Contraband and pirates

Contraband and pirates

Conquest and Colonization

The sugar industry

Contraband and pirates

French occupation of the western side of the island

War of reconquers

Period of “España boba”

The ephemeral independence

The Haitian domination


The Casa de Contratación of Seville.  In 1503, the Casa de Contratación began its functions, established by the Spanish Crown to control mercantile activities between Spain and the Indies and to place all colonial production under its monopoly.  Officials could be found in every port of the conquered lands, charged with supervising production, charging taxes, carrying the accounting books to the Royal House and allocating permission for sailing and trading.  The merchandise had to be exported and imported exclusively to and from Seville (with exception through Sanlúcar and Cádiz); the monopoly policy banned trade with foreigners.  Given that many products were not produced in Spain, and yet had to be imported to Spain before arriving to the Indies, their sale value in Hispaniola at times reached six times more than their original prices.

European investors that did not want to be excluded from the business searched for a way to insert themselves into the economic life of Seville.  Through agents, investment in companies and loans to traders, they came to decisively influence the city’s 1543 traders’ association.  The immense quantity of gold, silver and other American products arriving to Seville throughout the 16th century would eventually arrive in the hands of capitalists and foreign firms.

Confrontation of European powers.  The Protestant Reformation, Charles V’s imperial intentions, the economic dependence of Spain on England, France and Holland and the struggle for control of the Atlantic brought these countries to align against Spain in 1550.  They took advantage of the economic and industrial difficulty of Spain and attacked her on the weakest front by encouraging illegal trade, contraband and the corsair, on the peninsula as well as in its possessions on the high seas.

Corsairs.  The corsairs appeared on dates as early as the 1520s.  It is known that in 1522, a ship leaving Santo Domingo for Seville was attacked by a French corsair named Jean Florin, who appropriated its entire sugar shipment.  In 1537, another French corsair attacked the towns of Azua and Ocoa, burning refineries and houses and taking all that he could; while in 1540, a boat recently docked in the port of Santo Domingo was assaulted by English corsairs.

The fleetsystem.  From the 1540s, the corsairs’ pillaging intensified.  In response, Spanish authorities decided to wall the colonial cities and organize the ships that operated between Seville and the Indies to sail in fleets or groups of protected boats to guard against possible attacks.  This fleet system established two annual departure dates from Spain and set precise departure and arrival points: the ports of Seville, Veracruz (Mexico), Havana (Cuba) and Nombre de Díos (isthmus of Panama), which meant that a ship arriving to Hispaniola had to separate from the fleet upon arriving in the Caribbean or Havana and make the dangerous journey to the port of Santo Domingo.

Sir Francis Drake.  The intensification of tensions between Spain and England due to the Spanish measures to impede the illegal trade between its colonies and English and Dutch ships, as well as the struggle for certain American territories (the mare clausum theory against the effective occupation theory) moved the English Crown to give financial and political support to the sailor Francis Drake to sack the Spanish Indies (1585).

Drake attacked the port of Vigo, in Spain, and afterward turned toward Hispaniola, to whose coasts he arrived on January 11, 1586.  The next day, he took the city of Santo Domingo and there he stayed, housed in the Cathedral for an entire month.  Drake and his men dedicated themselves to destroying and taking everything of value that they found: sugar, canafistola (a tree whose pulp is used medicinally), ginger, leather, gold and silver, the artillery of the fort, the bells of the church.  They only left the city when they received the sum of 25,000 ducats as compensation.

Contraband.  Despite Spain’s efforts, from very early on, it was evident that it would be impossible to monopolize trade for all its American lands.  In the case of the island of Santo Domingo, the high costs and scarce variety of products from Spain, its already precarious economic existence and its growing marginalization by the Spanish government in relation to the favored colonies, by virtue of their wealth, caused its inhabitants to actively search for commercial exchange with European foreigners.  From then on, contraband constituted one of the pillars of its economy.  Portuguese, French, English and Dutch traders maintained commercial contact with Hispaniola throughout the 16th century, despite coercive measures applied by the Crown.

Slaves, soaps, wines, flours, fabrics, perfumes, nails, shoes, medicines, paper, dried fruit, iron, steel, knives, etcetera, were bought for the neighbors of Hispaniola in exchange for sugar, leather, canafistola, ginger and tobacco.  At the end of the 16th century, the Dutch dedicated 20 200-ton ships annually for exclusive trade with Cuba and Hispaniola.


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