Unlike other institutions of modern history, ranging from the “mental asylum” to “the state,” free ports have rarely been examined as part of a coherent developmental process. The history of free ports is fragmented into a multiplicity of geographical and chronological coordinates that appear to bear little relationship with one another.
Some observers, it is true, deny that the free port even has a history. Bruno Minoletti, in 1930, argued that the criticisms that over time have been levelled by opponents of free ports have remained virtually unchanged and always repeat the same points. At the same time, his argument assumes that the functions of the free ports are clear, straightforward, and relatively unchanged over time. Minoletti himself in fact relied heavily on a few pages in Melchiorre Gioja’s Nuovo Prospetto delle scienze economiche (1816) devoted to the economic functions of free ports.
Different from such economistic or juridical works, there a large (if scattered) historical literature focuses on individual free ports. The many free ports of Italy—most famously, Livorno, Genoa, and Trieste—have attracted scholars who have studied shipping data, decrees, merchant communities and cultural exchanges and artefacts. This literature reveals that ideas, regulations and practices did change over time; negotiations, debates and decision-making processes took place against the political backgrounds of their time. This rich literature, however, tends to limit itself to one specific free port, or compares at most a few contexts – but then often on a limited basis, where the political background is again lost. The focus on local practices, regulations, and norms as they changed over time provides interesting material, but it has not inspired a more comprehensive understanding of the development of free port visions and functions over time.
This project proposes an integral examination of the free port phenomenon. It examines the origin of free ports in north-central Italy; their subsequent spread throughout Europe; their proliferation in the Americas during the mid-eighteenth century; their employment in the colonial spheres of the nineteenth century; and their current incarnation in the decolonized world. To avoid a disjointed geographic and chronological approach, we pay careful attention to the lines of transmission connecting these disparate chronological and geographical trajectories. In addition, we aim to trade the history of the free port not as the diffusion of a model, but as a dynamic phenomenon intertwined with the development of state and capitalism in the modern world.
The free port as an object of analysis presents big historiographical problems. In our project we want to identify and address these problems. Part of the project is to put together a general bibliography of the global history of free ports.