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Book Notes: The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno and Cross-cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period, Francesca Trivellato

Edgar Samuel

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno and Cross-cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period, Francesca Trivellato (Yale University Press 2009) isbn 978-0-300-13683-8, pp. 470, ?30.00. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Livorno (Leghorn) had the largest Sephardi Jewish community after Salonica and Amsterdam. Professor Trivellato has discovered the complete commercial correspondence of Ergas and Silveira, merchants of Livorno and Aleppo, from 1706 until 1746, when a badly judged investment in trying to sell a sixty-six carat rough diamond led to the firm's collapse. She has immersed herself in their ledgers and 13,670 business letters and has published a detailed and thorough analysis of their trade. She is fascinated to find that in choosing correspondents and commission agents they sought to trust merchants of repute from many dif? ferent communities, including a Genoese aristocrat, Catholic Frenchmen, Italians in Lisbon and Hindu merchants in Goa. In London they preferred to deal with the larger Sephardi merchants, especially Benjamin Mendes da Costa, rather than with their Ergas relations. The volume opens with a discussion of the Portuguese Jewish families and the making of the Ergas-Silveira partnership. The next chapter gives the history of Livorno, including the privileges which attracted Portuguese Jewish merchants to live and trade there. There is a detailed discussion of the legal framework of partnerships and commission agencies and of the usual courtesies and conventions of eighteenth-century European business correspondence. The Livorno Sephardim had close trading links with Tunis, but not Ergas and Silveira, whose main axis of trade was between Livorno and the Levant. That meant that they had to purchase suitable commodities to export and 230</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes had to sell their imports to advantage. To do this they traded with Venice, Genoa, Florence,Reggio Emilia and Marseilles and with Amsterdam, London, Lisbon and Goa as well as with Smyrna, Cyprus and Aleppo. The range of commodities in which they dealt was wide. They imported raw silk, cotton and cotton cloth and exported dyestuffs, silks, woollen textiles, glass beads, mirrors and a wide range of other sought-after commodities. Aleppo was on the caravan route from the Persian Gulf and received gemstones and spices from India. Their trade with the Levant was viable only thanks to the protection of France, which was the major European trader to the Turkish empire, because the Dukes of Tuscany had no power to protect merchants in Turkey. Ergas and Silveira also imported small rough diamonds from Goa by way of Lisbon, and sold them in Amsterdam, but their expertise was as mer? chants rather than as jewellers. The commercial and social links of the Portuguese Jewish merchants of London with Livorno were extremely close. Given restrictions on exporting silver, they had to send coral beads to India to finance their purchases of rough diamonds, and the Livorno community ran coral-processing factories, which kept them supplied. Naturally, the Livorno coral merchants were eager to participate in the Anglo-Indian diamond trade. This led several Livorno families to send members to London, including the Francos, who became the London's biggest diamond importers, the Supinos, the Basevis and the Montefiores. Professor Trivellato analyses the relationships in the Portuguese Jewish communities in detail, their genealogies, and their family and financial rela? tionships. It is interesting that when the partners went bankrupt in 1746 their wives were able to claim and receive their dowries in preference to all other creditors. The story of the transaction with the big diamond which finally broke the partnership is a fascinating one. In 1737 a Persian Jew came to Aleppo with a sixty-six-carat rough diamond, which he owned jointly with two others. Elijah Silveira contracted to lend him money to bring the stone to Italy to sell it. In 1740 a new contract was signed in Aleppo whereby Ergas and Silveira lent more money for the stone to be taken on a tour of seven European capitals, for which purpose Moses Vita Cassuto, an experienced jeweller, was commissioned to market the stone in these capitals. When Thomas Pitt had a large diamond to sell, he first had it cut and pol? ished as a brilliant, but even then it took many years to sell. Ergas and Silveira's attempt to sell a large unpolished diamond at a high price to European courts was doomed to fail, because only an expert could appreci? ate its potential. Its value did not depend only on its size but on its shape and its water. In Venice and London they received good offers for the stone from the trade, which they rejected because these were below their expectations. 231</page><page sequence="3">Book Notes The French and Austrian crowns did not want it. They did no better in Amsterdam, Leipzig or Berlin. One of their problems was that the Ergas partners and Cassuto had no common language with the stone's Persian owners. The marketing attempt broke the partnership. Its failure was due to attempting to deal, on a large scale, in a highly technical trade in which they had no expertise. This book has been researched with great thoroughness. As far as I know, it is the first study in English of the economic activities of the Portuguese Jews of Livorno in the Early Modern period. It is a most important and original description of the economic and social history of this major Jewish community. Edgar Samuel</page></plain_text>