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Spanish and Portuguese Commerce and Contraband in the Amazonian Borderlands  

Juan Sebastián Gómez-González

Legal, illicit, and clandestine trade was fundamental for the social, political, and economic development of the Amazon basin during the colonial period. Since the second half of the 16th century, Spanish and Portuguese establishments in this tropical region needed agriculture, livestock, and mining, but also exchanges of goods to ensure the stability and growth of missions and cities founded in their vast jurisdictions. Encomenderos, Indians, slaves, soldiers, bandeirantes, and Jesuits invigorated the illegal trade by establishing contacts through roads and tributary rivers of the Amazon River that linked different spaces through navigation. The scarce military presence in the border jurisdictions, especially between the province of Maynas and the captaincy of Rio Negro, in addition to the existence of gold mines, trafficking of manufactured goods, food, firearms, and other trade goods coming from both domestic and Atlantic markets, served as constant stimuli to strengthen the fraudulent business until the last decades of the 18th century. The prohibitions and monopolies decreed in the Luso-Hispanic laws, especially those stipulated in the treaties of limits, peace, and friendship verified in Tordesillas, Lisbon, Madrid, San Ildefonso, and Badajoz (from 1494 to 1802), were decisive to try to ensure the sovereignty and sociopolitical control in the Amazonian domains. However, the persistence of smuggling, as a complement to authorized trade and an indispensable resource for the Luso-Hispanic economies, would not have been possible without the complicity of governors, military, and astute Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries who took advantage of corruption by encouraging participation in the illegal trade. This demonstrates that trade, smuggling, and fraud in those imperial margins were inseparable aspects of settlement and the defense of territories mutually stalked by Spanish and Portuguese vassals to the first decades of the 19th century.