Like most American historians, I know little of the city of Genoa save that it was the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and that it is located in northern Italy. However, some years ago a Marxist author piqued my interest in the early-modern Genoese by suggesting that one ought really to call the Spanish conquest of the New World an Italian mercantile-capitalist project. A bit of research which I recently undertook to enliven a stale lecture on Columbus has persuaded me that there is a lot of truth to this rather sweeping statement.
Genoa's days of military glory were behind it by the late 1400s, but its era of commercial expansion was still very much underway in Columbus's day. In the thirteenth century a series of armed conflicts with Venice had ended (1281) in Genoa's exclusion from the Adriatic, and in the city-states' tacit admission that their wars with one another had grown too expensive to prosecute. Thereafter, Venice used its intrinsic geographic advantage to dominate trade in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the maritime spice and cotton trade with Egypt and the Levant. (It helped that Venetian sailors had access to the compass, which allowed them to sail in the open sea during the overcast winter months, and thus to take advantage of favorable seasonal winds.) (Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World , 33-34, 118-119; Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers , 221-222.)
The displaced Genoese, however, merely took their capital and sailing expertise and transferred them to the western Mediterranean and the eastern Atlantic Ocean. Genoese ships had opened direct oceanic trade with Bruges in 1277, and around the same time Genoese merchants established trading colonies in Seville, which the Kingdom of Castille had recently conquered, and Aragon, whose king they helped conquer Sicily in 1282. These merchants intermarried with local traders and gentry and became part of the Spanish elite. Seville became the base for Genoese voyages to the Canary Islands in the fourteenth century, while later Genoese mercantile colonies in Morocco and Lisbon dominated those regions' provisions trade in the fifteenth century. (Richard Fletcher, Moorish Spain , 143; Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism , 71, 79-80; Braudel, op. cit., 110, 141-142, 164; John Kicza, "Patterns in Early Spanish Overseas Expansion," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 49 : 229-53, esp. 230, 237.)
Genoese merchants did not remain content to act as shipping agents and bankers. Their city, whose hinterland consisted of a few miles of coastal plain and a great many mountains, could not feed or clothe itself without trade, and Genoa's merchants therefore took direct control of vital resources whenever they could. Genoa financed Aragon's conquest of Sicily in exchange for many of the island's grain plantations and control of its silk exports. Genoese merchants also established sugar plantations in Sicily, bringing to the western Mediterranean the crop that would play such an important role in the history of the Atlantic World, and gradually expanded sugar cultivation into Spain, Portugal, Morocco, the Madeiras, and the Canaries. (These were generally small plantations, with only a few fields and slaves, but they provided the Genoese with technical experience they applied to the larger farms of the New World). And in the sixteenth century, after a Genoese navigator opened the Atlantic to Spanish navigation, merchants from Columbus's home city sent agents to Hispaniola to market the island's gold exports, and Genoese artisans came from the Canaries to introduce sugar cultivation. Genoese bankers financed some of the entradas that extended Spanish rule to the mainland, including Cortes's conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1519-21, and Genoese bankers in Seville provided the operating capital for the fleets that subsequently sailed between Mexico and Spain. Indeed, financing the Spanish Crown and marketing Spanish American bullion became Genoese merchants' principal pastime by the late sixteenth century, and remained so until the Spanish government's finances collapsed in 1627. (Braudel, 142, 157, 159-161, 163-168; Kicza, "Patterns," 231, 242; David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years , 318-319.)
So was the conquest of the Americas merely part of the expansion of Genoese capital? The "merely" in that question gives away the answer. Christopher Columbus may have come from Genoa, but the Genoese did not finance his first voyage; that took a more adventurous investor, namely a national government. Moreover, Spain provided the personnel and arsenal for the conquest of the West Indies, Mexico, and Peru, and its conquistadors and administrators didn't regard themselves as the employees of bankers - they were fighting for Church, king, and country. What the Genoese did was provide the financial infrastructure for the empire that the Spanish built so quickly. Those of us amazed at the speed with which Spain conquered the West Indies, Mexico, and Peru need to consider not only the impact of disease and metal weapons on Native Americans, and not merely the expertise of Spanish sailors and navigators, but also the large amount of money and technical know-how that Genoa injected into the process. The bankers weren't necessarily calling the shots in Spanish America, but they were certainly an important motive force behind this burst of expansion that transformed Spain into a global empire in just three quarters of a century.