Posted by: Martin | January 10, 2011

It’s still a breeze compared to back in 1497

How the envoy of Venice did it

I have recently gotten a visa card linked to my bank account in an Ivorian bank. I tried it today for the first time in an ATM in Europe, and despite everything that’s going on, my CFA Francs came out as Euros without any problems. Guess this is one more of these things that everybody take for granted, but when thinking about it, global banking networks are quite amazing.

Here’s a story from the Economist of how Venetian and Spanish ambassadors to England dealt with this same problem (and other stuff) back in the 15th century:

Living in England, as Cambrai had anticipated, was extremely expensive. The income of de Puebla, Soncino and the rest was much more precarious than this, and their letters home (though no doubt exaggerated for effect) tell desperate tales of poverty. They themselves were not on per diems but had been sent with a pot of money that had to be topped up somehow, usually by merchants from their own countries, who were somewhat elusive and set their own exchange rates.

Soncino’s lodging probably cost around a shilling (12d) a night, with meals included. De Puebla rented a suite of rooms at the Austin Friars, but was also renowned for staying “in the house of a mason who keeps dishonest women” where a seat at the slopped-down common table cost 2d a day. To supplement these pie-and-beer meals, he tried to cadge food at court. Henry VII, enquiring once why the Spanish envoy had come round yet again, was told: “to eat”.

In fact, the court was the only place where the envoys could supplement their diets or their salaries. Royal rewards (very rare, unless an actual treaty had been concluded) came in the form of purses of gold, accepted with craven gratitude and then, back in the lodgings, carefully checked, tooth-tested and weighed. (“The king gave him 300 nobles, neither seen nor counted by him”.) Dining at court, as Soncino and Trevisano did fairly often, allowed them to sample the king’s excellent French wines and to eat 60-course feasts, from “pottage-pig” through “larks ingrayled” to “castles of jelly”. But gastronomy had its price. Soncino’s Venetian friend complained that these meals lasted for hours, with much slower service than in Italy, and were sometimes consumed in total silence.

Getting the dispatches home was another matter. On average, letters reached Milan or Venice in about three weeks. De Puebla’s to Spain sometimes took twice as long. Messengers got drunk, mislaid the papers, or fell ill on the road. Ships were blown off course, or sank. Vital letters sent to Henry by Ferdinand and Isabella seem to have drowned with the envoy who carried them—or so they claimed later, though in truth they had never been mustard-keen to send them. Other letters still carry salt-water stains. Fretting in Madrid or Tortosa, the Spanish sovereigns often thought de Puebla was not bothering to write. When he protested that he was, copiously, they barked at him some more. (“None of your last has arrived. Please always send duplicates.”) This problem, of course, cut both ways: rulers waiting weeks for news, while envoys waited weeks for their instructions. It is a wonder, under these conditions, that long-term diplomacy could be carried on at all.

Venice back in the days

Is the Ivorian Franc coming to life?

Anyhow, previously on this blog I wrote about the issue of sending money to the Ivory Coast. Now the main concern is getting money out of the Ivory Coast.  The risks are that sanctions or Gbagbo actions will make it impossible/difficult to transfer funds abroad from accounts in the Ivory Coast.  Also, it wouldn’t be great if all my CFA Francs were converted into the new Ivorian franc backed by nothing and controlled by Gbagbo’s government.

Regarding rumours about the new currency, people in the know say that if the physical bills and coins of the currency have already been created, then the roll out is a matter of days.   However, it is unlikely Gbagbo had a new currency ready and waiting before the elections.

And, as I have been told, the whole work to create a new currency from scratch is a long process that takes at least 8 months.  The capacity to do this work does not exist in the Ivory Coast, so Gbagbo would need outside assistance.  And it’s easier to see countries that would actively try to prevent Gbagbo from issuing a new currency (France springs to mind) than countries ready to help him.

Guess if Gbagbo manages to pay for it, Angola or Zimbabwe could ask whoever prints their currencies, to print the Ivorian Franc, and then ship it to Abidjan.   Dictators can be pretty quick on acting on these type of things – it kind of helps not having any committees or parliamentary processes to discuss and evaluate things.  However, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a western-dominated company behind the creation of the Angolan and Zimbabwean currencies, and a phone call from Paris or Washington might stop any plans of creating an Ivorian franc.

Prototype of the Ivorian Franc

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