Exactly how free ports arose in early-modern Europe is still subject to debate. Livorno, Genoa and other Italian cities became famous as major examples of a particular way of attracting trade. Between the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century the existence of free ports – as specific fiscal, cultural, political and economic entities with different local functions and characteristics – developed from an Italian and European into a global phenomenon. While a general history of free ports – from their first emergence to the present-day special economic zones – has never been written, this research network aims to pave the way for such an enterprise. By communicating and integrating ongoing research efforts, and by providing research materials, scholars within different (sub-)disciplines and with interests in various local or regional cases and aspects the network hopes to promote interaction, the exchange of novel ideas and ultimately a wholly new, comprehensive and enduringly relevant understanding of the history of free ports.

At present, the history of free ports is essentially fragmented. Both the periods of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian history of free ports and the later emergence of SEZ’s have been studied with occasional reference to the other side of the period that holds together what is assumed to be the same phenomenon. Yet, the in-between stages in which these entities spread across the globe and the underlying logics and conceptual transitions in this process have not been studied in any detail, or comparatively with an eye to the bigger picture. As a matter of fact the historiography of free ports is essentially fragmented. Against that background the work that is part of this project will seek to fill some gaps. Specifically, we aim to get a better grasp of the period of the later eighteenth and nineteenth century as a hinging point in the history of free ports. What political economic and legal tendencies accompanied the global spread of free ports, and how did political and economic writers, diplomats, merchants and other figures from within different national contexts understand this development? What new situations, conditions and problematic tensions did the global diffusion of free ports create? How did the history of free ports play a role in or otherwise fit with the development of a new global trade system in the nineteenth century? Following these questions, we believe it may be possible to recapture the history of free ports as a whole as representative of a set of paradigmatic shifts in the patterns and politics of global trade from the early-modern past to the present. 

This website is designed to support this research endeavour. Part of the project is to put together a general bibliography of the global history of free ports. We also will publish working papers on our website as part of the Working Paper Series of the Helsinki Centre for Intellectual History. Ultimately, we hope to publish a collected volume in due course that will fill the void in the existing literature. Before arriving at this point the members of this network will all organise seminars and conferences that will help us develop our ideas. The network is also simply a tool to find out what is happening in the research of the history of free ports and to get in touch with each other.

Feel free to join if you have a research interest in free ports! Contact us by mail koen.stapelbroek@helsinki.fi or use our twitter feed.