In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Smuggling

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Research Tools and Databases
  • Portugal and Portuguese America
  • Dutch America
  • France and French America
  • The Early Republic of the United States
  • The Illegal Slave Trade
  • Book Smuggling
  • Smuggling Asian Goods to the Atlantic

Atlantic History Smuggling
Mark G. Hanna
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0197


Most historians agree that smuggling was prevalent throughout the Atlantic World during the early modern period, but few have made it a central focus of their work. As European powers attempted to establish coherent imperial economies, they sought ways to control the trade of their own as well as foreign shipping while expanding state revenues through taxation. During most of the 16th to 18th centuries, ambitious attempts to constrain, delimit, or monopolize specific areas of commerce were rarely bolstered by sufficient power to back up those policies. Early modern smuggling is connected in many ways to the history of state regulations of commerce, what historians once called “mercantilism.” Smuggling could consist of illicit trade within a particular state to avoid having to pay taxes and duties, trading in goods controlled by monopolies (or “interloping”), or trading in goods banned by the nation-state. Smuggling also included interimperial contraband trade involving many parties speaking many languages across borders as well as trading with enemies in wartime. In some places, smuggling outweighed legal commerce. However, as with most illicit activities, archival sources are usually elusive and vague regarding smuggling. Historians have tended to discuss “informal” economies rather than outright smuggling, because it was only one means for goods to move through covert channels. Smuggling often required complex networks of individuals with particular responsibilities from lookouts, to fences, to counterfeiters. The sole purpose of a number of Atlantic settlements, especially in the West Indies, was for smuggling goods in and out of empires, like the Dutch island of Sint Eustatius. There is also a paucity of work on the Danes who smuggled goods like sugar through their islands in Saint Thomas or Saint Croix, or the Brandenburg Company, which smuggled slaves to New Spain. A central debate in the historiography of smuggling is its scope, size, and significance, because historians often have to rely on qualitative data because of the absence of reliable quantitative data. They rely primarily on official records that generally record individuals incompetent enough to get caught. Illicit trade could go on seamlessly with the compliance of local administrative officials. Historians also disagree on how they define smuggling because, as a crime often between nations or regions, it was often in the eyes of the beholder. As Banks 2005 (cited under British Illicit Trade with Spanish America) contends: “One nation’s smuggler was another nation’s legitimate merchant” (p. 230). Since smuggling meant the evasion of state authority, this bibliography is organized around the polities of the early modern Atlantic. Complicating this structure is the fact that most smuggling was interimperial. Despite the inherent complexity of studying smuggling, this bibliography will show that historians have found remarkably similar patterns throughout the Atlantic World.

General Overviews

Making grand generalizations about smuggling is an illusive task. Grahn 1997 (cited under New Granada) summarizes how “the history of illegal activity will always be an incomplete narrative. After all, the secrecy of an illicit act is one of its principal measures of success” (p. 15). There are few grand overviews focused only on smuggling in multiple empires other than the work of Alan Karras (Karras 2010 and Karras 2005). Klooster 2009 and the articles in Denzel, et al. 2011 make broad arguments about early modern smuggling. There might be more broad histories of contraband trade in Spanish, like Robles 1980, than in English. Most histories of smuggling have a regional focus, which explains the structure of this bibliography. However, there are a number of works with a transnational scope that discuss Atlantic World smuggling. Both Benton 2010 and Mancke 2009 do not focus on smuggling specifically but instead pose broad questions regarding the imposition of metropolitan sovereignty over imperial peripheries.

  • Benton, Lauren. Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    Although Benton does not focus her work on smuggling, both this and Law and Colonial Cultures (2002) explore attempts by metropolitan authorities to assert legal and political sovereignty over the peripheries of their empires. The acceptance of smuggling in colonial communities was in many ways a barometer for measuring those communities’ positive acceptance of imperial authority.

  • Denzel, Markus A., Jan de Vries, and Philipp Robinson Rössner, eds. Small Is Beautiful? Interlopers and Smaller Trading Nations in the Pre-industrial Period: Proceedings of the XVth World Economic History Congress in Utrecht (Netherlands) 2009. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011.

    These essays provide a number of case studies of interloping traders in the early modern world. They cover the smuggling activities of small players from the Netherlands, England, Scotland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, among others.

  • Karras, Alan L. “Smuggling and Its Malcontents.” In Interactions: Transregional Perspectives on World History. Edited by Jerry H. Bentley, Renate Bridenthal, and Anand A. Yang, 135–149. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005.

    This is a very brief theoretical piece that compares modern smuggling (citing Florida governor Jeb Bush’s wife’s $19,000 customs evasion) with examples from the 18th-century Caribbean. Karras compares the interplay between larger entities like empires in the 18th century or nongovernmental agencies today with diverse local market forces.

  • Karras, Alan L. Smuggling: Contraband and Corruption in World History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.

    This book began as a study of smuggling in the 18th-century Caribbean. Noticing patterns, Karras expanded the geographic scope by making an argument about the impact of smuggling on world history. He admits to largely failing to address South America but does an admirable job showing similarities between Atlantic smuggling and contraband trade in Asia.

  • Klooster, Wim. “Inter-imperial Smuggling in the Americas, 1600–1800.” In Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500–1830. Edited by Bernard Bailyn and Patricia L. Denault, 141–180. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

    Klooster presents a short yet precise overview of smuggling in the Atlantic World. He argues that “illicit trade was big business in many parts of the New World, often overshadowing legal trade between 1600 and 1800” (p. 141). He focuses here only on smuggling between states where at least one power deemed the trade illicit. Notes on pp. 505–528.

  • Mancke, Elizabeth. “Empire and State.” In The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800. 2d ed. Edited by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, 193–213. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    This edited book is ordered around central themes Atlantic World historiography. Mancke synthesizes the development of conceptions of empire and the imposition of authority on the peripheries of the British Empire. Notes on pp. 331–335.

  • Robles, Gregorio de. América a fines del siglo XVII: Noticia de los lugares de contrabando. Valladolid, Spain: Casa-Museo de Colón, 1980.

    This is a very broad overview of the most prominent sites for New World smuggling during the 17th century. Although it focuses primarily on New Spain, there are also discussions of English and Dutch illicit traders.

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