Values and Prices: the Neapolitan Market of Captives and Slaves (XVI century)

As Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre wrote, a price looked at on its own lacks meaning and, indeed, it is necessary to take into account at all times that there is not just one price for a specific type of commodity, such as a slave, but rather two prices. The first price corresponds to the change of ownership of the object or of the man/woman-commodity, while the second price is a “metaprice”, in other words a price which encompasses a reference to the operations performed in order to reach the end price[1]. For example, if we are to take the proposition “this picture is worth 150 Euro”, “150 Euro” may refer to the price if the picture was actually sold and purchased for 150 Euro, but it can also be a “metaprice” if “150 Euro” corresponds to an estimate of the cost of the picture. Indeed, it could correspond to the auction price or to the cost of insurance for the picture or to the cost of a picture boasting similar characteristics. At the same time, with regard to trading, the highest price asked by the seller and the lowest price requested by the purchaser can be taken as two “metaprices insofar as it is unlikely that, neither one nor the other will manage to impose its own price[2]. They are “metaprices” inasmuch as they form the basis of a reflection on the prices, of a criticism of them, or a comparison or justification of them. These “metaprices” are assigned to an object by way of an estimate, in other words the possibility of a potential end price and, in fact, they have a real effect on interaction between the seller and buyer at the moment of exchange. Moreover, a “metaprice” can be confused with the real price if, for example, the estimate of the picture is 150 Euro and it is actually sold and purchased for 150 Euro[3].

In the same way as the examples provided above, formation of the price of men/women-commodities through the formation of “metaprices” encompassing an initial estimate of the end price at which slaves and cautivos were traded can also be seen in the Mediterranean slave market of the Modern Age. This paper, and with specific regard to Naples, will highlight exactly how the value of slaves aboard galley ships in 1585 was attributed through an initial double estimate – two “metaprices” were assigned – which was then encapsulated in the end price which fell within the range set by the two initial “metaprices”. 

Naples aimed to strengthen its fleet throughout the whole of the 16th century. This pro-naval turnaround was not limited to the city of Naples, but involved more or less all the states of the Catholic monarchy that looked onto the Mediterranean. The fleet of Spain’s Iberian kingdoms increased from 7 to 37 units between 1562 and 1574; the squadron of Spanish galley ships in Italy from 7 to 17; Sicilian galley ships from 10 to 22; the Neapolitan squadron from 8 to 54; while Gian Andrea Doria’s Genoese galley ships held steady at 12[1]. The increase in the Neapolitan fleet reflected the offensive against the Turks.

Bernard Vincent in a paper published in 2011 , had looked at the asiento of Naples’ galley ships in 1585. The documents which Vincent consulted, and which are housed in Simancas, represent an exceptional source due to the quantity and quality of information they are able to provide. The first aspect to be taken into account is the fact that the 26 galley ships were handed over under an asiento agreement to thirteen private operators, each of which operated two galley ships. Assignment of the vessels was performed by Don Juan de Cardona, General Captain of the galley ships in February-April of that year, and under the strict supervision of the Duke of Osuna, Don Pedro Girón, Viceroy of Naples[2]Libro 42contains the transcript of what was subjected to valuation and, one extremely interesting fact is that everything, from the hulls to the ropes and ammunition was valued. But what is surprising is that the men too – slaves, convicts and buonavoglia (men working aboard the galley ships as rowers in order to repay debts) – were carefully counted and valued. Convicts accounted for 74.6% of rowers, slaves for 15.4% and buonavoglia for just 10%.

As highlighted by Vincent, the figure that strongly stands out is the number of convicts that was usually much less than 74% of the total in western navies of that period, except in the case of the papal fleet, and accounted for 10 to 15% on occasions, and over the following decades[3]. What is of greatest interest is the question linked to the process of valuing slaves which could provide extremely significant information about their identity. The cost of these men was calculated through various phases of bargaining: a preliminary valuation was performed by a representative of the viceroy, a second valuation by a representative of the operator working under the asiento agreement and, lastly, there was a third valuation which put together the first two and was carried out by the Captain-General Juan de Cardona[4].

The information contained in Libro 42 is so detailed that we are also able to establish the exact origin of the 657 slaves.

Age is an all-important variable for calculating the price of a man who was worth more, the younger he was. The price curve dropped constantly in relation to age, but in a particularly significant manner from 50 years old on. Rowing was a difficult job and the men’s ability to sustain the pace of this activity was directly in proportion to their young age and physical strength. Extreme cases reflecting the maximum and minimum values are represented by a 22 year-old slave valued at 125 ducats and a 60 year-old slave valued at 15 ducats[1].Another aspect to be highlighted is that an additional price can be found for 23 out of these 657 slaves, their ransom price.

What determined the end ransom price? What else came into play, in addition to negotiations and the family’s financial resources? It would be necessary to closely examine the biographies and identities of the individual slaves in order to reconstruct the stages of their lives, and in order to really understand what a man was like in the Modern Age. Indeed, while the use value is largely determined by the age, the exchange value, in other words the ransom price, does not seem to have been affected by how old the slave was. We can compare Odoverdi who was 44 years old, who was valued at 60 ducats and redeemed for 300 ducats with Ali de Argel, who was 63 years old, and who was valued and redeemed in the same way as Odoverdi[1].

[1] AGS, Libro 42 de la Secretaría de Estado, f. 370v.


[1] B. Vincent, Les esclaves des galères napolitaines en 1585, in Hacer historia desde Simancas. Homenaje a José Luis Ródriguez de Diego, edited by A. Marcos Martín, Valladolid, Junta de Castilla y León, 2011, pp. 837-845, p. 843.

[1] G. Muto, Strategie e strutture del controllo militare del territorio del Regno di Napoli nel Cinquecento, in Guerra y sociedad en la Monarquía Hispánica. Política, estrategia y cultura en la Europa moderna (1500-1700), edited by E.G. Hernán, D. Maffi, vol. I, Ediciones del Laberinto, Madrid 2006, pp. 153-170, p. 162.

[2] B. Vincent, Les esclaves des galères napolitaines en 1585 cit., p. 837.

[3] B. Vincent, Les esclaves des galères napolitaines en 1585 cit., p. 837.

[4] B. Vincent, Les esclaves des galères napolitaines en 1585 cit., p. 839.

[1] L. Boltanski, A. Esquerre, Enrichissement. Une critique de la marchandise, Paris, Gallimard, 2017, p. 130.

[2] L. Boltanski, A. Esquerre, Enrichissement. Une critique de la marchandise cit., p. 132. 

[3] L. Boltanski, A. Esquerre, Enrichissement. Une critique de la marchandise cit., pp. 132-133.


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