By Way of Brazil: South Atlantic Sea Roads to the Spanish Caribbean

David Wheat (Michigan State University)

Les Amériques dans le monde atlantique du 30 novembre 2018

Official investigations into contraband trade with « foreigners » provide a useful vantage point from which to re-evaluate the nature of transimperial commerce in the early Spanish Caribbean. Historiographical emphasis on northern European commerce certainly echoes one of the chief concerns of the Spanish crown, but it overlooks other forms of transimperial trade that occurred with much greater frequency during the long sixteenth century. Iberian voyages registered for Brazil, in particular, were regularly diverted to the Spanish Caribbean. A partial survey of records preserved in the Archive of the Indies in Seville reveals the names of vessels, shipmasters, intended destinations, and travel dates for over 100 voyages arriving in Caribbean ports between 1550 and 1640. The data examined thus far reveals an especially notable surge in voyages redirected toward Española, instead of Brazil, during the 1580s. Spanish Caribbean sources also attest to a smaller but considerable flow of direct maritime traffic from Brazilian to Caribbean ports during the same decades.

The implementation of the Carrera de Indias convoy system and a corresponding reallocation of imperial resources had a powerful (and uneven) long-term impact on Caribbean ports in the decades after 1560, but transactions and voyages organized in Seville never represented the totality of maritime traffic in the region. In other words, simplistic imperial models that rely primarily on the reported values of exports to Spain, or the frequency of shipping to or from Seville, are limited in their capacity to measure the economic vitality of Iberian settlements overseas. The previously overlooked maritime circuits that linked Brazilian and Spanish Caribbean seaports — or treated them as interchangeable destinations — represent a new opportunity to analyze the early Spanish Caribbean in light of overlapping Iberian Atlantic worlds and complex forms of transimperial trade, with major implications for colonial Brazilian history as well.

In many cases, Brazilian destinations appear to have been merely an excuse to introduce merchandise such as wine and clothing from Iberia, the Azores, Madeira, or the Canaries directly into Spanish Caribbean markets. Meanwhile, transatlantic slaving voyages from Angola or São Tomé often sailed to the Caribbean instead of Brazil, or stopped in a Brazilian port while en route to Caribbean destinations. Other vessels sailed from Pernambuco, Bahia, or Maranhão to Caribbean ports carrying commodities such as cloth, sugar, and wood, and in some instances, significant numbers of Amerindian captives.