Customs of Brazil in the Hispanic Monarchy

Customs is an institution that has as its purpose the collection of taxes related to the entry and exit of goods and the supervision of foreign trade (Fernandes, 2021: 16), since in order to import or export any kind it was necessary to go through customs services. The etymology of the word, according to the Franciscan friar Joaquim Santa Rosa de Viterbo, comes from the Arabs, who called alfandequa a large inn or hostelry where foreign merchants gathered (Viterbo, 1865: 54) and they were charged the royal duties related to the goods they brought with them (Lancastre, 1891: 1). Its objectives were, in addition to the visit and control as it was adopted in the land borders, the collection of customs duties such as the customs tithe, which corresponded to ten percent on the value assigned to the items, the gauging of ships and maritime mortgages and, also, the verification of the ship manifests made in the arrivals and departures of ships (Fernandes, 2019: 14).

From early on, the customs system played an important role in the legitimation of royal power, as the installation of tax collection posts indicated the control of political power over a given territory. Responsible for a valuable source of revenue for the State, it contributed in favor of the consolidation of its power, and its revenues were indispensable for the operation of its administrative machine (Sá, 2016: 116). Moreover, taxes on trade resulted in an efficient form of tax collection and also the least felt by the population and productive sector (Magalhães, 1997: 100). In Portugal, in the 16th century, there was a uniform and harmonious customs structure that was to be reproduced throughout the Empire, ensured by royal officers who obeyed the general laws, the practices of the Royal Treasury and the specific legislative instruments of the customs (Pereira, 1983: 9).

In the very first years of the Philippine government, after the union of the Iberian Crowns, measures were presented that aimed to adjust the mechanisms of political and economic control and to adapt financial management to the new times that were being established. One of the objectives of the Habsburgs in relation to the fiscal area was to establish more agile and adequate ways to homogenize and centralize tax collection. In the wake of these changes, a new charter for Lisbon’s Customs was presented in 1587, which became a parameter for the structuring and operation of all the other customs in the kingdom and in Portuguese America. It replaced the previous one, which was outdated due to the evolution of trade and the opening of new trade routes with the East and West Indies. (Sá, 2016: 40). These routes caused an increase in customs movement in Portugal and the chapters of the old foral, which were outdated, ended up generating a lack of clarity with regard to the application of rules and the customs administration itself (Sá, 2016: 40). In this sense, in order to improve customs administration, King Philip II ordered the vedor da Repartição do Reino, the judges and the officers appointed by him to organize a new charter, with a view to better collection of customs duties and greater control in relation to the dispatches of goods (Sá, 2016: 118). The fiscal rigor that was intended to be implemented was already expressed in the first chapter, to the extent that it was determined that any vessel, both natural of the Kingdom and foreigners, even if in an incidental case, should go to the port where there was customs (Sá, 2016:121). Such determination was not restricted to merchant ships, being extended to warships. The charter also provided for punishments, such as fines, to the owners of establishments that collected and stored goods unloaded illegally from any vessel.

Not only the Lisbon Customs Foral was used to regulate the performance of officials and customs procedures, because the Philippine Ordinances, created by the Habsburgs, also served, in its Title 52 of the first book, for this purpose, since it dealt with the attributions of the position of Customs Judge. This legal compilation aspired to adjust the legal system to the political, social and economic reality that was taking shape in the kingdom as a consequence of the transformations that took place throughout the 16th century, such as the intensification of commercial movement due to colonial exploration. Both in Portugal and in its conquests, Customs had a hierarchical internal structure, with the main officers being the judge ombudsman, the treasurer and the storekeeper. It also functioned as a court, since it was responsible for judging actions involving seamen. According to the Ordenações Filipinas (Philippine Laws), it was the customs judge’s responsibility to hear civil actions brought by any merchants or traders, both natural and foreign, about any dealings and goods, payments or deliveries thereof, and also about possible doubts concerning dealings and goods. It was also his competence to judge the civil and criminal actions of the customs officers, as well as to promote the investigation of possible crimes committed on the customs premises. According to the legislation, this officer should decide on all the wrongdoings committed there, proceeding against the guilty, who could appeal their sentences to the House of Suplication (Philippine Code, 1870: 96). In Portuguese America, customs were established along with the general government and the provedoria-mor da Fazenda. The Regiment given to Antônio Cardoso de Barros (1548), determined the implementation of the overseas fiscal apparatus with norms also intended for the capitanias’ provedores, thus instituting a vertical structure. To help them, they had almoxarifes (purses), escrivães (clerks), meirinhos (bailiffs), and guardas (guards). The main ports that traded with Europe, located in the captaincies of Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, and Pernambuco, had customs houses where the vessels from Europe or other continents, with their goods, had to go. Although each captaincy had its local specificities, in general, the clearance and procedures followed the same parameters. Its officers were provided by the King, and the governors could do it on his behalf, but only in exceptional cases such as impediments or death, until the final appointment was made by the monarch (Sá, 2016: 145). The occupation of a position in this institution conferred to its occupant not only status, but the possibility of participating in trade, which could generate exceptional profits.


Código Philippino ou Ordenações e Leis do Reino de Portugal, por Candido Mendes de Almeida (1870) Rio de Janeiro, Typographia do Instituto Philomáthico.


– Fernandes, V. (2021). A formação e a consolidação das diretrizes alfandegárias no Brasil colonial: Rio de Janeiro (séculos XVI-XVIII). Revista do Instituto Histórico Geográfico Brasileiro, 182,485, 15-38.
– Lancastre. F. S. (1891). As portagens e as alfândegas em Portugal (séculos XII a XVII). Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional.
– Magalhães, J. R. (1997). A Fazenda. En: Mattoso, José. História de Portugal: no alvorecer da modernidade (1480-1620). Lisboa: Estampa.
– Pereira, J. C. (1983). Para a história das alfândegas em Portugal. Lisboa: Universidade Nova de Lisboa.
– Sá, H. C. T. (2016). A alfândega do Rio de Janeiro: da União Ibérica ao fim da Restauração (ca. 1580-ca.1668). (Dissertação de Mestrado). Rio de Janeiro: Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro.
– Viterbo, J. S. (1865). Elucidário das palavras, termos e frases que em Portugal antigamente se usavam. Lisboa: Editor A.J. Fernandes Lopes.


Helena de Cassia Trindade de Sá (Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro)

How to quote this entry:

Helena de Cassia Trindade de Sá. “Customs of Brazil in the Hispanic Monarchy“. In: BRASILHIS Dictionary: Biographic and Thematic Dictionary of Brazil in the Spanish Monarch (1580-1640). Available in: Date of access: 19/07/2024.

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