A Question of Contraband: The Old Colonial Trade

C.R. Boxer describes how the Spanish and Portuguese empires were troubled by smugglers and interlopers on the high seas.

Estimates concerning the volume of contraband and smuggling trade must necessarily be largely guesswork, since we can expect no long runs of reliable statistics, but only sporadic mentions of seizures by Customs officers, or allegations made by informers and government officials of varying reliability.

Nevertheless, it is easy to adduce enough examples of the scope and ubiquity of clandestine trading to show that official figures for imports and exports should often be treated with the greatest reserve. This article will deal with conditions in the Portuguese and Spanish colonial empires, since these are likely to be less familiar to readers than those relating to the English and French colonial trades during the old regime.

The oldest of the modern European maritime empires was bedevilled from its inception by the conflict between monopolists and engrossers on the one hand and smugglers and contraband-traders on the other. The fifteenth-century Portuguese voyages of exploration, trade, and settlement along the West African coast were carried out from the days of Prince Henry the Navigator under the auspices of the Crown or of its nominees.

The Portuguese Crown’s exclusive monopoly of the West African trade was confirmed by a series of Papal Briefs and Bulls, of which the most explicit and detailed was the Romanus Pontifex of January 8th, 1456. All other nations were strictly prohibited from infringing or interfering in any way with the Portuguese monopoly of discovery, commerce, and conquest along the West African coast ‘and southward to the Indies’. Despite this explicit Papal endorsement of Portuguese claims, they were vigorously challenged by the Spaniards in West Africa between 1454 and 1480.

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