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The Americas 61.2 (2004) 245-256

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British Trade with the Spanish Colonies:
Pedro Ajequiezcane's Letter On commercial Matters (1806)

University of Warwick
Coventry, United Kingdom


In this short letter, first published in a little-known Veracruz gazette in July 1806, Pedro Ajequiezcane sets out to discuss the defects plaguing Spain's system of trade with its American empire.1 In doing so, he presents an unusually broad-based and insightful analysis of the chief factors fuelling the growth of trade between Great Britain and the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean in the final decades of the colonial era.

Nothing is known of Ajequiezcane beyond his name, though he is likely to have been someone closely associated with the Veracruz mercantile community, and possibly wrote under a pseudonym.2 He begins his survey with the late-Bourbon 'Free Trade' legislation, specifically with the great Reglamento del Comercio Libre published in 1778. While acknowledging the positive effects of Free Trade, he is rightly skeptical as to the ability of the program to counter the commercial competition of rival nations. Ajequiezcane next discusses the special permits which proliferated during the [End Page 245] 1780s and which sanctioned trade between the Spanish colonies and neighboring foreign territories. These contracts, whose origins lay in emergency measures taken during the American Revolutionary war, typically licensed the exchange of plantation produce or livestock for agricultural implements and mill machinery. Ajequiezcane's letter focuses upon the special regimes introduced at this time by the crown in Puerto Rico and Trinidad, though the majority of permits of this kind were granted at the provincial or regional level rather than from Madrid. They now spread throughout most of the Spanish colonies, and the resulting trade—often referred to as the comercio de colonias extranjeras ('foreign colonies trade') or simply comercio de colonias—provided a perfect pretext for smuggling by Spanish merchants. The trade, in fact, gave rise to such extensive contraband that in my view it constituted probably the key development in British commerce with the region during the 1780s.

Having hinted at the commercial advantage the British reaped from such permits, Ajequiezcane then offers valuable comments on the system which, I would argue, had the effect of superseding them in many regions a few years later. This was free trade in slaves throughout the Spanish empire, first decreed in 1789 and extended and developed over the following years.3 In essence, this system granted permission to both Spaniards and foreigners to trade freely at each others' ports for slaves. Ajequiezcane suggests that it further facilitated contraband in Spanish vessels, relieving the British of the need to go to the Spanish coasts to trade while giving them effective access to Spanish colonial produce. Cuba played a crucial role in the genesis of the free slave trade, as Ajequiezcane was probably well aware, but he correctly remarks that its effects in fomenting illicit trade were comparable in all the colonies where it was introduced.4 He also observes correctly that, contrary to expectations, trade for slaves by Spaniards directly with Africa failed to thrive, with the business remaining very substantially in foreign hands.

Worthy of note at this point is Ajequiezcane's assertion that, uniquely among the Spanish colonies, Mexico remained largely immune to penetration by foreign commerce until the onset of the Napoleonic wars. This point should certainly not be over-stated, but it does appear to be the case that illicit trade in Mexico remained relatively limited—limited relative to the [End Page 246] scale on which it was carried on in other colonies—until the late 1790s, its development perhaps hindered by factors including the geography of the coast, a stronger domestic economy and closer administrative control. In this sense, my own research suggests that New Spain was the only major colony in the region not to be affected by the permits for trade with foreign colonies which, as Ajequiezcane well understood, became so widespread during the 1780s and 1790s.

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