Contraband Trade Networks in Early 18th-Century Spanish Florida

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Diana Reigelsperger, Seminole State College
Located at the crossroads of empires, colonial Spanish Florida served as a point of transit for people and goods moving through North America and the Caribbean. During the early 18th century, Florida’s population grew primarily through immigration. Lacking profitable export commodities, many of Florida’s immigrants came to take advantage of a space with the diversity of a port city and the desperation of a frontier town in need of labor, capital, and security. By the early eighteenth century multi-ethnic neighborhoods composed of many different Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans had formed on the fringes of the capital city, St. Augustine.

As commercial enterprises expanded in Havana as well as in the British colonies to the north, opportunities for trade grew. Trans-imperial commerce in Florida thrived in both legal and illicit forms. Even as the War of Jenkin’s Ear raged around Florida’s waters, friendly trade continued secretly, alongside war and privateering. By the 1750s, a number of men had been caught and prosecuted as would-be smugglers, transporting everything from silks to slaves between English, Spanish, and French colonies.

This paper argues that the trade, particularly illicit trade, serves as an important counterpoint to the history of Florida frequently studied from the perspective of political and military conflicts in the colonial southeast. Residents of Florida kept open the lines of trade and smuggling whether they aligned with imperial policies or not- although war was a good excuse not to pay debts owed to British merchants. Despite, or perhaps because of its reputation as a theater of constant, low-level war, Floridians and their neighbors treated the colony as a place through which trade goods and people might be transported without arousing the attention of the more formal mechanisms of imperial power, particularly the customs house.

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