Spanish colonization in the Americas unleashed numerous historical processes. One of those was the struggle for control of the seas, specifically the sailing routes and the trade networks. The Spanish crown was proclaimed the only legitimate sovereign power over the territories then known as the Indies, protected by the papal bulls issued by Alexander VI in 1493. Puerto Rico was among those Spanish domains and it was part of a Caribbean in which practices of smuggling and piracy were very common.

During the 17th century, Puerto Rico was a key piece in the conflicts that developed in the Caribbean. Events and processes such as the 80 Years War (1568-1648) and the English Revolution (1640) had an impact on the Caribbean region, and therefore on the island. During the course of the 17thcentury, the Spanish crown, dominated by the Habsburgs, had to accept the reality that other powers would challenge their hegemony in the Indies. Expeditions were sent from various points in the region with Puerto Rico as their target.

Trade and travel in Puerto Rico, as well as in the other Spanish colonies in the Americas, was regulated by the House of Trade. This institution, founded in 1503, was based in Seville and its main responsibilities were to control trans-Atlantic trade and the flow of passengers to the Indies. In that sense, under the Spanish judicial code in the Americas, trade relations between Spain and Puerto Rico were supervised and restricted by the House of Trade. The regulations put into effect by this colonial institution, along with the Royal Treasury, required specific mechanisms to protect the interests of the crown. Taxes were compulsory for legitimate trade in colonies such as Puerto Rico. One of the tariffs applied to products that arrived to the island was called the almojarifazgo and was paid on the entrance and exit of the port. These taxes had the result of making imported products more expensive. Therefore, beginning in the 16th century, people in various social strata turned to smuggling to avoid the high prices caused by the House of Trade controls.

Smuggling consisted of all transactions that were outside the rules of the House of Trade. Among the various forms of illegal trade was the falsification of registries. This consisted of transporting merchandise or cargo beyond what was registered with the House of Trade.

In addition to the smuggling that took place within Spanish shipping, there were many traders involved with other European powers. During the 17th century, the Dutch were very active in Caribbean maritime trade. The uprising of the Seven United Provinces against the Habsburg regime, historically known as the Eighty Years War, led to multiple maritime expeditions to the Caribbean. Hundreds of Dutch ships entered the waters of the region and flouted the Spanish crown’s claim to exclusive rights to sail and trade there. With the creation of the Dutch West India Company in 1621, the Dutch began a period of aggressive trade and war in Caribbean waters. Puerto Rico felt the effects of the rivalry between the crown and so-called Dutch rebels on September 24, 1625. That day, the fleet commanded by corsair Balduino Enrico, and commissioned by the Dutch West India Company, arrived at San Juan. After Juan de Haro, then the governor of Puerto Rico, refused his demand that the military post be surrendered, he burned the city of San Juan.

The Dutch role in the Caribbean was not limited to violent episodes. After the conquest of the island of Curacao in 1634, ships from the Netherlands sailed the coasts of the Spanish colonies in search of possible buyers for their merchandise. Over the course of the century, Dutch ships like these frequented Puerto Rico and carried out trade beyond the regulations of the House of Trade. In those cases, residents of the island exchanged local products, such as produce and livestock, in exchange for merchandise from Europe. In this way, certain groups living in Puerto Rico gained access to goods that the restricted official Spanish trade did not provide.

At the same time, the English Revolution of 1640 led to the presence of other ships that fought the maritime trade exclusivity defended by the Spanish crown. The capture of the island of Jamaica in 1655, as part of the offensives ordered by Oliver Cromwell, led to a drastic transformation in the Caribbean. With respect to Puerto Rico, numerous ships left Jamaica and transported slaves. Documentation from the era shows that along the southern coast of Puerto Rico, slaves were traded for locally produced products. Also, on repeated occasions, ships commanded by English pirates and corsairs set traps for ships that sailed from the ports of San Juan and San Germán.

Pirates, corsairs and smuggling led to the disappearance of Spanish hegemony in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico was immersed in a setting that served as a stage for disputes among European empires. Beyond the violent episodes, however, there were moments of coexistence and negotiation. The trade with the Dutch and the English during the 17th century was testament to how various members of Puerto Rican colonial society sought to meet their needs, in their own interests.


Author: Dorian López León
Published: June 17, 2015.

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