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  • Crossing Empires: Portuguese, Sephardic, and Dutch Business Networks in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1580–1674
  • Filipa Ribeiro da Silva (bio)

In the last two decades, private entrepreneurship has emerged as an important research area in the field of Atlantic history.1 Various studies have clearly shown the role played by private business in the making of the early modern Atlantic economy.2 Initially, private entrepreneurship was studied separately from imperial entities and did not contemplate activities encompassing several European empires. Recently, however, scholars have started to look into private engagement in various branches of the Atlantic colonial trade, broadening our understanding of when and how private business operated simultaneously in different colonial settings. The works of Schnurmann, Studnicki-Gizbert, Ebert, Trivellato, and Antunes are some of the most important contributions.3 [End Page 7]

In this article, we will look into the involvement of private business in the transatlantic slave trade. Reconstructing the figures of this nefarious commerce and assessing the transport and treatment of enslaved Africans in the Middle Passage and its consequences have been the main priorities for scholars working in the field for the past 60 years.4 Although European participation and commercial practices have already been examined, little attention has been paid to the European perpetrators themselves, especially to the private businessmen operating inside and outside the sphere of the Iberian royal monopolies and the chartered companies established in the course of the seventeenth century.5

Traditionally, the Portuguese and Dutch trades in the Atlantic have been associated with the monopolies of the Portuguese crown and the Dutch West India Company (hereafter, the Company). However, private entrepreneurship was vital for the functioning of these two Atlantic economies, the slave trade being one of its most important components. The traffic in enslaved Africans demanded high investments in insurances, freights, purchase of cargos, and payment of seamen, commercial agents, and others. The articulation of the coastal and long-distance routes required a high degree of commercial expertise and wide trading networks covering several geographical areas. To a great extent, the success of the business depended on complex financial and commercial webs connecting key places. These factors stimulated interactions on an international and local level and the establishment of trans-imperial business networks.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Portuguese, Sephardic, and Dutch, Flemish, and German6 businessmen based in Portugal, the Dutch [End Page 8] Republic (hereafter, the Republic), and other places in Europe, as well as overseas, were at the heart of this complex system of interactions. They will be the prime focus of this article. For the past 20 years, scholars have studied these mercantile groups. Nevertheless, little attention has been given to the economic activities of private investors in the slave trade. 7 Only in recent years have specialists on the transatlantic slave trade started looking into the activities of private businessmen engaged in this commerce, either single-handedly or in partnership with associates. The works of Vila Vilar, Franco Vega, Miller, Newson, and Minchin are cases in point.8 This article will partly fill this void in the literature by examining the financial and commercial networks of Portuguese, Sephardic, and Dutch participants in the transatlantic slave trade.

We will focus on the period between 1580 and 1674. The year 1580 corresponds to the beginning of the Habsburg rule over Portugal and its empire, and the year 1674 refers to the bankruptcy of the Dutch Company. During this period, the businesses of the Amsterdam private merchants were deeply affected by the political, military, and diplomatic conjunctures of the time, as well as by changes in the juridical framework regulating commercial activities in the so-called Dutch Atlantic and Iberian Atlantic regions. We will start by looking into these matters and then continue with an analysis of the businessmen based in Portugal and the Republic who operated in the slave circuits connecting western Africa to the Americas. Here, we aim to identify the most important merchants investing in the slave trade and point out their main associates, insurers [End Page 9] and agents. Our goal is to reconstruct their commercial webs, and our analysis will be based on several case studies, whose selection is based on...


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