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  • Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants: A Maritime History of the Mediterranean
  • Diana Gilliland Wright
Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants: A Maritime History of the Mediterranean. By Molly Greene. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010. 320 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

The basis for Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants is an unfamiliar and marvelous archive, that of the Tribunale degli Armamenti of Malta. Intended to resolve claims among Maltese pirates, it also heard claims of Greek merchants against the corsairs of the Knights of Malta. The Knights targeted Greek merchants, whether they were sailing as Ottoman subjects or as Italian. The “schismatic” Orthodox Greeks were not entitled to protection from Christian ships. Greene begins with these Greeks—returning frequently to them—and expands her interest to other pirates, other victims, and other courts in an effort to discover the laws and conventions of encounters at sea. Greene finds the Knights “simply the most vicious and vocal practitioners of a set of practices and assumptions that structured a wide range of maritime encounters in the early modern Mediterranean” (p. 224). Most of these norms were unspoken, but central to them was the mutual conviction of Muslims and Christians that the other was the enemy.

The Knights of Malta—who, as Knights of Rhodes a hundred years earlier, had indiscriminately corsaired everyone (this may not be a verb in English but it is in Greek)—justified their actions as a concern to fight for their faith, as well as to protect Christian merchants. Starting from this observation Greene describes the close Catholic affiliation between trade and crusade across the Mediterranean, even when there was no formal war. She considers the vague line between trade and piracy. (Twice in the Odyssey, visitors are greeted with the question, “Are you traders who sail the seas to buy and sell in foreign lands, or are you pirates?”) She also finds that the actions of the Knights, and of representatives from other Christian nations, were encouraged by [End Page 680] developments of the Counter-Reformation which saw an intensified movement into the eastern Mediterranean not just by merchants but by missionaries intent on bringing “schismatics” back into the Roman fold.

The Tribunale documents allow Greene to work through a series of complex cases with numerous individuals, and she has found contracts and trade documents from other sources—in one example, the Venetian consul on Rhodes, the bishop’s court on Chios, the French vice consul on Chios—to expand the individual cases heard on Malta. Greeks made great use of French consuls to support their claims against other Catholic powers. What is particularly interesting is that there was, in fact, no formal structure for prosecuting piracy, and that complainants had, at each step of the way, to produce documents for themselves and to make institutions that existed for other purposes work on their behalf. There were no Greek consuls because there was no Greece as a political entity.

Greene has found wonderfully illuminating texts. Take this excerpt from a statement by a Dutch mercenary in Crete: “Here I have seen the wine-stocks grow thicker than anywhere else . . . and besides that the vast bigness of the bunches, weighing mostly 8 or 10 pounds a piece” (p. 35). For another, look at excerpts from an Instruzione sent to Malta from Rome for taking depositions from captured slaves who claimed to be Christians: “(Ask) 1. The quality, conditions, and customs of the parents. 2. Their place of birth, whether there was any Christian church, the name of the parish priest. . . . 5. If there are any Christian persons in their country who can certify that they are born of Christian parents. 6. If they have received Christian instruction from their parish priest” (p. 162). For one more, a Greek captain was asked to explain the freight agreement for his ship that had been seized by the Maltese. He explained, “There was no written freight agreement, because the departure took place in front of a wide group of people, and the scribe noted it down in his book . . . he could not remember details about the merchandise . . . since the merchandise that was taken was not his. He was able, however...


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pp. 680-682
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