Illicit Crossings: Transimperial Trade in the Caribbean Maritime Borderlands, 1763–1810

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 11:30 AM
Central Park West (Sheraton New York)
Daniel Velasquez, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In the second half of the eighteenth century, the extension of Spanish rule in Louisiana, British rule over Florida, the Haitian and American Revolutions, and other geopolitical shifts caused displacements or opened opportunities for movement in the Greater Caribbean. At the same time, Spanish Bourbon reformers sought to lift trade restrictions while strengthening the state’s extractive power. The result was a patchwork of laws, created at different levels of Spanish authority, that unevenly regulated inter-colonial and transimperial trade in the empire; a situation that Spanish, British and other merchants exploited to cross imperial lines for economic gain. I trace and analyze the numerous methods employed by the merchants operating in this context, including bundling illicit goods within legal consignments, purchasing vessels of neutral countries to gain access to enemy ports, making unregistered shipping stops, using mail ships, exchanging licenses for transimperial trade for services and loans to the government, and even an elaborate scheme to make British Pensacola the conduit of cash remittances going from Mexico to Europe.

This entwined legal and illegal trade made the port cities of the Gulf of Mexico important nodes in transimperial networks that linked the Gulf South with the Spanish Caribbean. Such practices funneled British manufactures to New Spain, enslaved Africans from Jamaica to New Orleans, Mexican cochineal to British West Florida, Cuban crops to the United States, and Native pelts down the Mississippi River and to Britain, despite the vigilance and threat of severe punishment from Spanish and British customs agents (or in some cases with their assistance). The merchants’ activities certainly questioned the exercise of imperial sovereignty on maritime commerce and often resulted in imperial conflicts or diplomatic fallout; yet, they constantly displayed monarchical loyalties and were crucial in helping to sustain the colonial economies and maintaining Spanish-Native alliances during tumultuous times.

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