‘PRICES’ AND ‘METAPRICES’: AN ANALYSIS FOR THE MARKET OF CAPTIVES AND SLAVES IN EARLY MODERN NAPLES AND VALENCIA

This paper aims to investigate slavery in Naples and Valencia in the 16th and 17th centuries. Specific attention is paid to the price of slaves and cautivos as commodities in the Mediterranean market. 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”.

So far historiography has only availed itself – when it has done so – of an econometric and statistical approach to the problem, fitting slaves into a standard category of commodities, without focusing on all the levels of bargaining adopted in order to calculate the end price of a man. Only recently did Michel Fontenay make a distinction between the use value and the exchange value of a slave[4]. The former indicates the value of a man insomuch as a slave, which has the same value as his duties; while the latter recalls the value of a man that can be redeemed and freed. These two very different conditions bring to light another aspect of the problem: while in the first case, the value of a slave coincides with his use value, in the second case, the exchangevalue is the key to calculating the price of a man. The value of a man-slave is calculated upon his arrival on the market, when he becomes a commodity, and is therefore an all-important, albeit not the only variable for formulating his end price.

There is a negotiation phase between these two stages when not only do the seller and buyer try to reach an agreement in order to conclude a deal, but also the slave who, in the capacity of an active commodity, has the possibility to take part in the bargaining phase, but can also be interested in being purchased by another owner or- better still – in being redeemed. So, the following will come into play at the negotiating table: the value the owner assigns to his slave, how much the slave’s family are willing to spend to redeem him and how much the slave thinks he is worth in order for the negotiations to be successful.

So, the negotiation process is not as immediate as it may seem at first sight. The slave has an intrinsic value – as already mentioned in the introduction, a sort of “metaprice” – linked to the duties he performs for his owner and this is reflected, in a certain sense, in his sale price. But a series of other elements helps form the mosaic which determines the deal’s successful outcome, especially if we are not dealing with a sale, but rather with the payment of a ransom. Indeed, in the latter event, the negotiation process between the parties involves a tendential and hearty apreciamento of the man-slave because, in any case, his exchange value is higher than his use value insofar as a number of psychological and sociological variables come into play – the desire to return home, the family that intend to redeem their loved one at any cost, etc. – that generate an increase in the ransom price. Therefore, the point where supply and demand meet distances itself from traditional market laws in order to become intertwined with more complex dynamics that make these negotiations of specific historical interest. Their very elusive nature calls for dynamics that tell us something much more interesting than just figures.


[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.

[4] M. Fontenay, Esclaves et/ou captifs: Préciser les concepts, in Le commerce des captifs: Les intermédiaires dans l’échange et le rachat des prisonniers en méditerraneé, XVe-XVIIIe siècle, edited by W. Kaiser, Rome, École Française de Rome, 2008, pp. 15-24.

[5] M. Fontenay, Esclaves et/ou captifs: Préciser les concepts, in Le commerce des captifs: Les intermédiaires dans l’échange et le rachat des prisonniers en méditerraneé, XVe-XVIIIe siècle, edited by W. Kaiser, Rome, École Française de Rome, 2008, pp. 15-24.

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