Pirates, Merchants, and a Small Battle on the Island of Kythira in the Later Middle Ages
By David D. Terry
The Hilltop Review, Vol. 11:2 (2019)
Abstract: Merchants in the later medieval Mediterranean crossed boundaries both geographical and moral. In November 1327 two Mallorcan investors complained to the king’s court that their ship, which they had sent to the eastern Mediterranean laden with tradable goods, had been ransacked by the violent natives of Kythera, an Aegean island at that time ruled by Venice.
The Venetians, always conscious of maintaining good trade relations, sent representatives to the island and conducted a full investigation. After interviewing the islanders, the duke of the island sent his conclusions back to Venice: the Catalan “merchants” had come ashore on the island and began plundering farm animals and foodstuffs. The islanders took much abuse before finally fighting back, killing several of the pirates and freeing the slaves in their galley. When it came back to the doge of Venice that the Catalans had acted as pirates on Kythera, they offered no compensation to the investors. Using documents from the investigation into this incident, this article examines medieval self-help, the line between merchant and pirate, and the reputation of pirates in a time of violence and economic competition. A complex image emerges in which authorities and everyday people alike struggled to address the problems caused by maritime violence.
Introduction: On November 25, 1326, bailiff of Mallorca Guillem de Baudela passed a judgment in favor of two plaintiffs, Jaume Cama and Simó Berenguer. The two were merchants from Palma de Mallorca and were seeking monetary compensation for the loss of mercantile goods in the eastern Mediterranean months earlier. The previous year they had entered into an investment contract with Jaume’s brother Francesc and a certain Joan Bruni, investing a sum of money in textiles for trade in Greece and Cyprus. Upon their return to Mallorca, a third of the profits would have gone to investors Jaume and Simó, but the voyage had not gone as planned. The ship had apparently made a stop at the island of Kythira, a small island of only about a hundred square miles just south of the Greek Peloponnesus, where local residents invaded the ship, stole all of the cargo, and murdered most of the crew. The court at Mallorca held Venice, who had ruled Kythira since the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, responsible for their merchants’ loss and asked for compensation and damages; in the meantime, the investors were authorized to enact reprisal on Venetian merchants trading in Mallorca, confiscating Venetian goods in retaliation.
Top Image: Bodmer MS 78 fol. 09r