The Maltese merchant as a migrant: A sociological profile

The primary focus of this book has been trade: textiles, cotton, silver pieces of eight, grain and many other types of goods bought in one place and sold in another. But trade, always, but particularly in a period characterized by slow and laborious communications, means the movement not just of goods but of people. Indeed the iron stranglehold exerted by foreigners on commercial life in seventeeen and eighteenth century Spain would have been inconceivable without, what Torras has referred to as "trading diasporas" of foreign merchants.1 This was particularly applicable to the Maltese trading diaspora whose business was based on peddling and retailing, both labour-intensive occupations.

As Braudel has noted, peddling was often associated with seasonal migration.2 It was, and in fact still is, the response of men from poor areas who sought to supplement meagre earnings from their land by periodically moving to areas where the pickings were richer, while at other times, it was, and is, resorted to by people fleeing from some form of natural disaster or simply a radical change in the economic climate of their native land. Savoyards went to France, men from the Dauphine went to Germany, men from the Auvergne in France went to Spain, Italians went to France and Spain and so on.3 Braudel's colourful description in fact highlights the mobility, variability and adaptability of peddling, which stimulated and maintained trade and sprang to life or receded according to the perception of economic possibilities or the level of economic development. Yesterday a pedlar, today a shopkeeper, tomorrow a wholesaler. Sometimes pedlars were used by shopkeepers but at others they were in direct competition with them. Hovering on the border between legality and illegality, they were the natural distributors of smuggled or forbidden goods. Elements of all this and more have been encountered in the phenomenon of the Maltese in Spain in what, probably, constituted the first major wave of voluntary migration from the crowded island.

Malta was not unique in exporting people at this time. As Braudel has noted, emigration is the commonest way in which Mediterranean islands have entered the life of the outside world.4 This certainly seems to have been the case for Malta.

In fact, towards the end of the eighteenth century, the island may have had in excess of 15% of its adult male population trading in Spain, Portugal, France and other parts of the Mediterranean, or serving in foreign navies, and this does not include those working as sailors on the short - range, Malta - Sicily route.5

In the harbour towns the situation appears to have been even more dramatic. A Ruolo degli Uomini delle Citta Senglea e Conspicua, which seems to belong to the middle of the eighteenth century, gave a total number of able-bodied men for Senglea of 1,109, of whom 471 were away trading or serving in foreign navies, compared to 191 serving in the Order's armed forces. In other words, 42.4% of adult males were away from the island. The comparative figure for nearby and more populous Conspicua was 30%.6 It is clear that in the eighteenth century, the highly urbanized island7 was already dependent on a considerable measure of emigration, seasonal or short term perhaps, but emigration nevertheless, to palliate the pressure of population on its scarce resources and one of the choice destinations was Spain.8

Before we start looking at migration data however, we are inevitably confronted with the question of definition. At its most basic, migration refers to all changes of residence, but, as White and Woods have pointed out, this definition "…is by no means easy to operate, and although that definition is at the root of virtually all work on migration individual data sets differ from each other in the two characteristics of time over which migration may occur and the spatial or administrative scale over which it must occur to be officially recorded".9 The very mobility inherent in being a migrant makes it difficult to talk of permanent settlement as opposed to a transitory status. Salas Ausens and Ozanam have pointed out the continual shift between vecino and transeunte status by the same people.10

Even to talk of "residents" as Collado Villalta does, may give the foreigners in eighteenth century Spain in general, and Cadiz in particular, a sense of permanence which they often lacked.11

We believe Hägerstand's definition of migration, as the change in the centre of gravity of an individual's mobility pattern, to be the most useful for our purposes.12 We believe it to be the most useful because it permits us to accommodate what we know about most foreigners, particularly traders, in eighteenth-century Spain namely their possession of what White and Woods have called "two centres of gravity".13 Like Bratchel's Italian merchant colonies in London in medieval and early modern times, most foreign merchants in eighteenth-century Spain were "unassimilated and transient".14

This tendency not to affect a permanent shift in their centre of gravity, seems to have been even more acute in the case of the Maltese, the nature of whose business required a continual toing and froing across the Mediterranean.15 The view of the typical Maltese merchant in eighteenth-century Spain as having a dual centre of gravity therefore seems particularly appropiate. Like Sella's Italians the Maltese led, "a wandering existence split between two economies , between two words''.16

Having decided on a definition of the phenomenon, the historian of early migratory movements is confronted by a particularly difficult task because of the absence of evidence which is other than fragmentary and unreliable.17

This is even more acute for cross border migration. Torres Sánchez and others have noted how foreign migrants are often missed by the traditional sources which have constituted the basis of demographic studies.18 Researchers, for example, have justly emphasized the importance of the Padrones de Riqueza del Equivalente as a source for demographic and economic history but foreigners often escape tax collectors.19 In Játiva in 1791 there were eight Maltese contributors to the Equivalente, but the Matrícula de Extranjeros gave a total of 33 Maltese residents.20 This obviously has important implications for any study which relies heavily on a tax data base.21

Tax records, notarial documents, the Matrículas de Comerciantes, parish and military service records, etc. all tend to underestimate the number of foreigners.

Luckily for us, there are sources, such as the various censuses of foreigners, which despite the many drawbacks, constitute an invaluable store of information concerning the early migration movement of the Maltese into Spain during the second half of the eighteenth century.

The problems are indeed many. For example, the transcription and/or hispanization of names at times makes it difficult to keep track of individuals and the mobility of migrants also makes head counting difficult.22 There is, in addition, considerable diversity in the manner used by administrators to make their returns to the central authorities, leading to discrepancies between local, provincial or regional and national resumés.23

In order to overcome some of these drawbacks we have followed Ozanam's advice and have tried to rely, in the main, on the primary documents, often signed by the foreigner, to be encountered in local archives.24

We are fortunate, in the case of the Maltese, in that in addition to being able to check information given in the 1791 Floridablanca census with that given in subsequent amendments and confirmations in 1792 and 1794, we are, in not a few cases, in a position to cross check against documents arising out of the 1771 enactments on Maltese merchants. We therefore feel that the data is as acceptable as any data from the eighteenth century could ever be.25

But what questions does the historian of migration try to answer? The basic ones of course are; how many, who, where and why? 26 But a host of supplementary questions inevitably arise; for example, concerning the effects of migration on the areas, communities or societies from which migrants come and to which they move, but these probably require a great deal more information than we can ever hope to bring together in view of the chronological distance which separates us from the phenomenon.27 Ideally we would aim for a dynamic view of an ever evolving process but we consider that an admittedly static, cross-sectional view is all we can hope for in our case.

We have earlier sought to answer the questions of how many, where and to some extent why. We now propose to look at the sociology of the Maltese migrant in Spain. Who he was, where he came from, what he did and how he lived, are some of the questions we shall seek to provide answers to.

In an initial, quantitive, section we shall, in the main, look at the characteristics of the largest Maltese community in Spain, namely that of Cadiz, owing to the wealth of data available on it, but we shall also use information concerning other communities.

In a second, qualitative, section we look at some of the less easily quantifiable elements, drawing upon information relating to all of Spain, but concentrating principally on the Kingdom of Valencia, where we have encountered particularly rich sources.

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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