'Working Seamen in a Maritime Republic, on Reciprocal Rights and Duties'
Maria Fusaro, April 2021
Petitioning directly the government was a common occurrence in the Republic of Venice, across all social groups – subjects, citizens, even patricians – but also for foreigners. As Venice was a most bureaucratic state, all petitions were channelled to a single governmental body – the Collegio – which sifted them and moved them forward to the appropriate governmental agency. These volumes, where original petitions are filed by their date of delivery, are a magnificent window into the concerns of pre-modern individuals, and a great barometer of the general social and economic situation in the Venetian territories at large.
On 8 April 1682 a petition was presented not by an ‘individual’, but by
a number of maritime subjects who, at present, have no way to exercise their profession as they are excluded from serving on Venetian vessels, as – even though they are subjects of Your Seignory – merchant shipping is now ruled by foreigners who employ their own fellow countrymen, and we are rejected.
This attack on the disruptive role of foreign labour immigration within the maritime sector – the load-bearing pillar of Venetian economic activity and identity – was swiftly followed by a possibly even more threatening justification of the reasons behind these practices. The culprits for these practices are those ‘merchants’ who prefer to employ foreign vessels and crews to more easily practice contraband in the Adriatic Sea, in breach of the law. The petition continued by accusing these merchants of justifying their behaviour by spreading lies about the expertise of native seamen. The petitioners challenged the Venetian authorities to perform a census of lost ships, including the nationality of their masters and crewmembers, arguing that the results of such an exercise would clearly show that the vast majority of losses involved Venetian ships which were crewed and mastered by foreigners.
The accusation, implying a serious criminal offence, went also straight to the heart of the Republic’s desire to quash what was perceived to be an increase in insurance fraud.
After the accusation of insurance fraud, the petition changed its tone once more, moving to the ‘lamentation’ and ‘pleading’ elements which were part of the traditional rhetoric between ruled and rulers. The ‘maritime subjects’ lamented that if this dearth of employment opportunities was to continue they would be forced to abandon their homes and emigrate to look for work:
like these Northerners, who have themselves abandoned their wives and children to look for opportunities to earn the money to feed them, and there we shall attempt to live like Veneti amongst foreigners, as in our own patria we cannot survive […].
This time the accusation was that their own fatherland was damaging their employment prospects through favouring foreign workers because of the greed of Venetian merchants, thus reneging on the most fundamental duty of taking care of one’s own subjects. The Venetian seamen's perspective intriguingly reverses the Elizabethan propagandistic narrative of these very same events; with a complete reversal of the rhetoric of Hakluyt and other writers, the Northerners here are not described as daring conquerors of new markets or valiant exploiters of economic opportunities abroad, but instead as poor and sad migrants forced to abandon their dwellings to find employment away from their own country and families. Were these Venetians writing today, they would probably describe the Northerners with the derogatory label of ‘economic migrants’. This passage is evocative in its usage of rhetoric under two rubrics: first, it highlights the fundamental differences between Venice and England in regard to their subjects’ employment conditions and welfare provisions; and, probably more importantly, it also gives the reader a clear image of their self-perception as active and fundamental parts of the body politic. These Venetian maritime workers directly engage their own government with a clear idea about the reciprocal rights and duties of rulers and ruled. The tone is appropriately respectful, but the substance is socio-political dynamite.
After the traditional pleading came the presentation of the evidence, and the petition continues with a detailed list of the legislation recently promulgated in the kingdom of France under the aegis of Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Ordonnance de la Marine. Such a substantive shift in the text – moving from a pleading for care worded as an appeal from humble subjects to the paternalistic nature of government, to a precise listing of foreign legislative measures – proves the collective nature of this petition and powerfully exemplifies the dialogue between government and subjects. The anonymity of the text, presented as it was by ‘a number of maritime subjects’, does not permit us to know who actually initiated it. However, the variety of issues raised and the varying rhetoric employed in different passages make it abundantly clear that all social and economic levels of the maritime sectors had been involved in its conception, from merchants and shipowners to simple seamen. Each of these groups maintained its distinct voice, and put forward specific concerns within a single document addressed to their rulers.
The example of the French legislation was juxtaposed with the supposed attitude of the Republic:
here, on the contrary, Your Serenity lavishly grants the Venetian flag and patents to any foreigners, even to those who are settled in Alien States, and this harms both the Public and Private interest [of the Republic], as it introduces foreigners by the ‘boatful’ (à barchate) to keep locals from employment, thus damaging the seaworthiness of nationals, and exterminates our own miserable families […]
The penultimate section of the petition highlighted their status as loyal subjects ready to sacrifice their lives in times of war to defend the Republic (as had recently happened in the long War of Candia – 1646-1669), and in times of peace to pay all taxes levied by the Republic, unlike foreigners. Their undying loyalty and fiscal propriety was not being reciprocated, and this was deemed to be both against reason and contrary to the most basic moral tenets which underlined the pact between the State and its subjects. The petitioners reiterated with a flourish:
we trust that mercy towards your own children will penetrate the heart of Your Serenity, our Prince and Father, and that this will inspire you to apply to us the treatment due to your legitimate progeny.
The rhetoric was effective, and the tone was constructed so as to soften the implicit threat about future actions by sternly loyal – even if currently neglected – subjects. Still, the petitioners knew well that their depiction of the legislative situation in Venice was a gross exaggeration, if not a downright misrepresentation, so their petition terminated with a list of Venetian laws to support the employment of citizens and subjects within the maritime sector, closing with a plea not so much for reform, but for their effective application.
This petition is an absolute masterpiece – in its original etymological sense – of the sophisticated rhetoric underpinning the dialogue between the Republic and its subjects. Across the territories ruled by the Republic, petitions frequently spearheaded the legislative process. They were submitted by everyone: patricians, citizens of all varieties, subjects and foreigners. They followed a traditional and well-honed rhetorical form, with the insistence on ‘service’ and loyalty’ towards the Republic as the prerequisite preamble before the case was described and the specific request formulated. This particular one is sophisticated and nuanced in presenting the multifaceted concerns of an entire sector of the economy, and plays with great dexterity upon the rhetoric of service within a republican government and with the evident and well-known financial concerns of the state.
This is what the Northern Invasion looked like from the perspective of those employed in the maritime sector who had been suffering the brunt of its impact and whose livelihoods were in danger. Even taking into account the traditional insistence on ‘need’ which characterises all petitions and which should not be taken at face value, this text goes well beyond a lamentation on lack of working – and hence – earning opportunities. Its sweeping narrative encompassed the disruptive role of foreign labour immigration within the maritime sector – an essential element of Venetian economic identity and self-representation. Connected with this was the accusation of collusion against local native – Venetian – merchants, who preferred to increase their profits to the detriment of the State, another powerful statement as the official rhetoric of the Venetian state always underlined that a properly functioning economy benefitted both the public purse and private individuals. This last point was further connected with allegations about the weakening jurisdictional power of Venice and its claim of exercising full dominion over the Golfo (Adriatic Sea), allegations which implied the existence of widespread and multifaceted financial fraud: tax evasion within maritime trade, straight contraband and insurance fraud. This had social, economic and, above all moral implications as it was provided as evidence of the Republic’s neglect towards the necessary care of its own citizens and subjects.
 ASV, Collegio, Risposte di dentro, reg. 95, cc.n.n. (8 April 1682)
A clear synthesis of Venetian government's structure is in P.F. Grendler, ‘The Leaders of the Venetian State, 1540–1609: a Prosopographical Analysis’, Studi Veneziani, 19 (1990): 35–86;
On the Collegio: F.C. Lane, Venice. A Maritime Republic, Baltimore, 1973, 254–256 and F. de Vivo, Information and Communication in Venice. Rethinking Early Modern Politics, Oxford, 2007, 37.
On Venetian petitioning practices: R.C. Davis, Shipbuilders of the Venetian Arsenal. Workers and workplace in the preindustrial city, Baltimore-London, 1991, 183–197
On petitions concerning the economic sphere see M. Fusaro, Political Economies of Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean: The Decline of Venice and the Rise of England 1450-1700, Cambridge, 2015, 178-181.