Mediterranean Connections

Trade and Material Cultures of Red Coral between the Mediterranean and Atlantic Africa (15th-19th Centuries)

Roberto Zaugg

In Europe and the Mediterranean, red coral (Corallium rubrum) was employed for centuries to make charms protecting infants against the ‘evil eye’, as a pharmaceutical element, as well as for religious objects such as Catholic rosaries or Jewish Torah-pointers. At the same time, it was exported in substantial quantities to India and other Asian regions, where coral had been –at least since Roman times – a highly priced commodity. Although it has received far less scholarly attention, the export of coral to sub-Saharan Africa – where beads were actually traded to both on camel back and on ships – was all but negligible. In the Kingdom of Benin (in modern-day southern Nigeria), in particular, coral beads attained a prominent value, becoming a crucial attribute of the king (Oba) and his dignitaries, the object of severe sumptuary norms, as well as a key element of dynastic mythologies, ritual practices and art. On the one hand, this sub-project uses written, visual and material sources to analyse the multiple cultural meanings associated to coral in various Euro-Mediterranean and sub-Saharan contexts. On the other, it examines the commodity chain which – through the intermediation of Sephardic and Christian merchants based in Italian port cities – linked the shores of the Maghreb with territories such as the kingdoms of Benin and of Kongo. There by the sub-project pursues two aims: (1) making past interlink ages between Italian and sub-Saharan territories re-emerge, and (2) investigating the ways in which African societies appropriated exogenous commodities and contributed to the globally entangled transformation of consumer cultures fuelled by early modern maritime trade.