Customs tithes (Taxes)

Helena Trindade de Sá, Universidade Federal do Estado de Rio de Janeiro

Since the Middle Ages, it was foreseen in feudal relations that vassals had the obligation to provide material and military aid to the lord, thus constituting the first approximation to taxation in modern times (AIDAR,2020:446). The process is related to a structural change in Western society that involved the forms of political domination. The centralization process strengthened certain monarchies , consolidated between the 14th and 16th centuries. In this scenario, the previously isolated kings expanded their power. Monarchies acquired new importance during the course of gradual transformations that ended up conferring “new opportunities for power to the greatest princes” (Elias, 1993:16), who obtained the monopoly of weapons and military force, supported by the tax income of a certain territory (Elias, 1993:21).

The ability to extract material resources from society was paramount to Portugal, where general taxes were instituted, such as the sisa, of county origin, which was levied on mercantile transactions. This type of tax, instituted in Portugal before France and England, allowed the solidification of the dynastic state and the concentration of its powers (Costa, 2020:55). The structure of the finances of this kingdom was essential for the formation of a bureaucratic and military apparatus, which favored maritime expansion. The State benefited from the mercantile increment, through the seas, thanks to customs and was itself a shipowner and merchant (Godinho, 1968:45).

From this activity came the tithe, a tax corresponding to one tenth of the importation of goods to the kingdom and that became, from the 15th to the 19th century, the most important source of revenue for the Crown. In Portuguese America, during the three centuries of colonization, taxation had “a predominant role, either as a resource for extraction or as a field of administrative and political negotiation” (Costa, 2020:59). In the 16th and 17th centuries, the tithes that came from the products of agriculture and livestock constituted one of the basic fiscal pillars of the Crown in Brazil (Carrara; Santiró, 2013: 170). The customs tax, i.e. the tithe from customs, was also another source of resources. With the advantage of being a source of revenue with little or no local political resistance, collected soon after the unloading of goods in ports. It required less effort from the administration than other internal taxes, since, despite smuggling and embezzlement, its liquidity was concentrated in the main ports and in the merchant group (Vasques, 2009).

The Regiment given to the provedor-mor, at the time of the establishment of the General Government, in 1548, determined that the customs of the captaincies should collect tithes on goods destined for them or leaving them. The payment of the tribute was made in the proportion of one for each product. In the case of those who could not pay this way, the collection was in cash, after evaluation by the judge and customs keeper, according to the prices in the land. The goods collected were auctioned publicly and auctioned by the highest bidder, and this operation should be registered by the warehousekeeper in a revenue book with information about the amount of goods sold, their description and the identification of the buyer (Historical Documents, 1929). The goods that could not be evaluated unitarily due to their diminutive size or their little value, should be evaluated together and entered the additions in the revenue book, which would be signed by the merchant in charge; then, the payment of the tax would be executed to the customs treasurer (Sá, 2016:127).

According to the Lisbon Customs Foral, reformulated during the government of King Philip II (of Spain) in 1587, in its chapter 49, the goods belonging to people to whom the monarch had granted privileges were exempt from tithes, being shipped freely. Despite the exemption from paying the tithes, they had to be shipped like the others, passing through the officers and the judge who would make the examination for the proper certification. As they did not generate revenue, so that there would be no doubt, their registration was done in their own book, separate, numbered and signed as the others, but with the caveat that those additions were not paid rights because of the privilege granted to the owner (Sá, 2016:127). Also exempt from tithing were items for personal use, for rent or not intended for sale, accompanied or not by their owners. However, it was necessary to open the trunks and chests or any casing in front of the Customs Bureau for inspection by the officers. If the exemption was confirmed, they could be removed immediately, without the need for any registration (Sá, 2016:127).

The account of the traveler Francisco Soares, who traveled from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1597, with the intention of trading his goods, expresses some of the procedure adopted by the Customs officers of that city. According to him, as soon as his ship anchored in the port, the officers entered the ship in order to verify the registration of the farms brought in and impose the due tribute (Revista do Instituto Histórico Geográfico Brasileiro,1923:151). The letter from the Lord Provider of the Treasury of the State of Brazil, Sebastião Borges, dated December 24, 1614, to the Council of the Treasury, raises doubts about the collection of tithes. According to this official, the masters of the ships, four or five in number, that leaving the kingdom had paid the tithes, when stopping at the port of Salvador, refused to pay the tithes or exit tax to Buenos Aires. In response, the Council stated that, according to the Foral, all ships of the kingdom and lords, which went to America with goods, showing certificates proving payment of tithes in Portugal, would be exempt from customs in Brazil. But if they carried goods from the colony to outside the kingdom, they had to pay the tithe of His Majesty on departure. Likewise, article 8 of the Foral determined that any people who were not from said kingdoms, even if they had paid tithes in Portuguese customs, would have to pay again in their counterparts in the colony. And, from there leaving to other regions, carrying products, they would have to pay the tithe of the exit.

This form of collection of tithing was maintained until the end of the seventeenth century, when it was changed in Rio de Janeiro to increase tax revenue due to the need for resources for the defense of the city and the southern border region of Portuguese America. This change was due to a request from the Conselho Ultramarino (Overseas Council) so that the municipal officials proposed an increase in taxation to pay for expenses. These then offered to levy tithes on all goods, including those originating from the kingdom, which was accepted by King Dom Pedro II (Fernandes, 2019:83). In the early 18th century, King dom João V imposed this model in Pernambuco and Bahia.


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Vasques, Sérgio (2009). A evolução histórica do Estado Fiscal português. Revista Fórum de Direito Tributário. Belo Horizonte, 7, 37, 9-52.

Documentary Reference
AHU, Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino, Avulsos BG, Cx.1, D.3, Lisboa, 1615. Informação do Conselho da Fazenda sobre a carta do provedor-mor da fazenda de Estado do Brasil, Sebastião Borges, acerca dos navios que iam daquele Estado comerciar no Rio da Prata sem pagar a dízima de saída.
Revista do Instituto Histórico Geográfico Brasileiro (1923). Rio de Janeiro, 147, 93.

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