Buti G. (2005) Coastal traffic in Provence (17th-18th century)

Buti Gilbert (2005) “Cabotage et caboteurs de la France méditerranénne (XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles)”, Rives nord-méditerranéennes, Cabotage et réseaux portuaires en Méditerranée, 11 p.

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Coastal traffic (cabotage) was an essential component of the Old Regime’s “circulation economy”. Even in a port as important as Marseille in the 18th century, coastal traffic is a precious complement to long haul seafaring (2). In secondary ports, such as Saint-Tropez, 90% of ships entering the harbour were involved in petty coastal traffic. Most of the rest was also involved in coastal traffic but with more distant places (Italy, Spain, Levant).

Secondary ports, such as Martigues and Antibes, without either significant production or market, often had sizeable cabotage fleet used by larger ports to convey merchandizes around the region. That was how the Ligurian oil and fruits and the Languedoc wines reached Marseille to be re-exported and how the colonial products reach their consumers around the Mediterranean Basin. At times, cabotage ships were even used to supplies the armies marching along the coast (3).

Coastal traffic was thus closely integrated in international exchange networks using as well carts, river shipping and long haul ships. This “domestic maritime transport system” was also indicated for ad hoc operations, when major urban centres (Naples) needed grain, they were put to contribution. It was significantly cheaper than long haul navigation.

The short radius coastal traffic was intense and regular. Some ships made the trip between two same ports over 10 times a year. In Marseille, 28% of all ships entering the harbour were actually the same 7% captains coming in again and again (4).

Types of coastal traffic
The same ships could carry the same type of fret from and to the same destinations for years. Some ships and captains nearly never changed their routes or the type of product they were carrying. Petty transporters seem to have been highly specialised and were prevalent in lesser ports such as Saint Tropez.

Those reaching further such as Sète, Genoa or Longhorn, were integrated in circuits that could be more varied as – to avoid coming back empty – a captain could agree to sail to a port out of his way, as far as Naples. Finally, there was a “general purpose” coastal traffic, with no fixed rout, simply going wherever the trade required it all over the Basin (5).

In Marseille, coastal traffic never stopped. It was less intense during winter but the sea was never closed to navigation. There was also less traffic in March-April because the Rhone’s high season did not allow the important trade from Arles to reach Marseille. But each type of fret had its own seasonality depending on harvest, production period and commercial calendar (fairs). Typically, industrial cargo would take advantage of the agricultural products’ low season to be transported.

On the contrary, in lesser ports the seasonality was often clear. Most of them only knew a sustained activity from May to October. Some were even only open a few weeks a year (6).

The long distance coastal traffic to Syria or Egypt was intimately linked to the regional cabotage. Some captains worked a few years on a local circuit or route before sailing to the Levant. These trips to the Levant were not done in a straight line, but were a sort of tramping, called caravane, buying here and selling there whatever the captain could put his hands on. These voyages usually lasted two years and had been authorised by the Franco-Ottoman treaties of 1686-1688. In the Levant, captains carried Ottoman merchants’ fret, but they were also involved in credit operations (7).

The seaport system present in Provence was based on three types of places: consuming market, shipyards and re-export port. Marseille was all three. This intricate network allowed to overcome each place’s own shortage in a highly complementary fashion. A dozen of secondary ports as well as a wealth of lesser one completed that agile network centred on Marseille. This hierarchical and articulated system influenced the whole of the Northwestern Mediterranean Basin, triggering mutations as far as Calabria (rise of olive cultivation) and Valencia (commercial crop to feed Marseille’s soap factories).

This network also implied cross-financial relationship. Grasse’s industrialists would own cabotage ships in Cannes and those of Marseille would own some as far as Agde and Narbonne (8). Kinship was also very important, members of the same family could own several ships together. For instance, in 1778-9, four brothers represent alone 20% of Saint-Tropez’s traffic. Powerful families could decide to climb up the economic-social scale and move to a more significant port, the way several Saint-Torpez families did in the 18th century, thus creating a mighty elite diaspora in Marseille.

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