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The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes

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Marianna D. Birnbaum

Chapter 6. In business with Ragusa

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  • 1 I am primarily relying on Jorjo Tadić, Jevreji u Dubrovniku do polovine XVII stoljeća (Sarajevo, 1 (...)

1Gracia and her daughter arrived in Ragusa (Dubrovnik) on their way to Constantinople. Although she spent but a short time there, the city government extended special privileges to her. The Ragusans’ generous reception of Gracia shows her as the most important woman-entrepreneur in the Mediterranean region.1 Why was the brief stop in Ragusa so significant for Gracia’s later business ventures, which she directed from the Ottoman Empire?

  • 2 Albrecht Edelgard, Das Türkenbild in der ragusanisch-dalmatinischen Literatur des XVI. Jahrhundert (...)
  • 3 For more on Ragusa and the Ottoman world, see Maren M. Freidenberg (Frejdenberg), Dubrovnik i Osma (...)
  • 4 Even before the Turkish occupation of Hungary (1526), Ragusans advised the Hungarian court about t (...)
  • 5 Contrary to Carter’s claim, Držić did not go to Venice “as a count’s valet,” but as his interprete (...)

2Ragusa’s great success in the sixteenth century lay in its having maintained neutrality between the Christian and the Ottoman worlds. Its additional function as an “information center” was appreciated even by the Papal state.2 Through skilled diplomacy, the city republic even gained papal permission to trade with the infidels. After 1442 (with the exception of the years 1444–58), Ragusa paid tribute to the Turkish sultan until 1808.3 It is an undisputed fact that Ragusa profited greatly from its role mediating between the West and the Ottoman Empire. As a consequence of that diplomacy, Ragusa accumulated enough wealth to guarantee its independence. The Ragusans themselves, aware of their special situation, avoided possible areas of conflict with either side.4 Even their poets tempered their writings on both Christian and Muslim victories. It is a remarkable fact that the greatest Renaissance poet of Ragusa, Marin Držić (1508–67), who had visited Constantinople as the interpreter of Count Christoph von Roggendorf, has left no notes regarding that journey.5 In contrast to the sparse information that reached the general public, Ragusan government records abound with material, maintained with precision and safeguarded throughout the perils of historical change.

  • 6 Bariša Krekić, “Gli ebrei [sic] a Ragusa nel Cinquecento,” Gli Ebrei e Venezia, secoli xiv-xviii, (...)

3The first record of a Jewish presence in Ragusa dates from the late thirteenth century and relates, most probably, to a man from Durazzo (today Albania) who in 1281 stayed there. In 1324, another Jew, “magister Judeus physicus,” was soon followed by several of his co-religionists who came from Malta, Cyprus, and Provence. Ragusa was a favored port of Jewish emigrants from the Iberian Peninsula after 1492. There, refugees could hire transport and continue to their final destination, the Ottoman Empire. The Jews first lived at Ploče, as their temporary residence. Their number remained small throughout the fifteenth century.6

4The Ottoman victories and especially the radical changes in their lives following the Edict of Expulsion increased Jewish activities in Ragusa. Most Jews arrived by boat in Spalato (Split) and Ragusa via Venice and Ancona. From 1501, Jewish refugees traveled to Salonika and Skopje through the city republic. On land, caravans took the travelers to Salonika, which by this time hosted a large and lively Jewish population, with emigrants from all over Europe.

  • 7 Krekić, “Gli ebrei,” p. 837.
  • 8 While many merchants and traders used Ragusa only as a port from which to travel into Balkan Ottom (...)

5The caravans usually used the old Roman Road, the Via Egnatia. Information regarding the transactions between the travelers and their guides was registered and can still be found among the documents housed in the Dubrovnik Archives. The caravans carrying travelers across the Balkan Peninsula were relatively large, probably including at least 200 people and 160 horses.7 Safety lay in numbers. Often refugees were attacked by robbers or pirates; their cargo was sacked on land and sea. The Ragusan government interceded on their behalf many times to protect them and their cargoes.8

  • 9 Ivana Burdelez, “The Role of Ragusan Jews in the History of Mediterranean Countries,” Jews, Christ (...)

6Although there are records of Jewish activities in the fifteenth century, it was during the sixteenth that Jews became a part of Ragusa’s permanent population, while remaining in close private and commercial contact with Sephardic communities in various Mediterranean countries. Their merchants and traders easily fit into the city, whose non-Jewish residents engaged in the same commercial activities. Records of 1572 demonstrate the intensity of Jewish participation in Ragusan trade, where of the 50 commercial agents (factors, or sensali), 30 were Jews.9 The city’s firm contacts with the Ottoman world made Ragusa a choice center for Westerners to trade with the economically less developed East.

JEWS IN RAGUSA

7The active Jewish presence in Ragusa also gave rise to lively anti-Judaic feelings among local merchant-patricians who began viewing the newcomers as dangerous competitors. That perception, rather than the vigorous anti-Jewish propaganda of the Ragusan Church, was responsible for an edict of expulsion on May 4, 1515. Probably Christian merchants had urged its promulgation, which was meant to preclude even the notion of Jewish families settling in Ragusa. The edict clearly targets families who had made Ragusa home. There were stipulations for single merchants who would stay, for a limited time, on business. In the light of a new wave of persecution in Europe, Ragusans were probably apprehensive of a genuine invasion of Jews looking for a safe haven in their city republic.

8With cultivated self-interest, the government exempted Jewish physicians. And, as usual with such laws, they were never fully enforced, nor were they to last long. Already in 1538, sanitation laws regarding the

  • 10 Krekić, “Gli ebrei,” p. 839. The Senate’s unanimous decision was, as quoted by most scholars on th (...)
  • 11 The street still exists in the heart of the Old Town. The synagogue, damaged by a Serbian rocket a (...)

9Jewish presence in Ploče point to a more or less permanent Jewish residence there.10 By April, 1540, at least half a dozen houses were designated Jewish dwellings. This grouping could be considered the nucleus of a Jewish ghetto that was indeed set up in February, 1546, on Loijarska Street, later called Žudioska.11

  • 12 According to the records of the Consilium Rogatorum (47, 249), the ghetto was established and comp (...)

10That area included houses with storage-space and a synagogue.12 The street was walled in on both ends, and a gate was built into one wall. Residents had to be inside the walls at night when the gate was locked. As in most cases in Europe, the ghetto had to pay for its own maintenance. It was administered by an elected head, the “Consul Hebreorum.” Again, not even the ghettoization of the Ragusan Jews was carried out in toto: there were always wealthy Jews who lived in the town. In 1553, on arrival in Ragusa, Gracia Mendes and her household joined that privileged group.

  • 13 Tadić, p. 322. Both the Major Council and the Minor Council of Ragusa participated in those decisi (...)

11Even before Gracia’s disembarking in Ragusa, the Mendes family had maintained strong economic contacts with the city, where two of her factors, Abner Agfarin and Isaac Ergas, represented her business interests. Through them, on November 22, 1552, Gracia applied to the government of Ragusa for special tariffs and a reduction of customs duties.13

12Gracia was to play an important role as an intermediary between Ragusa and the Porte. When in early 1553, her galleys docked in Ragusa, she was received with pomp and lavish ceremonies. She must have made the impression of a traveling princess: that had been the effect of her sailing off from Venice, as indicated by documents in the archives there. It is recorded that a throng of spectators watched the boats leave the port.

  • 14 Quoted by Orfali, as he claimed, “for the first time.” Moise Orfali, “Newly Published Documents Re (...)

13That there is no similar archival documentation about her arrival in Ragusa seems odd, considering the otherwise scrupulously kept records on locals and foreigners alike. Materials preserved in the Historical Archives, however, contain her requests to the government and include the resolutions of the Senate. Her name also appears in the Compendium under “Lettere e Commissioni (Lettere di Levante).”14

  • 15 Near the current location of the Hotel Excelsior.
  • 16 Personal communication from Professor Burdelez (September, 1997). This is a significant claim: if (...)

14Gracia was not forced to live in the ghetto, but received permission to remain freely in Ragusa for six months. This concession also applied to her family members and to her entourage of several dozen employees and servants. Considering the changes in the city after the great earthquake in 1667, it is not easy to determine where Gracia resided during her stay. She probably rented lodgings relatively close to the center, in the vicinity of the Ploče Gate. Her warehouses would have been outside the city wall, possibly even south of the main harbor and not far from the area later designated as the Jewish cemetery.15 It is possible that Doña Gracia also had access to the port of Cavtat, where recently-found information establishes the presence of Jewish-owned trading boats.16

  • 17 Orfali, p. 12, quoting Tadić.

15Even after Gracia’s departure, her agents lived outside the ghetto walls. On April 28, 1558, according to archival material, Alfarin and Ergas petitioned the government to waive the rental fees for their families in the ghetto, since, by permission of the government they did not reside there, but in a house outside of the wall. Most remarkably, in 1558, Gracia’s agents offered to pay the fees for the entire ghetto: 60 scudi annually per household.17

16It was stipulated that the amount excluded their own dwelling costs, but included expenses for the government’s guards, whose charge it was to keep the ghetto gate secure. There must have been other than friendly preliminaries to this petition, because in it the agents also asked the government to return personal items, among them their wives’ jewelry, which were, presumably, sequestered for delinquency in payment. The two men reminded the government of Ragusa’s important contacts with their employer. Indeed, their petition was granted, and thus the ghetto was turned over to Gracia’s agents on rental.

THE RAGUSAN DEAL

  • 18 Tadić, p. 323, footnote 7.

17A year after her arrival in Turkey, Gracia wrote to the Ragusan government regarding her trade with Italy, and in that connection she mentioned her stay in the city and the splendid welcome she had received.18 Then in a bold request addressed to the Senate, she asked for a long-term docking, stowing, and shipping contract. The legislators’ favorable decision made it obvious that Ragusa considered “Beatrice de Luna,” as she referred to herself in all her correspondence with the city, an exceptionally important business partner. Although Gracia did not use the names Mendes or Nasi, as she had in Ferrara, the Ragusan government was certainly aware of the immensity of the Mendes fortune. Gracia also offered proper securities for the first six months, while the duties would be paid at the end of that period; the privileges would be in force for five years, before renegotiation. In addition, she requested permission to lease a warehouse in the harbor for that period, a space that she would not have to share with any other traders. She also wanted the agreement to stipulate that after she paid the customs fees on merchandise from Italian ports, those goods could be transported to their final destinations without any additional wharfage.

18Gracia pledged to pay 500 ducats in customs fees in case she did not use the Ragusan ferry during those five years, and she offered secure guarantees—in Ragusa or in Ancona—depending on the Ragusan government’s choice. Moreover, her Ragusan agents promised the government to encourage their business friends to use the Ragusan port and thus increase the profits of the republic. Although it is not clear whether it is for an actual shipment or a future one, an inventory was appended to the request.

  • 19 Tadić, p. 324, footnote 10. The same rules of signature applied to Gracia’s business deals in Turk (...)

19The contract, which involved a large quantity of merchandise, was approved by the Minor Council on November 9, 1554, by a vote of 30 to 7. The “nays” reflected some council members’ objection to the five-year duration of the contract, requested by Gracia. Indeed, the terms of agreement remained valid for five years and were renewed on August 7, 1557, and once again on July 4, 1562. On that occasion her agents requested a reduction of the deposit on pending customs fees to a third of the sum stipulated earlier. When that too was approved, Gracia was granted a privilege previously reserved for Ragusan citizens. The importance of her business for Ragusa emerges in the fact that the city accepted both her and (later) her nephew’s signature without a declared guarantor.19

  • 20 It remains unclear from her communication whether the French or Charles V threatened her merchandi (...)

20A circumspect businesswoman, Gracia also expressed concern about the safety of her people and goods in Ragusa. She asked the government to protect them should her merchandise be confiscated during transfer. She also requested a writ of immunity for her goods and her agents during their passage through Ragusa’s port, adding that in the absence of such a commitment she would have to find another port of transfer. Gracia reassured Ragusa that she would pay unlimited compensation to those who would file suit against her. Such oblique references probably alluded to her precarious situation in and departure from Venice. The letter included a statement whereby Gracia would be willing to test her case in the Turkish courts against anyone’s claims and asserted that she was sufficiently wealthy to pay an even larger amount if judgment were rendered against her.20

  • 21 Orfali, p. 7, footnote 11.

21Subsequently, Gracia and her agents conducted their business with Italy, Hungary, Poland, and other countries in Europe from Constantinople via Ragusa. She always received special consideration because the city was aware of her status and influence at the Ottoman court, and because the Ragusans took advantage of that influence on numerous occasions. The relationship was symbiotic. Gracia used Ragusa to send wool, pepper, and grain to Venice and other Italian ports. She imported wool and linen fabrics to Turkey in exchange for raw material from the East.21

  • 22 Orfali, p. 13. With minor differences, the information appears in Tadić, who states that “for each (...)

22Ragusa profited greatly from its business with the House of Mendes. Records show that in addition to the 500 ducats in storage fees, for every crate of silk the city received an additional four and a half ducats, two ducats for each bale of wool and linen, and one ducat for a bundle of cotton cloth or skins. The city also received one percent of the value of goods that passed through from the Levant.22

  • 23 Indeed, it was at most times impossible to send money from one country to another, be it from Spai (...)

23Above all, Ragusa used Gracia’s good offices to transfer funds securely outside the republic. The government transmitted 20 zecchinos (gold coins) to its envoys at the Porte in 1555. In 1556 and 1557, Gracia’s factors transferred funds for Ragusa to Ferrara.23 In a letter dated July 24, 1557, Gracia was asked to lend 3,100 ducats to the Ragusan envoys because it was considered too dangerous to send them money directly. At least twice, the government wanted to reimburse Gracia’s agents, but they refused the responsibility and suggested that the debt stay with Ragusa until Gracia gave directions where to deposit it. This method of transfer was used for the sum of 1,000 ducats in 1559, and again on November 21, 1560, when 400 ducats were turned over to Ragusa’s own agents who were active at the Porte.

  • 24 Orfali published Gracia’s instruction to her agents regarding the purchase of 3,000 bushels of gra (...)

24Moreover, the House of Mendes helped Ragusa to overcome its nagging grain shortages. As the local harvest could hardly satisfy a fraction of the demand, Gracia’s agents helped relieve the shortage through shipments from the Ottoman Empire, primarily from Volos, but also from Valona, in Albania.24

  • 25 Braudel referred to Joseph Nasi as playing the role of a small-scale Fugger at the Porte. See Fern (...)

25The commercial concessions Gracia acquired in Ragusa were later passed on to her nephew and son-in-law, Joseph Nasi. The fact that her name appears together with Nasi’s on the official documents proves that Ragusa accepted their association.25

  • 26 Orfali, p. 14.

26Contemporary diplomatic messages frequently depicted João Miques, by then Joseph Nasi, as a spy for the Muslims; more recent records reveal that he probably was a double agent—at least by proxy—using his men to carry information to both sides. Ragusa, always at the forefront of international espionage, must have heard rumors about Nasi, but chose either to ignore them or take advantage of them when it suited. “The fundamental assumption was that the two of them [i.e., Gracia and her son-in-law] served as preferred tax farmers to the Sublime Porte and therefore no one would dare to harm them.”26

  • 27 For more on this, see chapter 7 on the Ottoman Empire.
  • 28 As it happened, Righetto had excellent contacts in Venice, and although he spent a long time incar (...)

27As a postscript to Jewish life in Ragusa and the privileges granted to the Mendes–Nasi family, it should be mentioned that the situation changed shortly after Gracia’s death. While the change was not caused by her passing, that event gave Ragusa the opportunity to renegotiate the conditions of the contract, which was about to expire. The primary reason for renegotiation was the war of Cyprus in 1570. It was widely believed that Nasi, an ex-Christian, had conspired with the sultan and sold out the Christian world. The loss of Cyprus fostered a general belief in “Marrano conspiracy,” in the revival of the concept of “periculum proditionis.”27 It is no coincidence that in 1570 the Council of Ten in Venice handed over Enriques Núñes (called Abraham Righetto), allegedly a relative of Nasi, to the Inquisition. He was charged with judaizing and with planning to leave secretly for the Levant.28 It is also known that at the same time the Mendes factors too were vulnerable to danger and persecution in Ragusa.

28But as before, economic expediency prevailed. From 1570, there was a concentration on shortening trade routes, as well as a new focus on the Adriatic and the Balkans, leading to further exploitation of land routes from the Dalmatian harbors. The New Christians, living in Dalmatian ports, were of great service in that process, and many became minor partners of Venice in the post-Cyprus Levantine trade.

Notes

1 I am primarily relying on Jorjo Tadić, Jevreji u Dubrovniku do polovine XVII stoljeća (Sarajevo, 1937), the most important piece of research on the subject to date. I am grateful to Professor Ivana Burdelez, who generously provided me with copies of the relevant archival materials.

2 Albrecht Edelgard, Das Türkenbild in der ragusanisch-dalmatinischen Literatur des XVI. Jahrhunderts (Munich, 1965), esp. pp. 128–31.

3 For more on Ragusa and the Ottoman world, see Maren M. Freidenberg (Frejdenberg), Dubrovnik i Osmanskaia imperia, 2d ed. (Moscow, 1989); and ibid., Evrei na Balkanakh, (Moscow, 1996), as well as its updated Croatian translation, Židovi na Balkanu na isteku srenjeg vijeka (Zagreb, 2000). See also, Bariša Krekić, Dubrovnik: A Mediterranean Society, 1300-1600 (Variorum Collected Studies, 581), (1997), especially “Gli ebrei [sic] a Ragusa nel Cinquecento,” pp. 835–44. It first appeared in 1987. See footnote 6.

4 Even before the Turkish occupation of Hungary (1526), Ragusans advised the Hungarian court about the progress of the enemy. For example, in 1458, Ragusa notified King Matthias Corvinus about conditions in Turkey: “Mercatores nostri, qui in Turcos fuere, circa principium istius mensis rediere, Turcorum dominum ad loca Uschopie ex Achaia venisse ferunt, exercitus magna parte febribus et inedia absumpto [sic]; ipsum denique Turcorum dominum magno terrore teneri, et nihil magis per maiestatis vestre impetum formidare.” And, added to the above information: “Ex Italia in presenciarum nihil apud nos est significatu dignum.” József Gelchich and Lajos Thallóczy, Diplomatarium relationum reipublicae Ragusanae cum regno Hungariae. Raguza és Magyarország összeköttetéseinek oklevéltára (Budapest, 1887), p. 612, no. 364

5 Contrary to Carter’s claim, Držić did not go to Venice “as a count’s valet,” but as his interpreter. See Francis W. Carter, Dubrovnik (Ragusa): A Classical City-State (London and New York, 1972), p. 505. See also Edelgard, p. 132.

6 Bariša Krekić, “Gli ebrei [sic] a Ragusa nel Cinquecento,” Gli Ebrei e Venezia, secoli xiv-xviii, Atti del Convegno internazionale organizzato dall’Istituto di storia della società e dello stato veneziano della Fondazione Giorgio Cini. Venezia, Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore 5–10 giugno 1983, ed. Gaetano Cozzi (Milan, 1987), p. 835.

7 Krekić, “Gli ebrei,” p. 837.

8 While many merchants and traders used Ragusa only as a port from which to travel into Balkan Ottoman territory, some remained in the city, creating a colony that lasted until the Nazi occupation. See Bariša Krekić, Dubrovnik in the 14th and 15th Centuries: A City between East and West (Norman, 1972), p. 30.

9 Ivana Burdelez, “The Role of Ragusan Jews in the History of Mediterranean Countries,” Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Mediterranean World after 1492, ed. Alisa Meyuhas Ginio (London, 1992), p. 192.

10 Krekić, “Gli ebrei,” p. 839. The Senate’s unanimous decision was, as quoted by most scholars on this issue, “de dando libertatem domino rectori et Consilio quod pro congreganda Hebreos in unum ad habitandum possint eligere quinque aut sex domos pro sua habitatione et eo plures sicuti fuerit necessarium, et domos inventos referre debeant ad presens Consilium, et quod precipi faciant dictis Hebreis ut ferant signa quibus destinguantur a christianis” [April 22, 1540].

11 The street still exists in the heart of the Old Town. The synagogue, damaged by a Serbian rocket attack on December 6, 1991, was restored and reopened for the Jewish High Holidays in September, 1997.

12 According to the records of the Consilium Rogatorum (47, 249), the ghetto was established and completed by February 25, 1546. The ghetto’s buildings, however, remained the city’s property with the Jews as tenants.

13 Tadić, p. 322. Both the Major Council and the Minor Council of Ragusa participated in those decisions.

14 Quoted by Orfali, as he claimed, “for the first time.” Moise Orfali, “Newly Published Documents Regarding Commercial Activities between Doña Gracia Mendes and the Ragusan Republic,” unpublished version of a conference paper, courtesy of Professor Burdelez. The relevant documents appear on pp. 18–22. I was unable to obtain a published version of this paper. As mentioned in the body of this work, the name used by Gracia was “de Luna.” Tadić—who first published a large number of the above-mentioned documents—refers to her as “Gracija Mendez” and “de Luna,” calling the latter her “Christian name” (p. 315). Cf. the Appendix for a facsimile regarding her negotiations.

15 Near the current location of the Hotel Excelsior.

16 Personal communication from Professor Burdelez (September, 1997). This is a significant claim: if it turns out to be correct, it means that Gracia had access to more than one port in the region.

17 Orfali, p. 12, quoting Tadić.

18 Tadić, p. 323, footnote 7.

19 Tadić, p. 324, footnote 10. The same rules of signature applied to Gracia’s business deals in Turkey.

20 It remains unclear from her communication whether the French or Charles V threatened her merchandise, on the bases of earlier claims.

21 Orfali, p. 7, footnote 11.

22 Orfali, p. 13. With minor differences, the information appears in Tadić, who states that “for each trunk of silk clothing, regardless of whose ship brought them to Dubrovnik, 4,5 ducats were paid...[but] for a bale of cloth and any other merchandise from Italy 1 ducat, for a bale of goat skins 1 ducat...for merchandise from the Levant 1 % of the assessed value was charged” [p. 323, footnote 7]. Statistics, cited in Chapter 9 of Carter’s book (pp. 349–98), should be compared by economic historians with contracts offered by Ragusa’s competitors. See footnote 5 above.

23 Indeed, it was at most times impossible to send money from one country to another, be it from Spain to the Netherlands or to the Levant. For more on this subject, see Geoffrey Parker, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567–1659: The Logistics of Spanish Victory and Defeat in the Low Countries’ Wars, rev. ed. (Cambridge, 1990), p. 146 and passim.

24 Orfali published Gracia’s instruction to her agents regarding the purchase of 3,000 bushels of grain from either Volosa or Valona. Lettere di Levante 18, 252, (19-20 in his text).

25 Braudel referred to Joseph Nasi as playing the role of a small-scale Fugger at the Porte. See Fernand Braudel, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen a l’époque de Philippe II (Paris, 1949), p. 880.

26 Orfali, p. 14.

27 For more on this, see chapter 7 on the Ottoman Empire.

28 As it happened, Righetto had excellent contacts in Venice, and although he spent a long time incarcerated, he was secretly advised about the contents of his process, including the names of his accusers. Finally with the aid of some corruptible officials, he escaped from prison. For more on him see Brian Pullan, The Jews of Europe and the Inquisition of Venice, 1560–1670 (Oxford, 1983), p. 112 and passim. Righetto’s contacts with Nasi will be described in chapter 7.

© Central European University Press, 2003

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