|Commerce and Captivity: the role of trust in the redemption of captives across religious and political boundaries|
|Captivity in the medieval Mediterranean was the product of religious warfare, piracy, and violence between Christians and Muslims. Thousands of Christians and Muslims found themselves in enemy hands in the Middle Ages as prisoners of war. In some cases, captives were taken out of fear--an enemy traveling in foreign lands posed a security risk. In battle, the victors imprisoned the vanquished--for prize and for profit. Pirates and corsairs intercepted pilgrims as they sailed eastward on the Mediterranean sea, others were snatched from their homeland along the shores of North Africa or Spain. Even merchants conducting commercial business in foreign ports ran the risk of being seized and detained if relations between their homeland and host country soured. In such an environment of mistrust and suspicion, Christians and Muslims eyed each other warily.
Yet, while war, fear, or profit stood behind the detainment and enslavement of Christians and Muslims, the act of rescuing these captives proved to be a distinctly different form of interaction. Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, both Christians and Muslims in the Mediterranean region had instituted administrative procedures and laws in response to the high volume of what we might call captive commerce. Exchanges were formalized and mechanisms developed to deter abuse of captive transactions. Agents practicing blackmail or agents who failed to insure the safe return of a captive, for instance, were punished by their own coreligionaries. Both Christian and Muslim courts entertained captive appeals and did not hesitate to strip of their commercial/redemptive privileges those renegade agents who did not honor their contracts.
Muslims and Christians engaged in captive redemption certainly had reasons not to act in a trustworthy fashion. Incentives for post-contractual opportunism did exist, so agents negotiating an exchange had reasonable cause to be suspicious of each other. Either party might be tempted to cheat the other, increase the ransom amount unexpectedly, alter the conditions of the contract, even perhaps recapture a captive after he or she had been ransomed. Eager for profit, a Christian, Muslim, or Jewish agent could always pocket the ransom money.
Despite such a priori handicaps, however, captive commerce flourished--and with it the formal and informal institutions that supported these redemptive practices. Captive trade ran at a fairly brisk rate, and communities, leaders, and agents were compelled to intercede on behalf of their coreligionaries again and again. Similar to medieval mercantile activity, the mechanisms of captive exchange were governed by the reputation, or notoriety, of individual agents; their respective skills in negotiation and diplomacy; and Mediterranean market conditions. Shared assumptions and a common language emerged. The ecumenical, international business sensibility of the captors and redeemers made religious boundaries more porous, and trade agents from all communities maintained channels of information (conditions under which a captive was apprehended, ransom price, etc.) that spanned the Mediterranean. An unremitting flow of correspondence between sultans, kings, and high-ranking officials shows persistent prompting on both sides to adhere to bilateral treaties and mutually agreed upon conventions of ransom and redemption.
My current research more specifically focuses on the behavior and practices of agents, particularly Christian and Muslim merchants, and the factors that influenced their relationship with their constituents. How was trust built and maintained across these social groups, among players who would seem to have strong incentives to renege on agreements with each other? What pressures were imposed by Muslim and Christian authorities, or their communities, on their intermediaries to strike a deal? Under what conditions were recognized conventions of captive exchange such as contracts and treaties violated? What were the commitment problems and how were they surmounted?
My paper is a case study of captive exchange and redemption in the port city of Tunis during the reign of the Hafsid ruler Abu Faris (1394-1434). Tunis flourished as an economic metropolis in the region, attracting Christian and Muslim merchants across the Mediterranean, while also serving as a center for captive exchange and ransoming. I discuss how Abu Faris legislated redemptive practices that best met his political and strategic interests, how he protected visiting Christian agents from abusive practices, and how he insisted that captive exchanges take place in a way that did not jeopardize existing international treaties. I argue that Abu Faris understood well the long-term implications of social networks across religious communities and was closely attentive to the needs and expectations of local Christian merchants. Surviving evidence shows that the Tunisian leader preferred long-term interfaith mercantile ties, rather than short-term profit; he recognized the importance of contracts and treaties rather than capricious or partisan-motivated acts of piracy, or the seizure of goods and persons in Tunisian waters. Combining economic pragmatism and diplomatic skill, the Hafsid ruler sought to cultivate a reputation for himself as a trustworthy broker in dealing with the competing demands from North African Islamic religious authorities and Mediterranean Christian officials with whom he consistently engaged.|