- The Smugglers’ World: Illicit Trade and Atlantic Communities in Eighteenth-Century Venezuela by Jesse Cromwell
Although Jesse Cromwell begins and ends this book with the rebellion of Juan Francisco de León in mid eighteenth-century Venezuela, this book is not about an obscure uprising in a peripheral province of Spanish America. Rather it is a social and cultural portrait of the extra-legal trade in the southern Caribbean. As Cromwell tells it, eighteenth-century Venezuelans almost had to engage in smuggling. Spain channeled its cross-Atlantic [End Page 483] commerce along set trade routes to guarantee the uninterrupted flow of bullion. Ships then sailed from central colonial ports with European trade goods to the outer edges of the empire, including Venezuela. Those outer edges initially produced little of value; therefore, all that was left for them were scraps at exorbitant prices.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, Venezuela was producing a cash crop—cocoa. Without legal access to the quantity and quality of the European goods they desired, Venezuelans traded illegally with the Dutch, English, French, Danish, and whoever could supply them with what they wanted. Despite a commitment to the Spanish crown, these smugglers came to think that they had a right to trade outside the bounds of the empire. That belief came into sharp relief as the new Bourbon monarchy sought to regain control of Venezuelan commerce through the creation of the Caracas Company, chartered to a group of Basque investors who now traded directly to Spain and who created a local private coast guard to patrol against smuggling.
The ensuing conflict created the treasure trove of documents mined by Cromwell to trace a complex set of relationships and thereby illuminate the smugglers’ world. Cromwell explores the variety of experiences of those involved in contraband trade. Foreign smugglers were neither pirates nor an international proletariat, despite being recruited from many nations and often coming from the margins of society. Sometimes they acted in concert with the larger imperial aims of their “home” nation. Most often they were simply seeking to maximize profits. Sometimes they used threats and violence to carry out their enterprise. Usually, they relied on personal connections throughout the Atlantic world and across the Venezuelan coast to sustain their activities. All levels of Venezuelan society engaged in contraband trade, from the richest merchants to the poorest street vendors. Cromwell also details the involvement of local officials—the very men who were supposed to enforce imperial trade regulations—who took bribes and were often deeply steeped in smuggling themselves. Afro-Venezuelans, too, engaged in illicit trade, served as sailors aboard smuggling vessels, and were, as enslaved beings, at times themselves part of a contraband cargo.
Cromwell places his analysis within a specific Bourbon historical context. Thus, he traces the intrusion of the Basques of the Caracas Company into the region as part of the first efforts by the Bourbons to gain better control of the region and shows how the demise of that company came not from internal upheaval like the León uprising, but from the Bourbon Reforms of the late eighteenth century that encouraged free trade within the Spanish realm. What emerges is a wonderful story of how the Spanish Empire worked and did not work in eighteenth-century Venezuela. We see that people in the past are full of contradictions and do not always fit the neat categories created by historians. The smugglers of Venezuela rejected the Caracas Company charted by the monarchy as a means to reassert mercantilist control, while proclaiming allegiance to the crown. Venezuelans espoused a local moral economy that asserted the right to protect [End Page 484] community interests, while pursuing commercial practices that embraced ideas of free trade more akin to a market economy.
University of Oklahoma