Contraband (Colonial Spanish America)

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Contraband (Colonial Spanish America)

Contraband (Colonial Spanish America), external trade and trade goods that flowed outside the bounds of formal Spanish taxation, regulation, and national monopoly.

Contraband and its economic cousins—smuggling, fraud, illicit commerce, and illegal trade—were integral elements in the economies of colonial Spanish America. Technically, each term referred to a specific element of the multifaceted phenomenon. Fraud, for example, consisted of trade that, although legal per se, occurred at levels disallowed by license or law. Trade of Spanish or Spanish American origin expressly forbidden by law was considered contraband. The illegal direct trade of foreigners with Spanish America was categorized as illicit commerce. But as Pedro González de Salcedo generalized in his Tratado jurídico-político del contra-bando (1654, 1729), and as the king of Spain, Charles III, reaffirmed in 1770, contraband was understood also to include all trade prohibited by law or ruled by the monarch to damage the public good. Generally, this economic interplay between restrictions and lawbreaking called contraband applied to descriptions of external commerce. However, illegal trade and tax fraud also marked internal commerce and created economic problems and opportunities in the interior similar to those afforded by smuggling in coastal regions of Spanish America.

Coastal contraband occurred throughout the empire, but it was especially prevalent in northern South America from Portobelo, in present-day Panama, to Cumaná, in present-day northern Venezuela, and in the Río de la Plata delta. Its practice, well-established by the 1590s, surged in the seventeenth century with the Dutch seizure of Curaçao in 1634, the British capture of Jamaica in 1655 and the subsequent suppression of piracy in the 1680s, and the Portuguese establishment of Colonia del Sacramento in 1680. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) and the international wars of the eighteenth century furthered illegal trafficking through Spanish American ports. These developments reflect the general regionalism of Spanish American contraband. While England had merchants throughout the Americas, the Dutch primarily worked the southern Caribbean, the Portuguese the Río de la Plata basin, and the French the Pacific coasts.

There were two distinctly divergent points of view regarding contraband within the Spanish Empire. On one hand, peninsulars blamed illicit commerce on inordinate American consumer demands and insufficient American regard for law and custom. Americans, on the other, focused on the failure of the metropolis to appreciate sufficiently American needs and to service properly its American dominions. But, in either case, Spaniards—and foreigners, too—recognized the illegality of smuggling.

Contrary, then, to official will and purpose and to the principles of mercantilist theory, contraband trafficking in Spanish American colonies represented to policy-making elites and peninsular monopolists a serious threat to imperial well-being. They commonly called contraband a "cancer" that ate away at legitimate royal revenues, sapped the economic vitality of the empire, and eroded the moral fiber of Spanish vassals. Consequently, the Spanish crown sought to curb, if not eliminate, contraband. At times, it merely took a necessary public position. Smuggling could not go unchallenged without undermining the power and influence of Spanish law, royal authority, and the assertion of hegemonic economic dominance in Spanish America. At other times, however, the metropolis addressed the problem of contraband with significant and creative measures, including the creation of the viceroyalties of New Granada (1717 and 1739) and Río de la Plata (1776), the formation of the monopolistic Caracas Company in 1728, and the formulation of free trade policies in the late eighteenth century. More often than not, however, all of these efforts fell short of their goal, because imperial realities constrained them. Unwieldy Spanish bureaucracies, metropolitan commercial weaknesses, American consumer demands, the difficulties of law enforcement, official corruption, international war, unpacified indigeneous groups, the commercial interest of European rivals in Spanish American wealth, the smugglers' ingenious and practical methods of hiding their activities, and the long coastlines of the colonies all limited, if not undid, the effectiveness of these initiatives.

Given the inconstancies of legal Spanish commerce, smuggling also represented logical economic behavior and so complemented formal trade. In the absence of licensed Spanish shipping, only illicit commerce kept ports (including important entrepôts like Portobelo in present-day Panama) active and their respective markets supplied. Contraband provided American consumers with a wide variety of goods—new and used clothing; textiles of all sorts; common items such as scissors, toys, and candles; foodstuffs, including wheat flour and spices; and slaves—at prices that undercut those of licit goods. In return, Spanish Americans supplied silver, gold, gems, tobacco, cacao, livestock, hides, yerba, and dyewoods, according to local availability. Even local treasuries occasionally relied on the capture, sale, and taxation of contraband goods for major funding during the year.

Because contraband trade was illegal and therefore largely unrecorded, it is difficult to measure its volume, value, and movement and so to know fully its actual role in Spanish colonial economies. Both contemporary observers and modern scholars agree, however, on its importance. The openness with which smugglers sold their wares in the marketplaces of Cartagena and Buenos Aires testifies to the commercial prominence of contraband. So does the number of smuggling vessels that called on Spanish American ports. In 1706, for example, sixty Dutch ships called on Portobelo customers, and when the galleons arrived in 1708, twenty British merchantmen were in the harbor. Contemporary estimates of the value of contraband point as well to its vigor. In 1800, José Ignacio de Pombo, one of the most astute merchants and economic thinkers of viceregal New Granada, set the annual value of illegal Jamaican imports alone to Cartagena at 1 million pesos.

Contraband, furthermore, cut across social lines, employing high government officials and slaves; priests, soldiers, merchants, and indigenous peoples (especially Guajiros, Cunas, and Osage); males and females; outlaws and law-enforcement agents; and Spaniards and foreigners alike. So, albeit illegal, contraband played a significant role in the economic life of colonial Spanish America.

See alsoTrade, Colonial Brazil .


Significant monographic studies of Spanish American contraband include Sergio Villalobos R., Comercio y contrabando en el Río de la Plata y Chile, 1700–1811 (1965); Celestino Andrés Araúz, El contrabando holandés en el Caribe durante la primera mitad del siglo XVIII (1984); Cornelis Ch. Goslinga, The Dutch in the Caribbean and in the Guianas, 1680–1791 (1985); Michel Morineau, Incroyables gazettes et fabuleux métaux: Les retours des trésors américains d'après les gazettes hollandaises (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles) (1985); Zacarías Moutoukias, Contrabando y control colonial en el siglo XVII: Buenos Aires, el Atlántico, y el espacio peruano (1988); and Héctor R. Feliciano Ramos, El contrabando inglés en el Caribe y el Golfo de Mexico, 1748–1778 (1990).

Three pioneering articles in English are Vera Lee Brown, "Contraband Trade: A Factor in the Decline of Spain's American Empire," in Hispanic American Historial Review 8, no. 2 (1928): 178-189; Allan Christelow, "Contraband Trade Between Jamaica and the Spanish Main, and the Free Port Act of 1766," in Hispanic American Historical Review 22, no. 2 (1942): 309-343; and George H. Nelson, "Contraband Trade Under the Asiento," in American Historical Review 51, no. 1 (1945): 55-67.

Additional Bibliography

Garner, Richard L., and Spiro E Stefanou. Economic Growth and Change in Bourbon Mexico. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993.

Grahn, Lance Raymond. The Political Economy of Smuggling: Regional Informal Economies in Early Bourbon New Granada. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

Lozano Armendares, Teresa. El chinguirito vindicado: el contra-bando de aguardiente de caña y la política colonial. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1995.

                                          Lance R. Grahn