Contraband, Plunder, and Revolution
On July 15, 1818, Captain Jacob Leandro da Silva and his crew left Rio de Janeiro, Brazil aboard the União da América and sailed north toward the Brazilian province of Bahia. The following day, nine leagues southeast of Cabo Frio, a distant ship with a Portuguese flag fired an eighteen-pound cannon ball into the open waters, signaling Leandro da Silva to halt. As the unidentified vessel approached, the crew lowered the Portuguese flag and hoisted the flag of the "insurgents of Spanish America." Leandro da Silva and his crew realized too late the intentions of the advancing privateer brigantine called Irresistible.
Captain John Danels of Baltimore had weighed anchor at Buenos Aires on June 12 and sailed the Irresistible up the southern coast of Brazil with his crew of about a hundred and eighty North Americans. He wielded a letter of marque (also called a commission) from José Gervasio Artigas, the revolutionary leader of the Banda Oriental, or present-day Uruguay. The Portuguese military had invaded the region just south of the Brazilian border in 1816. As an eminent caudillo, Artigas led an army to stave off Portuguese encroachments and to protect the province's autonomy. He offered privateer commissions to North Americans to assist him. The commissions ostensibly allowed captains such as Danels to plunder Portuguese and Spanish vessels according to international legal custom. But Artigas's government lacked recognition from the community of nations. Commissioned by a government of such precarious international status, Danels inhabited a shadowy legal space between pirate and privateer.
Upon capturing the União, Danels and his crew brought Leandro da Silva and other officers aboard the Irresistible while they pillaged the Portuguese ship until "only a pipe remained for drinking." Aboard the Irresistible, Danels boasted to Leandro da Silva that in twenty days he had captured fifteen Portuguese vessels, and he showed the captain his plunder of one hundred and fifty thousand hard pesos. He taunted the Portuguese royal court, inviting Leandro da Silva to inform the king that the Irresistible and other privateer vessels sailed in the region and that he could send against them however many warships he pleased. After Danels's men robbed the União of money, cables, pipes, tools, canvas, food, and a few crewmembers, they sailed off and left the crew of the União to their luck in the damaged ship.
In his audacious defiance of Portuguese sovereignty, Danels revealed a willingness to profit from political turmoil in South America. During the Age of Revolution (the tumultuous era between the 1760s and mid-1820s in which Atlantic empires fractured), many traders displayed ingenuity as they sought to enhance their commerce to the detriment of imperial states. Most U.S. traders did not meddle so wantonly in Iberian affairs, but privateers such as Danels marked the culmination of a hope long held among many North Americans that they could profit from revolution in Brazil. As the Age of Revolution progressed, numerous Atlantic theorists and traders extolled the virtues of free trade and decried government restrictions on commerce. Smugglers, pirates, and free trade advocates helped mold commercial policy in the British-American and Luso-Brazilian Atlantics by challenging states for control over commerce. By the early nineteenth century, U.S. republicans viewed free trade as a tool to combat monarchy and empire, whereas Portuguese monarchists assumed it could reinforce them. Their divergent interpretations provoked international conflict that by the 1820s led many North Americans to abandon hope that the Americas would become a hemisphere of free trade republics.
States and Traders
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Atlantic commerce developed as a composite of legal strictures and illicit trade practices. States and traders controlled what they could and ceded what they must to maximize their influence in the Atlantic commercial matrix. State authorities contended with free trade advocates, smugglers, rogue officials, slave traders, and pirates—all of whom sought to shape commerce to meet their own ends. But dissidents who challenged state authority did not always enjoy clear victories, for they frequently found their options constrained by state power. Smugglers risked imprisonment and seizure of their cargoes, while revolutionaries faced the ire of imperial militaries. Navies and customs officials suppressed piracy and privateering of dubious legality. Even when they successfully contravened imperial laws, smugglers expended time and money to take precautions they would not have taken if allowed to act without state restrictions. Governments and traders worked out a delicate balance of control over commerce. During the Age of Revolution, they intensified the competition over that balance.
During the eighteenth century, imperial states depended on diffuse bureaucracies, local magistrates, and private trade networks to fill government coffers, thereby weakening their control over commerce. Colonial traders found that their interests meshed well at times with state objectives, and they did not feel interminably at odds with imperial powers. In the mid-seventeenth century, for example, the English government secured commercial treaties with Portugal that gave rise to interimperial commercial networks. The treaties simultaneously benefited private profit and government revenue. When colonial traders believed that state policies impeded their interests, however, they could conspire with those same networks to defy government mandates, usually by smuggling. Paradoxically, they frequently undermined imperial authority by cooperating with the very networks that Atlantic states had fostered.
The British and Portuguese empires diverged in their approach to such disputes over imperial political economy in the second half of the eighteenth century. In the British Empire, the American Revolution marked the breakdown of the balance between state and private control over commerce. Colonists rebelled against what they saw as heavy-handed policies that limited their economic freedom. Mainland colonists appealed to Enlightenment principles to argue that free trade constituted an inherent right in addition to sound economic policy. The empire fractured as revolutionaries came to associate commercial freedom with independence and republicanism.
By contrast, Lisbon officials liberalized imperial trade policies when revolutionary conspiracies threatened the cohesion of the Portuguese Empire in the 1780s and 1790s. They relaxed prohibitions against commerce among Portuguese dominions and opened trade to a limited extent with Spanish America. They centered their efforts on the slave trade due to its importance to Portuguese-Atlantic commerce and the influence of elite Brazilian slave traders. In some circumstances, they merely legalized practices that Brazilians had conducted illegally for most of the century. In 1808, the court fled Lisbon in advance of Napoleon's invasion of Portugal, relocated to Rio de Janeiro, and opened Brazilian ports to foreign commerce. Brazilians viewed their opened ports as a welcome culmination of the monarchy's commercial progressiveness. By the early nineteenth century, therefore, Brazilians tended to associate freer trade with the consolidation of monarchical power and imperial strength, not republicanism and imperial fragmentation.
Observers in the United States confronted with bewilderment Brazil's competing national narrative about political systems and free trade. During the Age of Revolution, they hoped to reconcile their own vision of the Americas as a haven for republics with the reality of a monarchy residing in the hemisphere. Most North Americans hoped to see in South American revolutions a reflection of their own ideologies. Many U.S. smugglers, pirates, free traders, and revolutionaries assumed that their efforts to influence Brazilian politics and commerce would result in an independent Brazilian republic. In that sense, Brazil disappointed as Brazilians retained a monarchy even after their independence in 1822.
North Americans desired a republican Brazil not simply because they craved validation for their own ideologies but because they believed it would result in more open trade and greater prosperity. They knew that policies of the Portuguese court had a tangible influence on their fortunes. Since the mid-seventeenth century, North American commerce shared an intricate history with the Portuguese Empire—a relationship supported by the Brazilian gold and slave trades and formalized in treaties with Portugal. As Brazil gained greater influence in the Atlantic economy, many U.S. traders hoped that Brazilian republicans would marshal their productive energy to benefit the United States. As they sought republican trade partners in South America, many North Americans smuggled, plundered, and revolutionized to attain their objectives. Divergent imperial trajectories generated turbulent interimperial exchanges—commercial and ideological—during the Age of Revolution.
Hemisphere of Republics
Fervent North American republicans feared that "an antirepublican neighbour," to use the Philadelphian Tench Coxe's phrase, could cripple U.S. democracy. They believed that the Americas must cultivate republics for their own to survive. North Americans with revolutionary sympathies viewed rebellions in North and South America as an opportunity to free the hemisphere from commercial and political dependence on Europe. In their quest to liberate American commerce, they expected free trade to characterize their new relationships with nascent South American republics.
Traders around the Atlantic had several imprecise definitions of free trade. Some understood it according to what the historian Jeremy Adelman calls "infra-imperial" trade—allowing the colonies of a single empire to trade with one another without routing goods through the metropolis. Others referred to it as foreign traders paying duties at the same rate as citizens of the nation or empire to which they exported their goods. During wartime, many spoke of free trade as the right of neutral nations to trade without interference from belligerents. In the most fundamental sense, Atlantic traders used the term to mean access to foreign markets without prohibitive duties and regulations. They juxtaposed free trade with mercantilism and imagined the latter as a zero-sum game in the accumulation of imperial wealth based on land and its finite resources. By contrast, they assumed free trade could produce infinite wealth based on capital and labor.
United States free traders drew a tidy syllogism that equated independence from Europe with republicanism, republicanism with free trade, and free trade with prosperity. During the 1790s, the civic virtue inherent in classical republicanism evolved into a private virtue in which the accumulation of individual wealth aided the prosperity of the community and nation. During the years of the early republic, U.S. free traders believed that the perpetuation of their political system depended on the spread of free trade throughout the Atlantic. If the United States secured free markets abroad, U.S. yeomen could exchange their agricultural surpluses for imported manufactures and remain free from the corruption of a manufacturing-based economy.
When empires refused to grant open commerce, many U.S. free traders believed natural rights theory justified smuggling. The American Revolution had impelled free trade advocates to crystallize a philosophy that deemed smuggling an appropriate form of political resistance. Such advocates combined elements of British Whig tradition and Enlightenment-era political economy to cast smuggling, republicanism, and free trade as complementary components of the same liberal ideology. Faced with foreign trade prohibitions imposed by Iberian empires on South American colonies, many U.S. free traders assumed that smuggling could facilitate open commerce until revolution replaced monarchies with republics.
Convinced that monarchies posed a threat to free trade and prosperity, many North Americans hoped to secure republican commercial partners in South America. North American traders did not share uniform business interests or ideologies, and they evinced a willingness to trade wherever they could make a profit. As the Age of Revolution advanced, however, most traders arrived at the consensus that the spread of republican ideologies and institutions throughout the Americas would result in free trade from which prosperity would flow. Imagining such a correlation, they hoped to take advantage of fracturing Atlantic empires to enhance their commerce. They envisioned a future of free trade among the Americas that would serve as a counterpoint to the old, corrupt regimes of Europe. Indeed, some saw the Americas as the region where they would challenge European commercial primacy.
London traders assumed preeminent influence in Atlantic commercial networks. Wealthier, more established traders reaped more business, commanded more credit, and gained more capital than their less affluent peers. With the onset of the Age of Revolution, many American traders took advantage of the opportunity to reorganize their networks. They established new commercial contacts in South America as they sought trade advantages in a relatively untapped market. Some U.S. traders hoped that if they could penetrate Latin American markets they could establish a system of free trade that would liberate the Americas from British commercial dominance.
British traders enjoyed the benefits of imperial power as they conducted commerce—legal or otherwise—in South America throughout the eighteenth century. In 1713, as a reward for victory in the War of Spanish Succession, Great Britain received rights to the asiento, or exclusive control over the slave trade to Spanish America. In turn, the British government granted the South Sea Company a monopoly on the Spanish-American slave trade. British traders also conducted a prolific contraband trade with Iberian America. During the Napoleonic Wars, British statesmen and traders sought to permeate new markets to bolster their economic empire against French forces. More than any other non-Iberian nation in Europe, Great Britain stood poised to exploit the chaos that erupted in South America during the Age of Revolution.
Optimistic U.S. traders hoped that a hemisphere of republics would unite their economic and ideological interests to rid the hemisphere of European intrusion and stifle Great Britain's presence in South American markets. In the most optimistic of assessments, they expected that the prosperity of the Americas under a free trade system would provide an example for European nations to follow. The Americas could usher in a new age of commercial freedom throughout the world under the aegis of the United States.
Limits of Free Trade
Many U.S. observers wrapped Brazil into their orderly vision of American republics shaking off the chains of mercantilism and monarchy to trade freely with one another. Between the 1780s and 1820s, several revolutionary movements threatened the monarchical order in Brazil. North Americans observed such movements with interest and assumed Brazilians would soon follow the United States toward independence and republicanism. Many traders hoped that the economic contingency that accompanied civil strife might create favorable opportunities. Business ventures in tumultuous regions faced risks, but intrepid traders gambled on the promise of the new markets.
In that context, the Age of Revolution led to a massive alteration of North American commercial networks away from Portugal and toward Brazil. Although the heady years of 1816 to 1824 resulted in the greatest changes in those networks, the process unfolded during the entire span of the Age of Revolution. Between the 1760s and 1825, most North American traders shifted the center of their Luso-Atlantic trade to Brazil as it came to outshine Portugal as the most promising economic entity of the Portuguese Empire. By 1825, the year the U.S. government recognized Brazilian independence, Portugal seemed to have little to offer the United States compared to Brazil. Many North Americans hoped that if Brazilians would embrace republicanism, Brazil could come to represent American promise contrasted with European decadence.
Instead, Brazil underscored the difficulties U.S. free traders encountered in translating national ideals into state policy. The U.S. government refused to sacrifice the country's international reputation on the altar of free trade and republicanism in the Americas. To assert the government's sovereignty on the high seas in the face of British and French encroachment, Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807. The act prohibited U.S. exporters from sending goods to foreign dominions and incurred the displeasure of free traders. The embargo went into effect just weeks before the Portuguese monarchy arrived in Brazil and opened its ports to foreign commerce. A monarchy arrived in the Americas and liberalized trade at the same moment the U.S. republic constrained commerce. The juxtaposition exposed the flaws in the U.S. paradigm that contrasted American republics committed to free trade with European monarchies favoring restrictions. Nearly a decade later, when U.S. nationals such as John Danels headed south to sail for Artigas, Portugal mobilized enough pressure from other European monarchies to compel the U.S. government to curtail the extralegal activity. Early U.S.-Brazilian relations revealed the United States at a crossroads between a commitment to liberal ideologies and a concern for respect on the world stage.
Even had U.S. authorities lent stronger support to revolution in South America, the Portuguese government refused to corroborate early U.S. discourse that correlated republicanism with free trade and monarchy with commercial restrictions. Throughout the eighteenth century, the Portuguese empire never operated as a completely closed system of trade. As in British America, smuggling ran rampant in Brazil, frequently directed by Brazilian governors and other magistrates to the point that they blurred the lines between legal and illegal. Brazilian traders acquired prohibited European and Asian goods and marketed them in the Brazilian interior or traded them for African slaves, many of whom they sold to Buenos Aires for contraband Spanish silver. By the end of the century, to revitalize Portugal's economy, Lisbon officials gradually legalized such activity and punctuated the process by opening Brazilian ports in 1808. After settling in Rio de Janeiro, the Portuguese government repressed republican revolts that many in the United States had hoped would spread throughout Brazil. Portuguese rulers refused to equate free trade and republicanism.
As twilight fell on the Age of Revolution, North Americans revealed the limits of their own commitment to republicanism in South America. In 1817, the U.S. Congress strengthened its neutrality laws to reassure European powers who worried about the U.S. government's commitment to order in the Americas. During the debates over the neutrality bill, congressmen manifested a concern, frequently expressed in racialized terms, that South Americans' inferiority would inhibit the establishment of stable republics in the Americas. North American privateers exposed the government to embarrassment by purportedly associating too freely with mixed race peoples around the Atlantic, cooperating with them in plunder and adopting them into their crews. By 1820, the U.S. government took bold measures to repress the privateers and enhance its reputation among European nations. The State Department also subdued rogue consuls in Brazil who engaged too freely in revolution. Brazil forced North Americans to weigh the promotion of republican ideologies against respect among the community of nations.
In 1822, Brazilian independence resulted from sovereignty disputes with Portugal rather than from a disagreement over political systems. Brazilians retained a monarchy and continued to allow special advantages to British commerce. Like the Portuguese government before it, the Brazilian monarchy repressed republican movements and dampened U.S. hopes that an independent Brazil would gravitate toward republicanism. By the 1830s, U.S. traders had failed to secure republican commercial partners in Brazil. Compared to non-British European nations, they fared well in Brazilian markets. They suspended their hopes, however, that revolution in Brazil would result in prolific business between fellow republics characterized by free trade.
Brazil revealed the fragility of the connections North American free traders drew between republicanism and free trade. Brazilians forged their own trajectory of independence rather than follow the U.S. model. They forced U.S. observers to reconsider long-held assumptions that the United States would guide the Americas toward a new political and commercial order. Brazil also exposed North Americans' struggle to align liberal ideologies with geopolitical realities. Faced with isolation and disrespect from European nations, the U.S. government revealed its tepid commitment to republican solidarity in the Americas. Many white observers began to correlate republicanism with racial homogeneity rather than with the Americas. They viewed their own republic as white and successful and South Americans as racially mixed and incapable of perpetuating stable republics.
Since the eighteenth century, North Americans had depended on slavery in Brazil to sustain their Luso-Atlantic trade, and that dependence persisted throughout the Age of Revolution. Slaves had mined the gold that made Portugal an attractive trade partner to British colonists. They produced the goods for which U.S. smugglers traded. The slave trade generated the wealth that allowed Brazil to eclipse Portugal as the most important commercial region of the Portuguese Empire. Artigan privateers found slave smuggling a profitable component of their business as they captured Portuguese slave ships and kidnapped slave sailors. North Americans had forged their commerce with Brazil through smuggling, piracy, and revolution, convinced that they could secure republican trade partners there. As the era closed, most abandoned such hopes as Brazil and the United States became fellow American slave powers rather than fellow republics.