Spanish Colonial Official's Account of Triangular Trade with England (c. 1726)

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Spanish Colonial Official's Account of Triangular Trade with England (c. 1726)

introductionBy the late seventeenth century, the countries of Atlantic Europe and their colonies to the west were connected by an elaborate network of commerce known as triangular trade. Ships from Europe were loaded with slaves captured in Africa. The slaves were carried across the Atlantic, then sold in the Caribbean, where the ships were loaded with sugar and other goods in exchange. These goods were carried back to Europe, where they were exchanged for rum and other processed goods, which were finally sold in Africa, thus completing the triangle. The following account of the triangular trade system as it was practiced in the early eighteenth century was written by Alsedo y Herrera, an Spanish colonial official and governor of Panama from 1741 to 1749.

On June 21 of the same year (1721) the Southern Fleet of galleons left Cadiz under the command of Lieutenant General Baltasar de Guevara. Upon its arrival at Porto Bello in time for the annual Fair it encountered the Royal George, the first of the English license ships. Though allowed no more than 650 tons of cargo by the treaty of 1716, the vessel actually carried 975. General de Guevara forthwith intrusted to three license masters of the fleet the duty of measuring the hold of the English ship, but they could not prove the excess. Their failure was due in part to a confusion of the measurement in geometric feet, by which the dimensions of vessels are gauged, with the cubic handbreadths by which the tonnage is determined.

In part, also, another circumstance is responsible for the failure of the Spanish officers to detect any evidence of fraud, assuming, of course, the absence of collusion on their side. Apparently the vessel had no greater carrying capacity than 650 tons, but persons who are expert in the rules of naval construction know very well that the steerage, commonly called "between-decks," equals in capacity a third of the hold, and the cabin a sixth of it; so when all three have been filled,—hold, steerage, and cabin,—the gross tonnage will be 975. The English ship always carried a cargo of this size. Indeed it was laden so heavily that its very gunwales were awash. Bundles and packages filled the hold, the steerage space was crowded with huge chests, and the cabin bulged with boxes and bales.

The English claimed that the materials stored in the steerage and cabin were furniture for the use of their trading houses, cloth goods for their agents and employees, and medicines and drugs for accidents and cures, but all of it was salable merchandise. Some things they could not conceal from the commander and the commercial representatives of the galleons. For example, many of the bales and bundles had not been pressed, the stitches in their seams were recent, and the ink of their lettering was still fresh. Hundreds of items, also, were lacking in the order of enumeration, which, if they had not been thrown overboard to lighten the ship during the course of the voyage, must have been put ashore somewhere. The proof soon appeared when the Spanish commissioner of trade asked to see the original bill of lading so that he might know by this means whether the cargo was in excess of the amount permitted. On the ground that the treaty had authorized no such procedure, the request was denied.

During the course of the Fair the agents of the Royal George sold their goods to the colonial tradesmen thirty percent cheaper than the Spanish merchants of the galleons could do. This advantage came from the fact that they had been able to bring the commodities directly from the place of manufacture, exempt from Spanish customs duties, convoy charges, transportation expenses, commissions, and the like. Even after the original contents of the ship had been disposed of, the supply was kept up by secret consignments of goods of English and European manufacture received from the packet boats and sloops engaged ostensibly in the slave trade.

Instead of bringing the negroes in the slave hulks directly from Africa to the ports specified in the Asiento, the English cunningly devised the plan of landing them first at their colony of Jamaica. Here the slaves were packed, along with divers kinds of merchandise, into small boats that made frequent sailings. Not only was the cargo of the Royal George thus replenished as rapidly as it was exhausted, but trade could be surreptitiously carried on at times when the Fair was not in progress, and the treasure of the Spanish colonies duly gathered into English hands.

Nor was this all of their duplicity. On the pretext that a number of bales and boxes stored in the warehouse at Porto Bello were an unsold residue of the cargo, the governor of Panama was asked for the privilege of bringing them to that city. In this fashion the English could legitimize goods that had already been smuggled into the warehouses at Panama and then proceed to sell them to the merchants of New Granada and to the traders on the vessels that plied along the Pacific coast. On one occasion in 1723, at the instance of the Spanish commissary, ten loads of twenty bales each of the supposed residue of the cargo of the Royal George were opened on the way from Porto Bello to Panama and found to contain nothing but stones, sticks, and straw.

A knavish trick connected with the slave trade should now be described. Having brought the negroes in a number of small boats to out-of-the-way places not authorized for the purpose in the Asiento, the English traders sold them for a third less than the prices at the regular trading stations. But since the treaty empowered them to seize, as smuggled goods, slaves brought in by individuals of other nations, they posted guards and sentinels in the outskirts of the spot where the sale had just taken place, and had the purchasers arrested. Many a thrifty-minded Spaniard who relished the thought of buying slaves at cheap rates fell into a snare from which he could not escape until he had paid the regular price in addition to what he had already given.

In order to obscure the facts of these fraudulent transactions as thoroughly as possible, the English contrived a scheme craftier than any hitherto related. It seems that the Asiento had allowed them to appoint "judges-conservators" whose business it should be to defend their privileges against unlawful interference. In the exercise of this right they appointed to the office the local governors of the ports where the traffic was carried on, and gave them a salary of two thousand dollars a year, supplemented by special gratifications in the shape of European furniture, jewels, and delicacies. Thus were the officials pledged to connivance and silence. If any of the governors should decline to be bribed, he was threatened with political destruction by the letters and complaints which the English minister at the Spanish court would surely present to the home authorities. Few there were under such circumstances who were able to resist the frauds, preserve their honor, and uphold their good name.

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Spanish Colonial Official's Account of Triangular Trade with England (c. 1726)

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