In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Free Ports in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Databases
  • Document Collections
  • Journals
  • British Free Ports
  • French Free Ports
  • Dutch Free Ports
  • Spanish Free Ports
  • Danish Free Ports
  • Swedish Free Ports
  • Scottish Free Ports
  • Early Republic United States Free Ports
  • Other European/ Mediterranean Free Ports
  • Atlantic Free Ports in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Atlantic History Free Ports in the Atlantic World
R. Grant Kleiser
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0357


Free ports played an important role in fostering inter-imperial and international connections and commercial interactions in the Atlantic world during the early modern and modern periods. While “free port” is an expansive term, sometimes used to delineate areas where illegal smuggling occurred, places that were free of ice, or locales that welcomed foreign migration, the studies cited in this article pertain to the imperial legal and commercial definition of free ports. That is, ports established by the state that exhibited lower customs duties than did the rest of the polity or existed outside of normal customs laws while welcoming foreign merchants to exchange at least some proscribed set of goods. Traditionally, it has been understood that free ports have existed in some form since Antiquity, but that the free port of Livorno, established by the Medici in the late 16th century, constitutes the earliest and most-successful example of a free port in the early modern era. Free ports spread across the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the globe in the ensuing centuries. Beginning substantively in the 15th century, European powers extended their commercial and imperial networks across the Atlantic Ocean, often violently encountering and interacting with peoples in North and South America, the West Indies, and the west coast of Africa. While military, commercial, intellectual, and migratory movements fostered the so-called “Atlantic World” by connecting these far-flung geographical locales, many European metropoles initially attempted to limit their subjects’ commercial interactions to within their Atlantic imperial realms. However, early modern Atlantic empires employed free ports beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in the Caribbean, as a means of providing exceptions to their generally closed commercial systems and strategically allowing foreign merchants to trade in certain places. Some metropolitan European ports also became “free.” The heyday of colonial Atlantic, especially Caribbean, free ports occurred in the mid- to late 18th century as Atlantic empires promulgated various reforms in response to the Seven Years’ War and other European imperial conflicts. The number of Atlantic free ports declined in the 19th century as doctrines of more universal free trade took root and as Latin American countries gained independence, meaning that European powers could trade directly to these locations without having to skirt Spanish imperial commercial restrictions. Atlantic free ports experienced a revival in the late 19th and 20th centuries, evolving into various “special economic zones” such as export-processing zones, tax havens, and foreign-trade zones. The studies cited here imply that some Atlantic free ports encompassed entire islands, especially smaller ones like Sint Eustatius. Much of the literature on free ports focuses on Italian and Mediterranean ones, but interest in Atlantic free ports is growing. Extant texts pertaining to Atlantic free ports usually consider specific ports or empires, with little substantive comparative work (the major exceptions being scholarship on Dutch, Danish, and Swedish free ports). Some studies provide useful analysis of free-port proposals that were never realized but were debated intensely.

General Overviews

There exists no exclusive survey of free ports in the Atlantic, although Tazzara 2017 offers the most recent, English-language outline of free ports’ spread from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic in the early modern period. Dermigny 1974 provides an expansive look at free ports throughout the globe (in the Mediterranean, Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans), highlighting individual ports and their political-economic goals. But like much of the scholarship on free ports, this study focuses more attention on Mediterranean ports than Atlantic ones. Thoman 1956 brings us to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, emphasizing the development of Atlantic-facing Northern European free ports and the subsequent rise of such institutions in the United States. A useful theoretical conception of free ports is provided by Lavissière and Rodrigue 2017 which provides background on Atlantic and global free ports in their more modern context. While not contributing much direct original research, A Global History of Free Ports serves as a useful starting point for investigations on free ports with its many linked sources, guides, and events. However, this study also prioritizes Mediterranean free ports. For scholars interested in Atlantic free ports’ connections to the transatlantic and inter-colonial slave trade, O’Malley 2014 suggests that calls for such free trade policies were inspired by and helped extend trade in human chattel in the late 18th century.

  • Dermigny, Louis. “Escales, échelles et ports francs au moyen âge et aux temps moderns.” In Les grandes escales. Edited by Société Jean Bodin, 213–644. Brussels: Recueil de la Société Jean Bodin, 1974.

    One of the most important sources concerning free ports in general. Describes the origins, goals, and economic activity of various Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Asian free ports from the Middle Ages to the modern period.

  • A Global History of Free Ports.

    Organized by the University of Helsinki. Central repository of information concerning conferences, articles, books, broadcasts, and other scholarly material and events related to the history of free ports. Provides brief historiography of free ports, an extensive bibliography, and a few linked sources. Primarily focused on European and Mediterranean free ports and their transition to their modern manifestations as Special Economic Zones. Great starting point for research.

  • Lavissière, Alexandre, and Jean-Paul Rodrigue. “Free Ports: Towards a Network of Trade Gateways.” Journal of Shipping and Trade 2.7 (2017).

    DOI: 10.1186/s41072-017-0026-6

    Provides an overview of the definition of free ports and their history. Is primarily a conceptualization of contemporary free ports. Establishes three main factors (the regulatory context, free port function and services provided, and orientation of trade flows) that explain their evolution. Useful for a theoretical and economic understanding of free ports in a more modern context.

  • O’Malley, Gregory. Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619–1807. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469615349.001.0001

    Qualitative and quantitative study on commerce in enslaved Africans between various colonies in the Americas. Notes how many of these exchanges occurred in various Caribbean (especially British) free ports and how such “free trade” decrees were partially inspired and supported by efforts to augment the slave trade. Much of O’Malley’s research was incorporated into the Slave Voyages under Databases. Good overview of the slave trade’s connection to Atlantic free ports.

  • Tazzara, Corey. The Free Port of Livorno and the Transformation of the Mediterranean World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198791584.001.0001

    Most recent, in-depth analysis of the earliest and most successful European free port of Livorno, established by the Medici in the late 16th century. Discusses previous scholarship of free ports. Centers on Livorno and the Mediterranean world, but the final chapter of the book offers an overview of the spread of free ports throughout Europe and European empires, including in the Atlantic.

  • Thoman, R. S. Free Ports and Foreign Trade Zones. Baltimore, MD: Cornell Maritime Press/Tidewater, 1956.

    While initially providing an overall history of free ports, this study focuses on late-19th and early-20th-century free ports in Europe (particularly Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Holland) and the United States which were designed to facilitate re-exportation and foreign importation of various goods. Offers an extensive analysis on these zones’ size, facilities, location, administration, functions, utility, and role in the world economy.

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