Family Ferreira da Fonseca 2 1665

Sons of Fonseca,
Our family has long thrived along the fine line between the Christian and Islamic
cultures. At no time has this balance required a more delicate step than now. As we are now
subject to Spanish law1, under his majesty king Carlos II who allows us to keep our African
slaves, the threat posed by the Moroccans at the gates of our fine city must incline us to lend
thought to the frail loyalties of our native servants. While the Iberians can afford to let
themselves be lulled into the demonstrably false belief that the dusky hue of African skin
indicates an inferior capacity for wile2, the House of Fonseca—indeed all of Ceuta’s sons—have
survived and even prospered by understanding the keen mind of our African neighbors. We
cannot allow our slaves, who serve to increase the profits of our family business, to endanger
those selfsame profits. With the changing attitudes among the Europeans regarding African
slaves and the impending conflict with our Moroccan neighbors3, I believe we must find a way to

temporarily disengage ourselves from the practice of slaveholding.
My Dear Family,
Tragedy! I am enslaved! While underway to Venice to see our factor there as I was bade
do, our ship was taken by corsairs sailing out of Algiers. As we were forced onto the corsair’s
vessel, I was filled with dread at the thought of being chained in their galley4. Thank God that
was not my fate. In Algiers I was purchased by an Iberian Moor who commanded me to write to
you to seek ransom5. It is only the prospect of ransom that has kept me safe thus far. In the
morning I am to be rented out to another although I do not know who or for what labor I will be
used. Please, dearest family, send our man to Algiers to pay for my freedom as swiftly as
possible. I do not know how long my luck will hold and I long to see our home again.
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Family Farreira da Fonseca 2, 1450-1495

The challenges of living in our city of Ceuta, separated from Iberia by the Strait of Gibraltar, have proven worthwhile for our family these past many years. Most Portuguese have no wish to leave the comforts of home to abide in this rough port city, but we have managed to take advantage of the Mediterranean’s changing tides to the enrichment of our house.  When the holy see of Saint Andrew fell to Mehmed the Conqueror, many throughout Christendom were shaken. However, as Portuguese sailors began exploring, out of necessity, paths to the west, our family and our business were well-positioned to profit from Ceuta’s advantageous position. As I have worked diligently to secure wealth and position for the house of Ferreira da Fonseca, so must you work to ensure the stability and growth of our business. We have assets enough to extend credit to our most valued and trusted clients, but you must always cultivate new resources by maintaining relationships with our closest and most influential neighbors. For instance, the Wattasid sultan, who rose during my tenure, desires trade. I have been careful to offer trade with our Islamic friends to our benefit.  Finally, you should consider continuing trade with the less lawful Barbary sailors. Not only do they regularly require supplies for the operation of their ships, but they can offer trade goods at fairly low rates if we can compete with merchants in Tangier.

Family Ferreira da Fonseca, c. 1715-1718

Today my family and I received a letter from our nephew stating that he was stuck in the city of Aigina due to a court hearing because of an act of piracy. Our nephew is a merchant who just recently sailed to the Eastern Mediterranean with some other merchants, some of whom were Greeks they picked up along the way. My nephew wrote to us stating that he and his crew were on their way to Aigina when their ship was stopped and raided by men that were perceived to be pirates, but one of the merchants on my nephew’s ship noticed the flag on the ship. The flag belonged to the Knights of Malta, who were raiding ships that had Greeks onboard or any evidence of Greeks onboard. My nephew and his crew were abandoned by the Knights of Malta, but found their way into the city of Aigina. There they found a consul who would aid them in getting their goods back by writing up documents that stated what happened at sea. Every member of the crew was a witness so they were included.

The reason for these documents was that my nephew planned to go before the Tribunale degli Armamenti  of the Knights of Malta to recover his cargo.  One of the customs in the Tribunale was that the Greeks could only have a voice if they emphasized their Christian identity. And that is what the Greeks on my nephew’s ship did. In some cases a dragoman’s word was highly important in court as was any other additional documentation written up by Christian authorities, and my nephew relied on the latter. In some cases, the merchants could receive their merchandise back, but they had to prove themselves to be Christian in most scenarios. That is why witnesses and documentation was important to have.[1]

Luis Ferriera da Fonseca


[1] Greene, Molly. Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants: A Maritime History of the Mediterranean (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010), 141.

Family Farreira da Fonseca, Undated Letter Book Entry from the 17th Century

One day I was looking through my family’s old archives and came across some documents that were dated back to the years of the 1500s, specifically the 1550s. The document was about my great grandfather who worked in a port unloading Portuguese ships. On the document there was a legal dispute that happened over some merchandise that was being unloaded from one of Portuguese ships that had just arrived back to port.

The dispute happened between the men who were unloading the merchandise including my great grandfather, who were the only ones at the port at the time because the Portuguese merchants had left on another expedition, and some Greek subjects from the Ottoman Empire. The dispute was essentially due to the fact that the Knights of Malta had raided one of the Greek-Ottoman ships and took their goods.[1]  After the raid occurred, some of the goods were traded between the Venetians and the Portuguese merchants.  The Greek subjects were not too happy about the Knights of Malta taking their goods let alone trading them off and receiving nothing in return except loss of profit, but in the eyes of the Knights they weren’t committing acts of piracy because they were abiding by the laws of the sea.

The Greek- Ottoman subjects wanted their merchandise back, but the Portuguese had not directly taken it from them so dispute didn’t pass the local court that the Knights of Malta had set up. Unfortunately, the Greeks would not receive their merchandise back.


[1] Greene, Molly. Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants: A Maritime History of the Mediterranean. New Jersey: Princeton University, 2010. 79.

Family Ferreira da Fonseca, Undated Business Letter, [1669]

Today, while on the docks I came across an interesting read. In the Gazeta do Portugal, they announced that the Ottoman Empire now had control over the island of Crete. The first thing I thought to myself was that this turn in events could either benefit many people or potentially be bad. It could potentially be bad because the Ottoman Empire could try to continue to expand their empire and could then take over Western Europe and even Portugal. As I kept reading through the article, I also saw that many of the Cretans were converting to Islam. Many will argue that this is not a good thing, but the island of Crete is allowing many Christians, Jews, and Muslims to purchase lands that they might not have been able to afford elsewhere, live together, practice their faiths openly around each other, and even marry each other.[1] These new social orders are quite attractive to people such as myself and my family. Living in a garrison city that is surrounded with piracy is not the easiest lifestyle for my family.[2] If anything went wrong in Ceuta I could always send my family to Crete where they will more than likely be accepted due to the fact that Crete is appearing to be hospitable of many different people.


[1] Green, Molly. A Shared World: Christians and Muslims in the Early Modern Mediterranean (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000),  105.

[2] Koch, Peter. To the Ends of the Earth: The Age of the European Explorers (North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2003), 36.

Family Ferreira da Fonseca, Undated Journal Entry from the Seventeenth Century

Today, an unusual ship landed in our port city. It was no ordinary ship; it had oars one the side and men rowing them. They did not seem to have any cargo on board with them. I then noticed that the men were worn down by the sun and barely had any clothing except for a loin cloth to cover their private areas.[1] Something else I noticed was that these men were of different ethnicity.  I glanced in another direction and saw many men, women, and children running inland away from the docks. I then felt a tug on my shirt. It was one of the men I work with. He said we needed to get out of the area because the men that had arrived in the ships were Muslims and weren’t there to trade with us. The Muslims were from a place called Algiers, and they were there to take Christians for enslavement purposes.

The Muslims then proceeded to get off their ships, known as galleys. And they were taking any Christian they could get to. They traveled as far as 10 miles inland to take slaves. Soon after watching people flee the docks, my wife ran to me in tears, and told me our nephew had been taken by Muslims. The captain of the ship offered a ransom for our nephew’s return, but I am not sure we have the money to get him back. A fellow man in Ceuta told me that his son was taken from him by Muslims and he never saw him again. I am unsure what will happen to my nephew, but my hopes are high that he will return.


[1] Davis C. Robert. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 81.

Family Ferreira da Fonseca, c. 1600-1625

Since the defeat of the Moors from Ceuta in 1415, many of our Portuguese ships and merchants had to find trade else- where.  They were doing particularly well sailing down the west coast of Africa and trading with the native peoples and also made their way into the Indies. I, like my great grandfather, Andres, before me, was given a great amount of work on the docks unloading all the merchandise our Portuguese ships had obtained because they were doing so well in exploration and trade.

Recently, one of the ships just returned from the eastern Mediterranean near Venice, but when my crew and I went to unload it, we found hardly anything in the ship. I overheard one of the crew members talking and they were furious that the Venetians wouldn’t trade with them because that means a loss in profit. Since unloading commodities was my job and there was not anything to unload I questioned one of the crew members on the occurrences in Venice. He told me, “Os venezianos não trocar bens com nós, porque alguns de nossos membros da tripulação eram marranos.”  In translation, the Venetians would not trade with the crew because some of them were Marranos. Many that were considered to be Marranos were not trusted by Christians or Jews simply because they switched faiths even if it was unwilling.[1]

Unfortunately, there is a large population of Portuguese Marranos due to the expulsion of all the Jews from Spain almost two- hundred years earlier. Many of us that are of Jewish faith were then forced to convert to Christianity to keep our place in society. If conversion wasn’t enough to add, my country of Portugal has and still continues to be under the rule of Spain.[2]

Arturo Ferriera da Fonseca


[1] Dursteler, Eric. Venetians In Constantinople. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006. 103-129.

[2] Griffin Ortiz, Julia. Spain and Portugal. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007. 146.