 he was involved in two lawsuits connected with his factory. In the first he sought settlement of a total of L1493.4s.6d for 72 piezas Indianas delivered to Francisco Alabau y Sola, of Barcelona over a period of 11 days between 25 September 1797 and 6 October 1797.205 In the other lawsuit he was the defendant against Miguel Mas de Xexars, fabricante de Indianas, whom Dimech had permitted to carry out some dyeing in his factory.206 Mas had asked Dimech's foreman to colour some cloth but the result was not to Mas's satisfaction. The court found in Mas's favour.

Much better known than these Maltese incursions into the world of Indiana manufacturers in Barcelona, was the 1763 attempt by Gaspar Said, also known as Gaspar Sard or Gaspare Zarb, to attract technicians from Barcelona for his Indiana factory project in Malta, with the help of Felipe Camilleri and Mateo Boloix. This incident was first mentioned, at some length, by Ruiz y Pablo in 1919, but has been subsequently referred to by Carrera Pujal, Delgado Ribas and Maixé Altés, albeit with some slight variations in names and dates.207 These authors give a detailed account of the events which led to the repatriation of most of the technicians involved, and we do not propose to repeat but simply to continue where they left off.

Contrary to the impression that may be obtained from reading Delgado and Maixe's accounts of the incident, the Gaspare Zarb project did succeed, at least for a few years. Granted a 25-year monopoly on 8 June 1763, Zarb originally set up his factory in Valletta, but subsequently moved it to Floriana.208 At some stage he even sent workers to France to acquire design, bleaching and dyeing techniques. The factory was still in operation in 1775.

Even less information is available concerning Maltese involvement in the Americas. The only details we have refer to a small expedition sent to Veracruz in 1798 by Pablo Laferla.209 Contrary to Martín Corrales's opinion, this does not seem to have been simply one of the means utilized to circumvent the British blockade, namely manning Spanish ships with a foreign crew and captain.210

A Maltese captain, Pablo Pino, and his Maltese crew of ten on board the 80 ton pinque Santissima Trinidad were given a patent or passport by Grand Master Hompesch on 9 October 1797 to sail to the four corners of the world. On 23 January 1797 Pablo Pino signed a contract with Pablo Laferla in Barcelona to load the pinque for Veracruz. The cost of the charter was 6,000 pesos fuertes, half of which was payable on arrival in Veracruz. The application to organize a shipment for Veracruz ran into trouble because, although Laferla had been established in business in Barcelona for over ten years, he was nevertheless still a foreigner, and as there was no new legislation permitting foreigners to trade with the Americas his application was turned down.

In the appeal, Laferla's lawyers claimed that he had misinterpreteted the laws of 18 November 1797 and l January 1798 and had thought he was authorized to send cargo to America. They also mentioned the expenses already incurred, and stressed that it was a small expedition. They finally claimed that Laferla had been living in Barcelona since 1780 and had contributed towards the maintenance of the battalion of volunteers during the war against the French. The last letter in the file, dated 11 April 1798 stressed that despite having all the pre-requisites for naturalization Laferla had to apply for it in the normal way and there is no indication that he was given the go-ahead, although Martín Corrales seems to believe he was and that the expedition left for Veracruz.211

If it did, it does not seem to have met with success because in the following year he went bankrupt, owing in excess of L 113,000.212 His lawyer claimed he had been reduced to living in poverty in a hut in Calle de Gracia, outside the city walls of Barcelona, where he and his family spun cotton for a living.

Apart from Pino and Captain Filippo Pulis Debono, who in command of the Spanish ship La Fortuna, is also supposed to have sailed to Veracruz in 1798, we only have one more indirect reference to a Maltese merchant being involved with the trade to the Americas in Barcelona.213 This refers to Domingo Camilleri, who, in 1821, acted on behalf of Juana Roca of Mahon to appoint a replacement captain for the Spanish brigantine San Juan Bautista, loaded for America, after the original skipper Don Vincente Latorre had fallen ill.

These isolated references would seem to indicate that Maltese participation in the Carrera de Indias was a nominal one.214

To recapitulate, it would seem that the success of the Maltese cotton trade in Barcelona depended on a relatively small community which established itself there and permitted others to participate in the trade without the need to settle.

Transient cotton dealers on the other hand consisted of at least two types, but because of their very nature we do not have much information on them. There were those like Juan Anton Carmisi, Simon Seichel, Miguel Burlo, Miguel Mannarino and others, who went to Barcelona in 1778 - 1779 to dispose of a largish shipment, which they did with, or without, the mediation of brokers. It is probable that they were few in number.

The second type of transient dealer in cotton, which the employee of the Monte de Piedad of Barcelona might have had in mind when talking of a multitude of Maltese merchants, could have consisted of those stopping over in Barcelona to sell a few bales of cotton on their way to other parts of the peninsula.

We have already seen how it was habitual for expeditions to Valencia and Andalusia to carry small quantities of cotton and they continued to do so even when they started travelling independently on foreign shipping. As Maixé has pointed out, ships carrying cotton to Barcelona were increasingly taking the direct route so it may have made sense for merchants proceeding to other parts of Spain to enter via Barcelona.215

This must have been particularly so in 1778 - 1779 as anticipation, and the actual state of war with England worked itself through the system sending messages to merchants to make a quick killing.216 As the threat of turning to American supplies of cotton was, at least temporarily, neutralized and with prices for the Maltese product set to rocket, speculators must have been drawn into the market. This certainly seems to have been the case because over half the supplies for the 12 months May 1778 to April 1779 were actually shipped in the first four months of 1779 (1,484 bales out of the total shipped to Spain of 2,781).

We have identified 40 shippers of cotton to Spain in 1778 - 1779, entering the Grao of Valencia and could hazard a guess of at least an equal number, and probably more, going to other parts of Spain who might have stopped over to sell a few bales in Barcelona before proceeding to their habitual place of business. Out of a total number of 129 shippers of cotton to Spain in these 12 months, 57 shipped 10 bales or less while 17 of these sent 2 bales or under. Nevertheless, despite the plausibility of the existence of this second group of itinerant, or transient, sellers of cotton, we cannot confirm it.

There is no doubt concerning the importance of Barcelona towards the end of the century as a market for Maltese cotton and, increasingly, as a source for Malta's textile traders in other parts of Spain, particularly in periods of war, but there is very little to show that Maltese merchants actually came to Barcelona to stay in large numbers.

The few surviving entry lists for Barcelona at the end of the century show some Maltese passing through on their way to Valencia, but practically all those taking cotton out of customs are members of the Maltese community resident in Barcelona, such as Joaquin Camilleri, Francisco Xavier Cini, Salvador Magro, Francisco Xavier Bugeia, etc.217

It is of course possible that the shipping of cotton to Barcelona was done by merchants resident in other parts of Spain, but handled by the Maltese resident in Barcelona itself on behalf of the shipper. In 1801 Juan Antonio Grech, a Maltese commission agent resident in Barcelona, was involved in a lawsuit with Juan Bautista Zara of Chiva in the Kingdom of Valencia over money due to Grech by Zara.218

Grech submitted two accounts to the court. The first one shows sales of cotton to Juan Serra of Manlliu, Juan Areny and company of Manresa and Juan Lareny.

The second account shows purchases, mainly of Indianas, from a dozen suppliers for the same amount collected for the cotton, namely 11,699 and 1 dinero. The Indiana suppliers were Mariano Roviera y Comp., Caetano Majoly, Ramon Vicent, Bonaventura Mirangy, Geronimo Aguilar and Juan Aribau y Comp., who sold the goods on 3 to 6 months credit.

We also have evidence of Grech acting as agent for Joseph Bezzina y Caruana of Valencia or Jativa, Juan Grima of Liria and Carlos Grimaldi of Almería.219

The use of agents in Barcelona to handle and sell cotton on behalf of Maltese merchants resident elsewhere in Spain was therefore a well-established practice though we are not yet in a position to determine the extent to which this was happening.

In overall terms, it would seem as if the capital-intensive nature of Maltese business in Barcelona did not need the long-term presence of personnel along the labour-intensive lines required by the retailing network in other parts of the Peninsula, although the number seems greater than suggested by Vilar. The sixty strong Maltese merchant colony present in Barcelona in the final decades of the century seems to have been enough, to provide the indispensable support network for the maintenance of the Maltese domination of the cotton market, which lasted nearly seventy years.

Source: Corsairing to Commerce: Maltese Merchants in XVIII Century Spain by Carmel Vassallo (Malta University Publishers, 1997. ISBN: 99909-45-04-7). They are for private study and reference only. Reproduction and distribution are prohibited. Copies of this book may be purchased from the Mediterranean Institute, University of Malta, Msida, Malta.

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