Roundtable Smuggling in the Early Modern Atlantic World

AHA Session 281
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room 208 (Hynes Convention Center)
Wim Klooster, Clark University
Kenneth J. Banks, Wofford College , Jesse Cromwell, University of Texas at Austin , Christian Koot, Towson University , Michael Kwass, University of Georgia and Thomas Truxes, New York University

Session Abstract

Evidence of illicit commerce in the early modern Atlantic world abounds. Admiralty proceedings, the correspondence and account books of merchants, customs reports, petitions, and inaccuracies in bills of lading all testify to merchants' ability to trade where they pleased and to avoid duties in the process. Yet for decades many scholars considered such evidence to be exaggerated—the wailings of over-industrious administrators trying to justify their positions—or unrepresentative of the majority of trade and thus only of minor importance. In the last few decades, however, as scholars have endeavored to describe the workings of the Atlantic economy with ever more precision, it has become clear that illegal trade was a major feature of eighteenth-century commerce. Historians of Britain and France, for example, have demonstrated that smuggling, not just of luxury goods but also of tobacco, tea, and other imports, was common throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Spanish America it was much the same, with English, Dutch, and Portuguese traders collaborating to move gold, cacao, and other goods off of the Spanish Main in return for Europeans goods of all kinds. The Eastern Caribbean was an especially active arena of illicit trade where even warfare did not disturb illegal exchanges between British and French colonists, with the Dutch and Danes acting as important participants and facilitators. In the process of uncovering such illegal trade many scholars have assumed that the central impetus behind smugglers' exchanges was economic: the desire for profit and a willingness to defy the law to secure the best commercial opportunities wherever they lay. But were such attitudes at the root of all smuggling? Was it only self-interest that drove illicit trade? After all, many early modern merchants, especially those living in the colonies, viewed smuggling not as a crime against “the laws of nature,” but as necessary adaptations to what they saw as arbitrary commercial restrictions designed to enrich metropolitan coffers. As Adam Smith remarked in 1776, the smuggler was “in every respect, an excellent citizen, had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so.” This panel attempts to address these questions by moving the discussion of illicit commerce beyond circuits of goods to the ideas and attitudes of those who participated in underground trade. It therefore explores not only the practices of clandestine trade but contemporary understandings of law, criminality, mercantilism, and Empire. With five brief (ten minute) papers based on original research in a round-table setting our panel unites both sides of the Atlantic, encompassing three of the four continents that sea brings together, and nearly all of the major European empires of the eighteenth century—British, French, Dutch, and Spanish. This geographic scope offers a rare opportunity to bring vastly different perspectives to bear on the meaning of illicit trade in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.

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