Lay forms of social interaction within the group

Though the church and associated institutions like the Confradrias and the Hermandades figure very prominently as the medium through which social interaction within the community of Maltese merchants took place, they coexisted alongside lay structures. Bonds based on kinship and the community of origin were probably important.

Poitrineau has noted for migrants from the Highlands of France that they normally travelled in groups and far from their community drew upon family or communal support and how many of the young men embarked on the journey to Spain guided by fathers or elder brothers.107

Similar behaviour is encountered amongst the Maltese. The predominance of family ties, during and after the brigantine epoch, as the basis on which formal and informal compagnias were formed, is clear, and this was not limited to association between adults. As we saw earlier, it was possible for boys who had not yet come of age to be given special permission to trade, and the compagnias in fact constituted veritable business schools within which they picked up the tools of the trade.

But there is evidence not only of interaction within families and compagnias, but between the various compagnias and traders and the wider Maltese communities spread all over Spain.

In the larger cities the Maltese merchant communities seem to have had some form of group association centred on the consul. In a certificate issued to Don Bernabe Jose Azopardo in Cadiz on 22 June 1808, Juan Bautista Brachieri, the Order of Saint John's consul general in Cadiz, declared that Azopardo had never attended "las Juntas de Nuestros Nacionales".108 The Maltese in Cadiz therefore had some lay organization which would probably have been assisted by the resident chaplain. In Valencia, on the other hand, the membership of so many Maltese in the confraternity, with its mostly religious services, may have made a separate lay organization unnecessary. In any case, practically all the Valencia Maltese had their business in the same street and must have been in continual contact with each other. Nevertheless, the majority of the Maltese were not to be encountered in such large cities but in middling towns and villages, and it is therefore probable that the patterns of social interaction were more informal, although this does not mean that they were necessarily any less strong.

In 1789 Andres Pancosta of Valencia protested that Joseph Psayla, another mercader de Vara ,"has caused the loss of my honour and reputation with defamatory accusations of being a swindler and a forger and for added measure he made these accusations in public places particularly in the street of the Maltese where, as a consequence of past events, colleagues may have acquired an opinion detrimental to myself as regards the honour and behaviour so necessary for the conduct of our business''.109 One's public reputation must have been critical in a business based on credit.

As Braudel has pointed out, a minority "was a solid and ready made network". 110, and there is no doubt that the Maltese in Spain were exactly that and their gregariousness only tended to reinforce this phenomenon. Like Armenians, Jews and other minorities they stuck together, in an alien environment, for mutual aid and security. Oppressed and discriminated against by the majority in their line of business, they were nevertheless able to prosper because their own oppressors were themselves often subject to official sanction and mob violence.

Mutual assistance between the Maltese merchants in Spain started from the very first day of their arrival in the country. When Angelo Dimech and Company arrived in Valencia in 1764, "they were put up by another Maltese as is customary amongst the Maltese until such time as they find accommodation''.111 Not only was help to be given, it was also to be given free of charge. Ramon Ventura, Maestro Sastre, apparently not Maltese, and resident in Valencia, declared in 1791-1792 that "Amongst the Maltese merchants in this city , who consider themselves as belonging to the same family, there is and there has always been the practice and good conduct of helping each other in times of sickness and in their work as well as in the course of litigation without expecting any recompense for the assistance they give each other''.112 This was confirmed by another witness, Joseph Scerri, this time Maltese. The case was over Joseph Espadano's claim for compensation for assistance he had rendered Juan Bautista Busuttil y Cia and Angelo Serri y Cía.

Left penniless after involvement in a case of contraband, Angelo Serri and Salvador Mizzi in 1790 declared they would have starved to death , "had it not been for the good heart and charitable disposition of some fellow nationals''.113

Another case involved Joseph Ellul. In 1791 he helped out Mathias Fenech because he felt sorry for the unhappy situation in which Fenech and his wife had found themselves and he therefore entrusted him with the sale of some merchandise which he was to carry out outside the city in a shop or hawking.114

The Maltese were also executors of each others testaments, stood bail and acted as guarantors for each other, married their daughters to other Maltese even after decades of residence in Spain, introduced each other in business, took each other's sons under their wings at the beginning of their career and so on. The evidence of mutual support is widespread.

The price to be paid for mutual aid was social control with its attendent rigidities. It was probably a consequence of this rigidity that Pedro Azzopardo cracked up and started tearing up the ledger after 14 years of service in a shop in Valencia.115 Stress is evidently not a phenomenon peculiar to our times.

Examples of the condemnation of what was considered undesirable behaviour amongst the austere Maltese are as abundant as those reflecting the more positive quality of mutual support. In 1797, in a case involving Francesco Abela and Clemente Grima, several Maltese merchants operating from Orihuela claimed that, "the above mentioned Grima's behaviour as a partner was bad. He failed to carry out the instructions of the said Abela who was the senior partner whom he continually disobeyed and upset in everyone's presence and had no consideration for the interests of the partnership. So much so that the same Grima bought smuggled tobacco which on showing it to us was warned on the risk he ran of ruining himself, his partner and the capitalists in Malta'' .116

Sober-headed Maltese businessmen apparently had a fairly clear idea of what constituted acceptable behaviour for one of their own kind, particularly to the extent that this effected the outcome of their business. In 1752 in Granada, Alexandro Romano accused Joseph Desala of a whole range of misdeeds including sleeping on the job, frequenting prostitutes, having the vice of drinking wine, accepting counterfeit coins and threatening to kill him.117

Women often appear as the cause of disputes. Saverio Damato gave gifts of cloth, handkerchiefs and a hat to Maria Durango and Mariquita Monos in Andujar in 1762.118 The only problem was he tried to charge them to the company's account rather than his own. Andrea Camilleri did the same for gifts he had given the girl he had wanted to marry in Genoa in 1782. 119

Marriage during the course of a business trip to Spain was apparently frowned upon, if not actually forbidden.120 In 1803, in testimony concerning the dissolution of a company he had with his brothers, Juan Bautista Mifsud of Cullera declared that his brother Lorenzo had taken the state of matrimony contrary to what had been agreed.121

The same and worse was done by Joseph Ellul, according to his father Francisco. In 1778 the latter took the former to court for enforcement of a daily allowance Joseph was supposed to pay his father, in settlement of the winding up of the company they had had together. The father accused his son of all sorts of improper behaviour in the running of the company, finally stating that , "In addition it is clear that he does not have what it takes to be in business because in the first place he has married an extremely poor woman, who is also lacking in any sense of business, has spent excessively on the wedding and to this day maintains her family and this is consuming the capital of the Company''.122 Witnesses Joseph Vugeya, Joseph Suerep and Thomas Avela, all Maltese, confirmed the son had physically ill-treated his father with Vugeya testifying that, "the son struck the father twice across the face and tried to throw him down the stairs". In order to avoid even more serious consequences the witness took the father to his house where he maintained him out of charity because despite the son having undertaken to provide the father with two reales daily for his maintenance it had been more that two months since he had done so.123

Reports on official company policy on sex are conflicting. At least one witness, Ferdinando Amendola, testified in 1759 that the Maltese in Murcia, "use the services of a woman for their pleasure'' and not just for the washing of dirty linen.124 A renowned case in the annals of Spanish criminal history led to the publication of a pamphlet entitled El Maltés de Madrid in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. A gang of murdering robbers had killed 26 men and a boy who had been enticed to their lair by the two women in the gang. The Maltese gentleman, who though a native of Malta was in Madrid to attend to some litigation over some business was responsible for bringing the culprits to justice.125 Even more interesting for us is the fact that among the victims there had been a variety of nationalities including two Maltese.126 Two Maltese who definitely did not make it back.

Companies certainly would not pay for the consequences of the sins of their partners. The company set up by Gerolomo Cassar, Filippo Cassar, Giuseppe Battista Adriano and Giuseppe Mifsud made allowance for the payment of medical care for sick partners out of company funds as long as it was not Morbo Gallico or venereal disease.127 Angelo Seychel claimed his partner Salvatore Azzopardi owed him money but the latter insisted it had been spent on medical care for the morbo gallico Seychel had contracted from Isabela Calan in Cadiz and which eventually made him blind in one eye.128

Education and Culture

We have already seen that the nature of the business required the Maltese to correspond incessantly, albeit in a patois of Italian and Spanish often lacking in syntax. This has been pointed out by Bonello in his review of 29 business letters to, from or relating to Maltese settlers in Spain in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.129

The need to communicate was not limited simply to the written word because they had to negotiate in Italy, France, Spain and in some cases Portugal as well, so a working knowledge of these languages must have been required, particularly after the brigantine expeditions fragmented into companies travelling independently. Maltese merchants resident in these countries would have played an important facilitating role, but the situation was different when it came to retailing. In their 1769 protest against the continued use by the Maltese shopowners of factors who were not registered with the Gremio, the Diputados of the Gremio de Mercaderes de Vara claimed that hardly any of them knew how to read or write and spoke hardly any Spanish.130 At the same time that it is critical of the "educational" level of the Maltese, it is also proof that they were in possession of at least a smattering of the language, whose learning would have been aided by a prior knowledge of Italian and the total immersion situation that salesmen would typically find themselves in.

Overall it would seem that as far as foreign languages and, as we saw earlier, business correspondence and book-keeping are concerned, Maltese merchants constituted a, "commercially qualified colony'' as Collado Villalta has put it.131

But contemporaries apparently felt more could be done because , "in general the Maltese carry on their business without ever having learned the principles. We are therefore of the opinion that five public schools should be opened; one in Senglea , the other in Cospicua, the third in Vittoriosa, the fourth in Zeitun and the fifth in Zurrico, these being ( the places) where most merchants are to be encountered. The purpose would be to teach children how to read and write, some rules of arithmetic and how to draft a business letter. It would also be appropriate for a Chair in commerce to be established at the University in Valleta with the purpose of teaching book-keeping and the rules concerning how to establish oneself in business''. 132

This report, prepared by the Camera di Comercio in 1776, seems to demonstrate a keen awareness of the need for commercial education amongst Malta's business community which, according to Molas, was not evident in Spain until a hundred years later.133

But nothing seems to have come out of the project for a chair in Business Studies at the University of Malta, because a report of the official commencement of the academic year on 6 November 1800 mentions only Italian and Latin, Rhetoric and Humanities, Mathematics and Physics, Civil Law, Canonical Law, Scholastic Theology, Moral Theology, Writing and Design.134

Something that did come to fruition, albeit in the early nineteenth century, was the project for a school in Zejtun, place of origin of many of the Maltese merchants in Spain, particularly in Valencia.135 Interestingly enough the initiative to teach reading, writing and catechism free of charge, proposed by a priest Dun Alwig Camilleri, was supported by Bishop Mattei and the Spanish consul Don Alberto Megino. Both had a house in the village.

The need for education was most certainly recognized by Luis Ciappino, of Caruana and Ciappino, according to several entries in his expense account. He spent 1 libra 6 sueldos and 7 dineros on two books for his son on 26 June 1807, gave a present to the boy's teacher in June 1807 and bought the boy another two books for L1.5s. 10d. on 2 November 1807.136 But most were probably concerned with practical knowledge, such as Salvador Bartolo, who in 1800 sent his nephew Felipe to study in Barcelona to learn navigation.137 He instructed his agent Francisco Rizzo to supply him with all his needs but also to ensure that he attended his course.138 Bartolo is not unlike merchants in Butel's Bordeaux or Villar García's Malaga who sent their sons abroad to finish their education.139

Apart from these occasional references concerning the desirability of acquiring a basic and practical education, there is not much more information. When Francisco Amaira went bankrupt in 1803 he was owed 300 pesos de 128 cuartos by Don Pasquel Marin editor of Valencia's daily newspaper for an interest free loan as well as L132.16s. 3d by Felipe Bueno a writer in the city's Comic Company.140 Was Amaira a patron of the arts? We can only say that Amaira would seem to have moved to Valencia as a very young man, indeed he may have been born there, so his mentality probably reflected Valencian society, or at least certain sections of it, as is evidenced by his much more diversified business interests.

Much more surprising, on the other hand is the case of Joseph Espadano, who in addition to a dozen religious books also owned nineteen on non-religious subjects. Apart from a copy of the Ordenanzas of the Gremio de Mercaderes de Vara concerning his own profession he had texts on history such as Istoria del Emperador Carlo Magno… Compendio de la Istoria de España… Nuevos elementos de la Istoria Universal, novels such as Novelas de Doña Maria de Sayne and books on geography such as Descripcion de todas las Provincias.141 At least some of the Maltese merchants would seem to have gone beyond the bare essentials as far as education is concerned. In fact, it would have been surprising if men who were continually travelling around were not to some extent absorbing and even transmitting news and ideas.142 Pasqual Delceppo was probably such a man.

We first encounter Pasqual Delceppo as one of the Maltese merchants whose cotton was forcibly sold in 1761 to meet Barcelona's needs for the manufacture of candles. In 1764 he borrowed 11,100 scudi to ship 39 bales of cotton to Barcelona and he is still registered as resident there in 1780. His business ventures must have met with considerable success because in the early 1790s he is back in Malta and his name is to be found on many contracts, lending money, underwriting the shipping of cotton and other enterprises. In 1792 the whole edifice he had created collapsed and his insurance consortium went bankrupt. Amongst possessions auctioned off in 1793 were at least 39 works including L' aventure di Telemaco, still on the Spanish Inquisition's list of proscribed books in 1771143, and other works on geography, natural history, politics, teatre, travel, the learning of both the French and German languages, commercial law, religion and history in Italian, Spanish and French.144 Delceppo would seem to have been quite an enlightened man if his literature is anything to go by.

Somewhat later, in fact beyond the strict chronological limit of our study, we find that the inventory of the books of Juan Borja of Murcia, at the time of his death in 1834, also indicates the presence of a codigo de comercio and books for learning English, history and politics and current affairs like Apologia del Altar y del Trono.145

Nevertheless, as in the case of religious publications, we have to caution against trying to make too much out of a handful of isolated inventories. The proportion of Maltese able to at least sign their name was high by any standard but most seem to have limited themselves to bare essentials, as is evidenced by the calls to improve the educational standards of Maltese merchants.

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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