The Smugglers' World

Illicit Trade and Atlantic Communities in Eighteenth-Century Venezuela

By Jesse Cromwell

336 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 11 halftones, 4 maps, notes, index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3688-7
    Published: December 2018
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-3691-7
    Published: November 2018

Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press

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The Smugglers' World examines a critical part of Atlantic trade for a neglected corner of the Spanish Empire. Testimonies of smugglers, buyers, and royal officials found in Venezuelan prize court records reveal a colony enmeshed in covert commerce. Forsaken by the Spanish fleet system, Venezuelan colonists struggled to obtain European foods and goods. They found a solution in exchanging cacao, a coveted luxury, for the necessities of life provided by contrabandists from the Dutch, English, and French Caribbean.

Jesse Cromwell paints a vivid picture of the lives of littoral peoples who normalized their subversions of imperial law. Yet laws and borders began to matter when the Spanish state cracked down on illicit commerce in the 1720s as part of early Bourbon reforms. Now successful merchants could become convict laborers just as easily as enslaved Africans could become free traders along the unruly coastlines of the Spanish Main. Smuggling became more than an economic transaction or imperial worry; persistent local need elevated the practice to a communal ethos, and Venezuelans defended their commercial autonomy through passive measures and even violent political protests. Negotiations between the Spanish state and its subjects over smuggling formed a key part of empire making and maintenance in the eighteenth century.

About the Author

Jesse Cromwell is associate professor of history at the University of Mississippi.
For more information about Jesse Cromwell, visit the Author Page.

Reviews

"In this deeply researched and theoretically sophisticated history of smuggling and its enemies, Jesse Cromwell brings tacitly accepted illicit trade into sharp and dramatic relief. Venezuelans of all types found a sense of 'community in criminality' by resisting state actors' attempts to monopolize local cacao. This novel argument adds much to the new history of corruption in the Iberian empires and to the Bourbon reforms and their consequences. It also says a lot about that old devil, chocolate."--Kris E. Lane, Tulane University

"Jesse Cromwell’s wonderful new book is a beautifully written study of the multinational and multiracial smuggling networks of the circum-Caribbean. As he shows, long-neglected and under-provisioned peripheries of the Spanish Empire over time established a moral economy that normalized smuggling despite the sometimes harsh consequences. The Smugglers’ World will be a welcome addition to my Atlantic World courses."--Jane Landers, Vanderbilt University

"A fascinating investigation of the murky world of contraband commerce. Illicit trade flourished in early modern Venezuela; it was commonplace, normative, mundane, part of the ordinary fabric of life. Cromwell's insightful book is a tour de force exploration of clandestine, covert, interimperial trade."--Philip D. Morgan, Johns Hopkins University

"This masterful social history traces elite Europeans’ love of chocolate to its main South American source. Cromwell brings colonial Venezuela out of obscurity and offers powerful insights about the negotiated character of empires and the centrality of smuggling to a multitude of Americans: lowly enslaved producers, interloping French, Dutch, and British merchants funneling cacao into transatlantic networks, and Spanish officials who strove in vain to enforce mercantilist ideals. Within a comparative Atlantic framing, Cromwell’s Venezuelans make 1770s Bostonians look like honest, peaceful, law-abiding subjects and Bermudians only slightly crooked."--Michael J. Jarvis, University of Rochester