Contraband in Brazil during the Hispanic Monarchy

Contraband is defined for the first time in the Diccionario de Autoridades (1729) as “contravention of something that is forbidden by proclamation, published by proclamation, in the places or places destined to make public what the Prince wants to be observed, or not to be executed”. To this general definition are added specifications on its application to trade: “what is forbidden to be introduced into these kingdoms, because they are from enemy countries, with which trade is closed”. (Melón Jiménez, 2020:52).

However, it would be advisable to consider the definition offered in the Novísima Recopilación (1760), as it summarises in an exemplary way the essence of this activity and its legal implications: “All smuggling of tobacco, extraction of currency, gold, silver in bars or paste, horses, bulls and cattle, and any fraud that is committed in the duties of Customs, Provincial Revenues, and others that are administered on behalf of my Royal Treasury, must be understood and known under the name of contraband; because it violates the orders that prohibit the introduction or extraction of forbidden things, and usurps the duties that are imposed by laws and Royal provisions on the goods of lawful trade”. (Melón Jiménez, 2020:54)

Smuggling was a common practice in the American territories under Portuguese rule before, during and after the Union of Crowns. The main reason for its success seems to be the geographical component: it was a challenge for both the Castilian and Portuguese Crowns to exercise effective control over the vast territorial extensions in America. In fact, as several historians point out, many traders of different origins (Dutch, Flemish, English) came to the less populated areas of the Brazilian coast. This, together with the collaboration of local settlers, made it possible to carry out merchandise exchanges out of sight of royal officials (Antunes, Post, Salvado, 2016:28-29; Cañón García, 2018:223-224).

In addition, the conditions of the Portuguese licensing system made it easier for many ships, after completing their transactions in Brazil, to sail directly from American territory to different ports in northern Europe, avoiding Lisbon and the payment of customs duties. This would be the case of sugar, one of the major products extracted in Brazil during the period, and a highly valued commodity in European markets. According to Portuguese institutions, the extraction and transportation of sugar was open to any entrepreneur, regardless of its origin. Once extracted, the Crown required the vessels transporting it to Europe to pass through a Portuguese port to pay the corresponding taxes. However, as indicated above, the control of such navigation was very complicated, so that traders could often direct their cargoes directly to other ports without suffering major consequences (Ebert, 2008: 39-40, 135-136).

The aforementioned flexibility in navigation was part of a larger phenomenon: the frequent transfers of ships and cargoes that took place between the different Atlantic trade circuits (Ebert, 2008: 139-140; Silva, 2012:154,160; Wheat, 2015).

An exception, at least in theory, was represented by the brazilwood. The extraction and transport of this dyewood was placed under the monopoly of the Portuguese Crown from very early on. The Crown exploited it through the royal officials established in Brazil, although it could also cede part of the monopoly to private entrepreneurs. However, transport was restricted from Brazil to the port of Lisbon, where the officers of the Casa da Índia had the task of supervising that the ships did not bring more than the amount of wood authorised by the licences. (Antunes, Post, Salvado, 2016: 26-27, 30) This worked in theory, as in practice throughout the sixty years that the union lasted there were frequent mentions of voyages of vessels laden with palo brasil from the Brazilian coast directly to European ports without passing through Lisbon. (Ebert, 2008: 133; Cañón García, 2018: 222-223)

Other common fraudulent strategies were the renaming of ships after their departure, the altering of ship’s books, and even the production of false books in parallel. But perhaps the most popular and difficult practices to prosecute were malicious arrivals. These consisted of diverting the vessel from its original course and docking in an unpopulated area of the coast or in a port for which it was not licensed. If the authorities intervened, the master of the ship would justify the arrival due to storm repairs or attack by pirates/enemies. During their stay, multiple unregistered goods and passengers were disembarked without informing the authorities or paying duties, and introduced into the inland markets of the region. (Canabrava, 1984:27; Cañón García, 2020: 220).

The smuggling carried out between the captaincies of southern Brazil and the Río de la Plata region deserves special mention. Trade exchanges between the Castilian and Portuguese enclaves in the area were already taking place during the previous decades, but were multiplied during the Union of Crowns. This led to repeated complaints from royal officials and the publication of laws to limit such relations. However, it did not prevent the continuation of smuggling through the port of Buenos Aires and other alternative routes, such as the Forbidden Road in the Guairá region (present-day Paraguay). (Canabrava, 1984; Vilardaga, 2010).

The inability to prevent these smuggling operations was largely due to the extensive personal networks built up among the inhabitants of these settlements, as well as with members of other economic centres in Europe. These networks and their activities prospered because they developed alternative inter- and intra-regional circuits to the official ones (Alencastro, 2002). But a major economic activity that influenced this development was the provision of labour for the large Castilian mining centres in Potosí. Thus, Portuguese, and other traders introduced African slaves through the aforementioned routes, taking them to the mining centres. In exchange, they obtained silver and gold, metals coveted for trade operations with European and Asian markets (Cañón García, 2020: 219-220).

All in all, it was extremely difficult to keep track of all the vessels, their cargoes, and passengers. This has left historians so far with small scraps of information and estimates that illustrate the presence of smuggling in Brazil in the Hispanic Monarchy, but which do not allow us to affirm the real volume that this activity had in the Atlantic trade.


– Alencastro, L.F. (2002). O trato dos viventes: formação do Brasil no Atlântico Sul. São Paulo: Companhia das letras.

– Antunes, C.; Post, R.; Salvado, J.P. (2016). Het omzeilen van monopoliehandel: Smokkel en belastingontduiking bij de handel in brazielhout, 1500-1674, TSEG, 13, 1, 23-52.

– Canabrava, A.P. (1984). O Comércio Português no Rio da Prata (1580-1640). Belo Horizonte: Ed. Itatiaia; São Paulo: Ed. da Universidade de São Paulo.

– Cañón García, P. (2018). El comercio ilícito en los dominios americanos de la Monarquía Hispánica durante la Unión de Coronas: una propuesta de análisis a partir del estudio de las redes y su circulación. En Andújar Castillo, F.; Ponce Leiva, P. (Coords.). Debates sobre la corrupción en el Mundo Ibérico, siglos XVI-XVIII. Alicante: Biblioteca Digital Miguel de Cervantes.

– Cañón García, P. (2020). Interacciones entre los circuitos comerciales del atlántico durante la unión de coronas (1580-1640) a través del estudio de redes mercantiles y la circulación de sus miembros. En Santos Pérez, J.M. [et al.], (Eds.). Redes y circulación en Brasil durante la Monarquía Hispánica (1580-1640). Madrid: Sílex.

– Ebert, C. (2008). Between Empires: Brazilian Sugar in the Early Atlantic Economy, 1550-1630. Leiden/Boston: Brill.

– Melón Jiménez, M.A. (2020). Comerciar en la Edad Moderna. Nuevas perspectivas de investigación sobre el mundo de los negocios y las prácticas ilegales. En Iglesias Rodríguez, J.J.; Melero Muñoz, I.M. (Coords.). Hacer Historia Moderna: Líneas actuales y futuras de investigación, Sevilla: Universidad de Sevilla.

– Silva, J.G.F. (2012). Cristãos-Novos no negócio da Capitania de Pernambuco: relacionamentos, continuidades e rupturas nas redes de comércio entre os anos de 1580 e 1630 (tese de Doutorado). Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, CFCH, Recife.

– Vilardaga, J. C. (2010). São Paulo na órbita do império dos Felipes: conexões castelhanas de uma vila da América portuguesa durante a União Ibérica (1580- 1640) (Tese de Doutorado). Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo.

– Wheat, D. (2015). Global Transit Points and Travel in the Iberian Maritime World, 1580-1640. En Mancall, P.C.; Shammas, C. (Eds.). Governing the Sea in the Early Modern Era: Essays in Honor of Robert C. Ritchie. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library.


Pablo Cañón (European University Institute)

How to quote this entry:

Pablo Cañón García. “Contraband in Brazil during the Hispanic Monarchy“. In: BRASILHIS Dictionary: Biographic and Thematic Dictionary of Brazil in the Spanish Monarch (1580-1640). Available in: Date of access: 29/05/2024.

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