New Book: “Portuguese and Amsterdam Sephardic Merchants in the Tobacco Trade”

Portuguese and Amsterdam Sephardic Merchants in the Tobacco Trade: Tierra Firme and Hispaniola in the Early Seventeenth Century (Anthem Press, January 2023) focuses on the contraband trade with Tierra Firme and Hispaniola in the early seventeenth century by Portuguese and Sephardic merchants.

Description (Anthem Press): Portuguese and Amsterdam Sephardic Merchants in the Tobacco Trade is a history of the role of Portuguese and Sephardic merchants in the tobacco industry and trade of Amsterdam. It focuses on the contraband trade with Tierra Firme and Hispaniola in the early seventeenth century as documented in the Engel Sluiter Historical Documents Collection. 

The Engel Sluiter Historical Documents Collection is a unique archival collection for the purpose of research on the territorial conflict between the Spanish Habsburg Empire and the Dutch Republic in the context of the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648). Sluiter collected documents from archives around the world with a focus on trade and fiscal records which document the rise to commercial prominence of the Dutch Republic, the intricacies of Spanish and Portuguese trade and navigation, and the Contaduria which report revenues and expenditures of the Spanish Crown along with import and export duties. The documents in the collection relate mainly to Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese trade affairs in Europe and Spanish and Portuguese overseas territories but include references to English and French accounts of payments to Spain as well. The majority of the documents are in Spanish, transcribed, translated in English, and provided with notes by Engel Sluiter himself. The Caribbean Collection, including Tierra Firme and Hispaniola, contains documents on Dutch mercantile trade practices – mostly smuggling as Spain and the Dutch Republic were at war with each other – and Spanish trade regulations and efforts to block foreign access to trade goods. We thus learn a great deal about foreigners involved in illegal trade in which capture, corruption and bribery played an important role in particular with respect to the tobacco trade which was highly regulated under Spanish rule. 

Sometimes, when foreign vessels were captured and hauled into port, mariners or merchant smugglers were reported by name and port of origin and voyage details were recorded. We thus gain insight into the specifics of the merchants and their trading networks as well as the goods being smuggled. Concern about tobacco smuggling is referred to in several of the reports and resulted in plans to prohibit tobacco cultivation or allow cultivation with royal permission only. In several instances recommendations were made to undermine smuggling activities in specific coastal regions where tobacco cultivation occurred and where frequent contacts were made between Dutch mariners and merchants and coastal populations including Amerindians, Creoles, runaway Blacks, and “Portuguese” present in coastal areas. Spanish documents display a concern about “Portuguese” in coastal areas as they were associated with Conversos, New Christians who often served as go-between in trade and finance in the Spanish Habsburg Empire. The same group was often thought to be in contact with English, French and Dutch smugglers, and the records suggest that Portuguese merchants were engaged in trade with Bayonne, London and Amsterdam through merchant networks that had been expanded and extended throughout the Atlantic world. 

Yda Schreuder is Professor Emerita of Geography at the University of Delaware and Research Associate at the Hagley Museum and Library, USA. She previously published a monograph on Amsterdam’s Sephardic merchants and the Atlantic sugar trade in the seventeenth century.

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