Itinerancy and Smuggling. Three Spanish Officials and the Fight against Contraband Trade in the Caribbean from 1740 to 1780

It is not possible to understand the history of colonial Hispanic America without smuggling. Current trends in historiography, especially those focused on the Caribbean islands and mainland, have highlighted the strong relationship between smugglers, legitimate merchants, permanent inhabitants, and officials. Smuggling relevance extended beyond maritime ports and their hinterlands, and went through the rivers till the more recondits places between mountains and forest, where people from the most diverse origins acquired and sold products restricted or taxed by the crown. Similarly as today coca fleas, during the 18th-century tobacco plants were subrepticialy produced and sold to legitimate and illegitimate merchants, who smuggled the product to the nearest maritime port. In the same way, several products, and even people, were distributed throughout this network, alongside the regulated trade.

Most recent historiography interprets smuggling as a key to understand the early globalization process, as illicit trade overcame imperial constraints and built an intricate transimperial network that linked almost all inhabitants of America and Asia. Accordingly with this interpretation, american residents woven a net of relations that challenged Crowns monopolistic aspirations.  In that order, smuggling could be understood as resistance instead of criminality or disorder

On the other hand, the correlation between officials in charge of monitoring illicit trade and trafficking networks has been widely interpreted as a supportive relationship, at best permissive, with smuggling. Connection between officials and smugglers is understood in terms of corruption. Nonetheless, corruption needs to be interpreted beyond the strictly legal frame built around the imperial legislation. Corruption was a moral violation that could be associated with crimes against the majesty (lesa majestad) like treason, bribery or fraud. The line between corruption and government was blurry in some aspects, like giving favours to some people or groups to maintain the peace (avoiding confrontation) or reward their merits (like being a member of a prestigious family)

When Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa wrote their famous report about the status of hispanic government in South America, they remarked this relationship between uncontrollable illicit trade and unreliable authorities. Although is unfair to consider that authorities during austrians regime where more permissive with smuggling and corruption than those under the borbonic rule, truth is that during the eighteenth century the relationship with americans territories, at least during the early reformist period, was reshaped around the idea of eliminate smuggling, punish “corruption”, strength the royal authority overseas, and increase the defending military capabilities, specially (but not exclusively) around the Caribbean Sea. 

The idea of good government was still valid during the eighteenth century, but it changed with the aspirations from the new royal house, and their ambitious entourage. This new political environment was a great opportunity to some families that aspired for a position into the nobility or the increase of their prestige and wealth. Either as an image, or because they really wanted it to, various officers assumed a position of high zeal in serving the King. Both in the colonies and on the peninsula, these officials wanted to show that they were not interested in replicating the corruption networks, permeated by smuggling, of their predecessors.

Three of these officials were Dionisio de Alsedo y Herrera, Felipe Font de Viela y Ondeano, and Antonio de Arévalo. They, and others like them, built their careers around the image of being extremely rigorous against smuggling in several places and positions in colonial Hispanic America. Some of them just failed in this attempt of being recognized as value officials; some failed in the illicit traffic “temptation”, others failed to fight against the strong networks of smugglers, another simply cannot engage with the network of influence connected with the Crown. Nonetheless, the experiences from these “secondary” officials is highly valuable to understand the complexity of the government of the Indies during the eighteenth century.

Do Not Negotiate with Smugglers

Usually, local authorities negotiated with smugglers, especially those successful enough to buy some pardon. With Felipe V, this policy was limited and in 1725 was explicitly banned. This decree is an indicator of a renewed attitude of the Crown against smugglers, in particular, against english and dutch caribbean traffickers. Dionisio de Alsedo y Herrera was formed in this environment of opposition to smuggling. Being still a young man, with less than twenty years, Alsedo began his Indian career as part of the entourage of the viceroy of Peru, the Marquis of Castelldosrius, in 1706. The encounter with the Indies was not entirely friendly. He fell ill in Cartagena, tried to return to Spain and the ship in which he intended to return was attacked, and he had to go to Peru descending the Magdalena River and crossing mountain knots.

Alsedo traveled through different parts of the Indies and held secondary positions as a military officer and secretary of officers. During this journey, he knew Acapulco, Jamaica (as a prisoner), Veracruz, La Habana, Lima, Cartagena, Santa Fe, Popayán and Quito. Alsedo managed to build an intricate network that was intertwined between Spain and South America. His marriage to a Cartagena woman is evidence of his ties with America, but it was even more so when he obtained the presidency of the Audiencia of Quito in 1728.

At the time of assuming the presidency, Quito was a center for smuggling that went from Mexico and Panama to Lima. In addition, the kingdom was going through a crisis in the production of textile manufactures and in the cocoa trade, prohibited since the creation of the Guipuzcoana company in 1722. Alsedo’s presidency in Quito wanted to show an implacable government, especially against smugglers and scammers of the Royal Treasury. However, this attitude was accompanied by the strengthening of their relationships with influential religious and political agents in Lima, Quito and Popayán. These networks were put into action when Alsedo denounced his successor, José de Araujo, of being in league with the smugglers of Acapulco. This complaint, which in principle is shown as a political move by Alsedo against his successor, was corroborated by the merchants of Quito and by Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa.

Alsedo’s networks and the prestige acquired by his presidency in Quito, led him to get a new position in the Indies, this time in Panama. At the time of his arrival in Panama, one of the main sources of illegal traffic was handled by the smuggling confederations of Natá and Penonomé, in the province of Veraguas. These organizations represented an advanced expression of smuggling, as they ensured dominance over a privileged route that evaded the trans-isthmic passage between Portobelo and Panama, thanks to the men and weapons with which the river mouths were protected, in addition to the exclusive knowledge of windings of rivers and mountain passes. In addition, the wealth derived from the use of this route made it possible to extend the networks of friendship to officials and magistrates of the Court, and indirectly to the kingdoms of Quito and Peru, the main destinations of the contraband goods that were trafficked in the Caribbean.

Initially, Alsedo tried to apply a moderate strategy that sought to attract members of the companies with a pardon. But after several attempts to weaken them, Alsedo decided to take a more radical position, pardoning deserting soldiers, who rallied together as a regular troop, and went in to attack the smugglers at their own bases.

This position of Alsedo against the smugglers generated great enmity among the oidores of Panama, who denounced him before the Council of the Indies as a facilitator of illicit trade. But instead of forcing Alsedo’s withdrawal, a change in the relationship with the smugglers became apparent thereafter. There was no longer a justification for smuggling, now they were directly accused of traitors and conspirators.

The complaint from the Panamanian judges, however, had quite serious effects on Alsedo, since it practically paralyzed his career. Back in Spain, Alsedo spent the following decades writing his works on the kingdoms of Panama and Quito, although in terms of his career, he did not manage to access a new position.

Caracas was another jurisdiction with a strong presence of illicit traders. Its main product to interchange was the cocoa, which was sold in exchange for slaves, tobacco, salt, and silver. Cocoa was well produced in the hinterlands of Caracas port, but the profits for its sales depended on the prices imposed by the Guipuzcoa Company, established with the purpose to diversify the commerce with american colonies, and fight against illicit trade. Nonetheless, the Dutch settled on the island of Curaçao were able to establish a strong relation with cocoa producers from the regions of Maracaibo and Venezuela based on credits. In 1771, Felipe Font de Viela, marquis de la Torre was posted to governor of the province of Caracas. It is possible that this rising officer saw the Caracas post as a chance to prove his worth in order to be transferred to a more prestigious position, and one of the ways to prove it was through the attack of smuggling.

The strategy chosen by Font de Viela in Caracas was a mix of rigour and clemency, an usual tactic of governors against rebels. Accordingly with venezuelan erudite Luis Alberto Sucre, this official punished so many people that he had to grant a pardon to avoid residents rioting. Although it is very possible that Sucre’s interpretation was exaggerated, it is clear that Font de Viela desired to leave a mark that he could show off in Spain around his campaign against smuggling.  About the pardon, Font de Viela made a detailed report to the Indies Council where he justifies his strategy arguing that it would be impossible to punish those associated with the smuggling, which basically represent all residents of the province. Besides, there were many members of respectable families involved in the illicit trade, so it would be better to use clemency to lure them into the service of the king, without damaging their “honor, probity and reputable conduct”

Another point in favor of his strategy was to condition the pardon in exchange for financial compensation, that is, that grace could be obtained for a sum of money. The precedent for suggesting this strategy was a royal pardon granted by Martín de Lardizábal, governor of Caracas, in 1736. This had two advantages: on the one hand, selecting only those richest smugglers within the pardon, and secondly, recovering in part of the deficiencies of the Royal Treasury in the province. Font de Viela presumed his achievements in this regard with a total amount of 160 pardoned people and nearly 20 thousand pesos recovered to the Royal Treasury. 

Service of Font de Viela in Caracas was short. Within a few months, he was sent to serve as governor of Cuba, a position with greater prestige than the previous one. His first task in La Habana was to keep the growth of tobacco production boosted by his predecessor with the creation of a factory that favoured farmers with punctual payments and lower prices in the acquisition of slaves. Apparently, he imposed a policy of zero tolerance with tobacco smuggling, so much so, that his first term of government was baptized as the “years of peace”. Paradoxically, the increase in production led to the creation of an oversupply of tobacco in Spain, which is why sales of tobacco products were limited for a certain time. Nevertheless, these restrictions were supplied by loans granted to the company with which it was capable to pay the producers for its harvests. 

At the end of his term, Font de Viela did not even discuss smuggling in his government memory. It barely made it clear at one point that it was protecting ports by preventing the entry of vessels from neighboring foreign islands, and in no case did he allow communication with island residents. Was smuggling eradicated from Cuba during the Font de Viela government? Doubtelly.  But it is possible to glimpse that the fight against smuggling had lost that centrality that it had in the first half of the 18th century. Fon de Viela remarks in his government memories the reduction of homicides, bribery, and other felonies; also highlights the order imposed on La Habana citizens. During the decade of 1770 the Crown focused less on fighting against the illicit trade and more on reforming the militia, building better defences, ordering the american residents, and protecting commerce. By the end of the next decade, smuggling was again a relevant topic for imperial politics. Although wasn’t in the same way as during the reigns of Felipe V and Fernando VI.

Finally, Antonio de Arévalo, a well-known military engineer in charge of the fortification of Cartagena. This officer was entrusted with two pacification tasks: La Guajira and El Darién. In both cases, Arévalo’s strategy was to build military forts to control the distribution of illicit trade among Spaniards, foreigners, and indigenous people; in particular the smuggling of weapons. Although the original strategy of Arévalo was framed in the repression and annihilation of the rebellious natives, quickly the captain had to moderate his positions to carry out his plan. Although the original strategy of Arévalo was framed in the repression and annihilation of the rebellious natives, quickly the captain had to moderate his positions to carry out his plan. Arévalo’s moderate achievements in pacifying the Indians and in the apparent decrease in smuggling allowed him to continue his career as a military engineer. Although, as happened with Font de Viela, the fight against smuggling went into the background, to be more relevant knowledge of the territory and the strengthening of military defenses.


The journey of these three officers in the extensive space of Spanish America during the 18th century shows how they managed to take advantage of the Crown’s anti-smuggling policy to boost their careers. Either out of true conviction, or out of a personal interest in ascending socially, these officers endeavored to demonstrate to the Crown their honesty, honor, and ability for the government; rather than forging alliances with the smuggling networks that shaped the colonial American economy.


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Cite este artículo: Jairo Antonio Melo Flórez, "Itinerancy and Smuggling. Three Spanish Officials and the Fight against Contraband Trade in the Caribbean from 1740 to 1780," en Historia, crimen y justicia, 14/04/2021,

Jairo Antonio Melo Flórez

Doctor en Historia por El Colegio de Michoacán, Magister en Historia e Historiador por la Universidad Industrial de Santander (COL); experto profesional en e-Learning 2.0 por la Universidad Camilo José Cela. Me especializo en la Historia del Crimen y la Justicia. Realizo además exploraciones en Historia Digital e Historia Pública. Integrante del Grupo de investigaciones históricas sobre el Estado nacional colombiano (Colciencias). Actualmente, Jefe de Departamento de Desarrollo MOOC en la CUAIEED/UNAM

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