Object 53: Garibaldi letter of credit, 1860

Letter of credit issued to Giuseppe Garibaldi, 1860

Letter of credit issued to Giuseppe Garibaldi by National Bank of Scotland, 1860 © RBS

In the mid-19th century Giuseppe Garibaldi, hero of the struggle for Italian unification, was one of the most famous men on the planet. This letter of credit is a testament to his international popularity. It probably represents the proceeds of one of the many fundraising initiatives that took place up and down Scotland in support of his cause. Improving global communications meant that people were increasingly aware of events overseas, including Garibaldi's struggles in Italy. Many people were moved to send money to show their support for his cause.

It was not practical or safe to send large donations in cash across Europe. A letter of credit was a more secure alternative. Fundraisers could deposit money in a bank in Scotland. The bank then issued a letter of credit in Garibaldi's name which, upon receipt, he could fairly easily exchange with a banker or merchant for local cash at current exchange rates. The letter might pass through numerous hands in this way before finding its way to London, where the Scottish bank's London agents would pay the value and settle up with the bank in Scotland. Most of this chain was, of course, invisible and irrelevant to Garibaldi and his Scottish supporters. All they cared about was that the money had been transferred safely.

The annotations on the back of the document tell its story. It was issued by National Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh on 22 August 1860. In Naples on 24 October Garibaldi signed it over to his secretary Giovanni Basso, no doubt so that Basso could handle the money business on his behalf. This was just two days before one of the most famous events of Italian unification, the 'Handshake of Teano', when Garibaldi met Victor Emmanuel II and hailed him as the King of Italy.

Weeks later, in Genoa, Basso passed the letter on to a Michele Piaggio, who passed it to F Gruber & Co, a firm of Austrian cloth merchants who specialised in importing English wool to Italy for tailoring into Italian-made clothes. From Gruber & Co it passed to Schunck Souchay & Co, another merchant house with strong links to England, and they sent it to their London office. They presented it for payment at the banking house Glyn & Co. Glyn's passed the letter to the bank in Scotland and received the £115 payment. All debts along the way had been settled, and the money had passed safely from Scotland to Italy.