Catia Brilli. Genoese Trade and Migration in the Spanish Atlantic, 1700-1830

New York (ny): Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp. 357, $ 120.

In this outstandingly researched book, Catia Brilli documents the flexibility and tenacity of Genoese migrants who managed to thrive commercially in the early Italian diaspora, most notably in southern Spain and Rio de la Plata. Many historians have examined the ways in which small groups of traders have managed to succeed in foreign ports despite their disadvantaged status, and Brilli engages with this literature. To mitigate the uncertainties of long-distance trade, merchants typically build networks of trusted partners comprised of fellow countrymen, ideally family members. Minorities operating in foreign ports thus face obstacles stemming from perceptions of them as untrustworthy outsiders. Most studies point to closely-knit groups who design commercial strategies that seek to advance members of the diaspora and overcome the obstacles of cross-cultural trade. Brilli’s Genoese merchants do not conform to this model; they instead sought to integrate into their host societies while only loosely maintaining ties to the motherland and one another, usually with success. 

This study begins at the start of the eighteenth century, long after the highpoint of Genoese influence. In previous centuries, and especially during the age of exploration, wealthy Genoese merchants, often resident in Seville, became bankers to the Spanish monarchs, earning them privileged status. These ties to the monarchy diminished during the seventeenth century, however, due to frequent Crown bankruptcies. For most historians, the story of the Genoese in Iberia has stopped here. Brilli leaves little doubt that their presence and importance continued.

Genoese merchants succeeded in establishing themselves in Seville (Cadiz after the 1717) by integrating into the local populations rather than maintaining close ties with their fellow countrymen, as Brilli documents extensively. Genoese immigrants to Andalusia married Spanish women and raised their children as Spaniards. Rather than establish Genoese confraternities, they joined Spanish ones. They even sought Spanish titles of nobility. 

Closer association to Spanish society was pragmatic and yielded benefits, and did not reflect antipathy or a complete severing of ties to countrymen, though Genoese living in Spain did actively resist the payment of taxes to Genoa. Indeed, subsequent waves of immigrants from Genoa depended on the naturalized Genoese residents who provided them with opportunities to also gain a foothold and begin to integrate into local society. Cultural affinity helped a new immigrant get started but eventual outcomes depended on personal initiative and ability. The ultimate goal for Genoese merchants resident in Cadiz was to win the legal privilege to matriculate in the Consulado merchant guild and participate directly in the Carrera de Indias, Spain’s mercantilist trade system with its colonies, a privilege that in theory was only accessible to Spaniards. Many did succeed.

The Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon initiated the independence of Spanish America, and Cadiz ceased to be an important commercial port. But, as Brilli shows, many Genoese had in the decades prior established themselves on the other side of the Atlantic, especially in Buenos Aires in the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata. The main emigration to America followed the expansion of trade privileges to Rio de la Plata with Spain’s adoption of «comercio libre» in 1779. These immigrants embraced the same strategies that had served the Genoese in Cadiz throughout the previous centuries; they sought to seize opportunities, use their individual abilities to thrive, and ultimately integrate into the local society. As in Spain previously, subsequent Genoese immigrants relied on their predecessors to gain access to opportunities, but ultimately their success depended on their own personal attributes and ability to assimilate. Brilli reveals a general pattern of migrants establishing themselves as coastal traders and owners of small stores (pulperias) before achieving larger economic roles.

This is a superb piece of scholarship. Brilli has accumulated vast archival resources that she uses effectively and persuasively. The result is a highly recommended and rewarding work for scholars of the Atlantic world and the Spanish colonial era, and anyone interested in migration and cross-cultural trade.


Jeremy Baskes
(Ohio Wesleyan University)


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