An Italian Colony In America: A Forgotten Attempt

When talking about colonialism, people usually recall Spanish, French, Portugues, and English overseas behemoths. But even the ancient Grand Duchy of Tuscany had a shot at establishing a colony in South America.

When talking about colonialism, people usually recall Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English overseas behemoths. But even the ancient Grand Duchy of Tuscany had a shot at establishing a colony in South America.

Following the European explorations of sea routes to Africa’s southern coasts (1488) and America (1492), emerging nation-states (in particular Spain, Portugal, France, and England) started expanding throughout the world. By discovery, conquest, and settlement, these countries spread European institutions and culture overseas.

On the other hand, Italian city-states, whose economy focused mainly on sea trades across the Mediterranean, began losing ground. As long as the Mediterranean represented the European economic center, Italian duchies like Tuscany made big bucks by taking advantage of Italy’s geographical location. When Columbus discovered America in 1492, the Atlantic Ocean became the new trade centerpiece. Consequently, the peninsula’s wealth began dwindling. 

The Grand Duchy of Tuscany and an off the beaten track reaction

In a bid to prevent the foreseeable decline of his country, the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando I Medici brought about an expedition in 1608. Under the English captain Robert Thornton, the journey aimed to explore the northern coasts of Brazil to establish a Tuscan settlement. Historians believe that the Grand Duke’s project was the only attempt to usher an Italian colony in America

Ferdinando proved to be sensible since he bent over backward to achieve lands overseas. Starting in 1606, he sat down with the kings of Spain and Portugal, seeking to receive lands in Peru and Sierra Leone. After his talks fell short, the Grand Duke appointed Robert Thornton to lead an expedition in modern French Guyana, in a last-ditch attempt to set up a Tuscan outpost. The venturesome undertaking was to establish an Italian trade route to export Brazilian timber to Tuscany.

The adventure begins

In September 1608, Thornton’s ships sailed from Livorno and returned to the same harbor in July 1609, without losing a single man. The crew explored the area around the northern Brazilian coasts, where the Grand Duke green-lighted the settlement’s foundation. 

From a scientific and geographical perspective, the expedition had a favorable outcome. Not only did Thornton bring back precious studying material, including tropical birds, but even five or six natives. Although many of them died of small-pox, they had the chance to give an account of their lands, described as full of silver and gold.

The captain backed up the natives’ report, depicting an area rich in rosewood, wild sugar canes, white pepper, balsam, cotton, and many other kinds of commodities. According to Thornton, a real bonanza was just ahead, ready to ramp up trade in the Grand Duchy. Thanks to these resources, a lot of money would have come down the pipeline to Tuscany.

Interestingly, only one native managed to survive, living on at the Medici court for years, even learning to speak Italian. 

Apart from the heartening geographical discovery, the upshot of the journey was a tremendous flop. Not only did Thornton fail to sell or swap his Tuscan merchandise, but he even got away with an attempted mutiny. Two sailors were arranging a witches’ brew to kill him. Luckily, the expedition’s leader uncovered the plot and left them on the Amazon’s river delta high and dry. 

A shattered dream

Unfortunately, when Thornton came back to Italy, he did not find his patron Ferdinando I. The Grand Duke had died in 1609, and his successor, Cosimo II, did not follow in his father’s steps. The new Duke abandoned the plan, although Thornton was ready to set sail with colonists to build a settlement in America.

Ferdinando’s project was perhaps too cutting-edge for the then political situation in Italy. Foreign contenders like France, Spain, and Austria found their battleground in the peninsula, expanding their dominions at the expense of Italian pre-unitarian States. As a consequence, Italian governors (including Tuscan Dukes) were trying to keep their head above water, and any attempt of establishing colonies in the New World was left on the back burner.

Italian pre-unitarian States were grinding away at defending their lands and barely managed to survive, being squeezed between aggressive neighbors. From that time, Italy underwent a slow decline and lost its independence. Until 1882, when a unified Italy established its first colony in Africa, Italian governors had lost sight of expanding their lands overseas. 

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