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date: 25 June 2022

Spies and Espionage in the Iberian Atlanticfree

Spies and Espionage in the Iberian Atlanticfree

  • Adriano ComissoliAdriano ComissoliDepartamento de História, Universidade Federal de Santa Maria


The monarchies of the Iberian Peninsula—Spain and Portugal—formed large multicontinental empires in the 16th century, which lasted until the beginning of the 19th, when independence movements divided them into various nations in the Americas. The functioning of these political constructs depended to a great extent on the capacity to create channels of communication that allowed information to be frequently and reliably transmitted and received. In turn, the progressive development of information policies was linked to the strengthening of the powers of monarchs and those close to them, which implies that one of the elements affirming the state during the modern era was its capacity to administer communication among its various agents. This was made concrete through the development of diplomacy and intelligence systems, including espionage. More than marginal and isolated actions, the use of spies and infiltrated informers in rival states was a recurrent instrument throughout the period and counted on the knowledge and agreement of the Iberian kings and their ministers. Although it is a research field that is still little visited, there has been a growth in research on the modern period, showing that societies were thirsty for information and looked for it to calculate ways of defending and strengthening the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms.


  • History of Brazil
  • History of Southern Spanish America
  • History of Latin America and the Oceanic World
  • 1492–1824
  • Military History


The early modern age, understood as from the 16th to the beginning of the 19th centuries, was marked by the progressive concentration of authority and responsibilities on the part of the crowns of Portugal and Spain, like other European and Asian monarchies. An abundant literature discusses how this period witnessed an increase in the fiscal, legal, and military strength of the reigning dynasties, a process which, when looked at in the long duration, resulted in states with an evident degree of centralization of powers.1 The accumulation of the royal institution’s powers did not signify the annulling of parallel or peripheral powers, various of which had to be lived with and respected. Rather it defined a sphere of government that proposed to overcome immediate questions in different localities, classifying the relevance of the issues to be addressed for the political entity as a whole, which allowed its structure to be reinforced.

To achieve this pretense, the dynastic monarchies and the republics (such as Venice or the United Provinces of Netherlands) progressively strengthened their control over communication and information, developing protocols and instruments for this.2 This control consisted of monitoring the flows of news and the construction of systems that supplied sovereigns and their ministers with the greatest possible number of reports, which were analyzed in order to formulate projects and solutions to the obstacles faced. One of the characteristics that thus helped to form and define the central sphere of powers of a kingdom was the capacity to collect information and reports about different regions and to consider plans and actions for the administration of immediate or distant areas. This necessity is shown to be even more important when applied to the administration of multicontinental empires, such as the Spanish and Portuguese, since monarchs were not personally acquainted with their more distant possessions but only read or heard reports about them.3 In this context, the use of intelligence instruments by Iberian monarchs became ever more frequent and performed a primary function in the effort to implement governments, materialized to a great extent through the use of paper and ink.

Information Policy, Raison d’État, and Diplomacy

During the early modern period, the two kingdoms from the Iberian peninsula were good examples of the continuous effort of state development based on the organization of intelligence systems—in other words, the establishment of official, semiofficial, and informal channels of information aimed at sending and receiving reports and orders. The channels structured by the monarchs of Portugal and Spain referenced and strengthened their political hierarchies, making monarchical decisions the source of legitimation for the directions to be followed. At the same time, the information was organized, analyzed, and archived in a more rationalized manner, creating knowledge capable of orienting decisions both in the present and in the future, through the resumption of previous judgments. This phenomenon indicated the formulation of information policies: the conscious effort of Iberian states to use information and construct knowledge with the purpose of creating political advantages. These benefits were related to the concern with guaranteeing the maintenance of the state and, when possible, its expansion and sovereignty.4 Information policies, conceived and practiced by the kings of Portugal and Spain, frequently took advantage of communication channels and secret agents to look for news and pass on reports that could imbalance the competition with other empires, something implemented both in Europe and its possessions in different continents.

The formulation and application of Iberian information policies shared the conceptions formulated in raison d’état literature, which emerged and spread in the 16th and 17th centuries. Raison d’état treatises aimed to teach princes how to govern, avoiding the vicissitudes of chance and the fluctuations of power. Authors such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Jean Bodin, Giovanni Botero, and Justus Lipsius highlight the need for rulers to base themselves on good advice and to feed their own reflections with prudence, in other words, a careful assessment of each concrete situation and the dispositions of those involved. Prudence involved knowing the opinions of subjects about the ruler, as well as the existence of conspiracies.5 This data allowed a more solid base for monarchical decisions, giving them a greater probability of success—which approximated them to the ideal of infallibility. It was understood that better decision-making depended on the collection and processing of information, meaning that the powerful king was also the well-informed king. The more information collected and the better its quality, the better the sovereign’s chances of anticipating threats and rivals, bypassing or overcoming challenges, and making oscillations of fortune mere inconveniences. In this way, the expansion of legitimate areas of action for monarchs was made feasible by the collection and processing of data, at the same time that it stimulated the expansion of this.6

Raison d’état literature is identified with the names of Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, whose works were prohibited from circulating or being read in Portugal and Spain, since the Holy Office tribunal classified their positions as antireligious. However, a Catholic version was developed by other thinkers, notably Giovanni Botero and Justus Lipsius, both published in 1589. In a similar form to the authors considered heretical, they advocated that rulers practice calculation and strategy to avoid traps and achieve the two great objectives that justified the existence of states: territorial conservation and the prerogatives of the sovereign, as well as their expansion. By not breaking away from Christian ethics, the authors were well received in the Iberian intellectual environment and emphasized the importance of the art of governing as the foreseeing of possibilities.7 The collection and analysis of information thus acquired great relevance, since being informed allowed the monarch to act with greater security. The search to protect and strengthen the monarchies of Spain and Portugal led to investment in information policies, which were based on the use of secrets, dissimulation, and a constant alertness toward everyone around kings.

The formulation of these policies found expression in the development and professionalization of diplomacy. During the 15th century temporary embassies were replaced by permanent representations in key cities to facilitate the flow of information. The republic of Venice was the first state to send ambassadors recurrently and thus received those of other political entities; her condition as a commercial entrepot made the republic a point of encounter for subjects of various European kingdoms, the Ottoman sultan, city states, and members of various religious orders.8 The “Most Serene Republic” was a strategic location to establish legations, since it was possible not only to deal with Venetian rulers and merchants but also the emissaries from other political entities. The king of Spain, also monarch of Naples and lord of various cities in the north of the Italian peninsula, kept his embassy in the city, interested both in his European rivals and reports from the Balkans and the large Ottoman Empire. However, diplomacy was a doubled-edged sword, since to the same extent that Spanish agents attracted the Venetian elite through favors or bribed servants of other ambassadors in order to access secrets or confirm suspicions, other competitors seduced them with the same subterfuges.

While permanent embassies multiplied in the principal European cities, the secret services tasked with obtaining information professionalized. Aimed at defending the interests of their sovereigns, agents transformed personal contacts into sources of information, as well as organizing the writing of reports and making the practice of warnings recurrent: seasonal reports that narrated the principal events or notified the absence of novelties. The early modern world was hungry for news and was better appeased by reports stating there was no news to account than by the silence of ignorance.

The avidity for news recommended prudence and patience as much as velocity. In 1642, in a private letter the Portuguese jurist Cristóvão Soares de Abreu warned the new Portuguese ambassador being sent to Paris, Vasco Luís da Gama, the Earl of Vidigueira, about the scenario he would meet. Abreu told him of the need for discretion, dissimulation, and the maintenance of constant communication with Portugal and with the other Portuguese ambassadors, despite transportation difficulties and the non-existence of a regular system of post. He saw the Paris embassy as being a central point of information for the other Portuguese representations in Europe, and consequently in the mediation of sovereignty in the European theater. He also said that from Paris it was possible to investigate not only what was going on in France but in various kingdoms, of which Spain was of particular interest, as it was at war with Portugal. He also advised him not to save money on spies and messengers “because it often happens that one notice pays for everything.”9 In relation to bribes to obtain better information he preferred to give him the names of those open to this personally, concluding that “not everything can be written.”

Portuguese ambassadors thus bribed courtiers and paid spies who could offer them advantageous information, secrets, or privileged news, considering that expenditure on spies and messages was of prime necessity. Understood as the basic building block for the political construction, information had a price and important news, received rapidly, would be sufficient to justify the cost. The importance of this posture was reinforced due to Portugal’s status at that moment: only two years had passed since it had regained independence from Spain, and the war between the two kingdoms was one of the concerns of King Dom João IV and his councilors. In order to ensure that the new monarch was recognized by other powers, bribery and espionage were used; in other words, an information policy was developed aimed at defending Portuguese sovereignty.

Similarly, the Spanish invested heavily in the development of embassies and spies, who reported to the Council of State, the Council of War, and the president of both: the king himself. Philip II, called the “paper king” due to his routine practice of reading and rewriting letters, decided personally on the sending of spies to different parts of his empire or those of his rivals, showing a particular concern with the Ottomans.10 In order to produce opportune knowledge and to refine the art of governing, agents recruited from different social strata were dispatched, multiplying in number and type the versions of events that were captured. Not rarely, after an informer presented reports that were claimed to be new, the monarch complained that they had already been reported by other sources.11

At the end of the 16th century a list of secret informers of the Rey Católico included a monk imprisoned in the siege of Tunis, a Venetian merchant with interests and contacts in Naples and Istanbul, the wife of an Ottoman bureaucrat, a rich Jewish merchant from Milan, and even the literati Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra.12 Imprisoned in 1574 in the siege of La Goleta, in Tunis, the author of Don Quijote was kept prisoner in Algeria until 1580, from where he tried to escape four times. After being freed and sent to Spain, he was sent on a secret mission to Oran in 1581, since due to his previous misfortune he had established contacts and gained knowledge that could be used to the advantage of the monarch. Modern spies did not emerge out of special training and a capacity for premeditated infiltration but due to opportunities generated by success and failures. The information policy sought to exploit these situations and even create them.

The intensity of Spanish espionage in the Mediterranean aimed to systematize the informational flows that developed from the antagonism between Hapsburgs and Ottomans. In the 16th century the two empires had such an intense rivalry that the confrontation between them multiplied the methods used: military sieges of fortresses, piracy and sacking, enslaving of soldiers and peasants, sabotage and assassination plans, and blockades of ports and naval battles such as Lepanto (1571). In order to optimize the attacks, it was necessary to minimize uncertainties. This was attempted through espionage, mobilizing agents in different geographic spaces and with different social profiles.

In order to anticipate its rivals, the Spanish used “renegades,” Christians converted to Islam who were part of the administrative service of the Ottoman sultan. Many were secretly loyal to Christianity or, at least, kept in contact by letters with their families of origin in Greece, the Balkans, the Italian peninsula, or Iberia.13 Jewish merchants and diplomats were equally useful, as they moved through various regions, had very solid networks of contacts, and were capable of obtaining information forbidden to those who confessed the doctrine of Christ. The exchange of novelties took place in very common manner, through coexisting with others, meals, and the exchange of presents, something that the Spanish reenacted with the Portuguese in the Americas. Information became part of the list of favors and gifts that one friendly contact gave to another. When necessary, friendship was reinforced by bribery.

Finally, in order to overcome the monitoring of correspondence, the Spanish frequently wrote ciphered letters, and Philip II and Philip IV were prodigious in writing in this form, even suggesting new cyphers and encryption methods.14 Tricks such as invisible ink and microdots were also part of the arsenal of secret writing in the 16th and 17th centuries, practiced to a great extent by ambassadors and diplomats. In the same period, the Portuguese practiced the technique of writing in code, although at a lower frequency and with less sophistication.

Intelligence Services

The information policies of the Spanish and Portuguese in the early modern period created intelligence services. This is true to the extent that intelligence is identified as a system and practices concerned with collecting, processing, and analyzing information in order to transform it into knowledge useful to the defense of the state.15 The definition covers much of what was done in the name of the king to guarantee the enforcement of his law, repel his enemies, and demarcate areas of sovereignty—that is, areas within which the monarch did not recognize any superior.

The tools used by intelligence services included five types of operation: information collection, espionage, information analysis, counterintelligence, and clandestine operations. The episodes that can be accessed through documents produced between the 16th century and the first decades of the 19th describe situations related to these types of operation, in all cases involving intense participation by crown agents. Many of the occurrences involved territorial disputes, in particular in the Americas, where the competition between the Iberian empires was quite bitter. A large part of Iberian intelligence and espionage occurred directly between Portuguese and Spanish, as their dominions were adjacent on the west side of the Atlantic. To a considerable extent the Atlantic disputes were struggles for information.

Information Collection

The first and most obvious stage in Iberian information policies was obtaining it. Different scenarios meant that this activity was practiced in many different ways, with many and variable degrees of difficulty. In the first contacts between Europeans and the indigenous peoples from the Americas the role of the latter and of cultural mestiços stands out. Many of the individuals who worked as interpreters were indigenous and were charged with looking out for information that could be of interest to the Europeans. The Portuguese, who already practiced sending spies disguised as translators (whom they called línguas—tongues or languages) to kingdoms in India, did the same with interpreters among the native populations they found in South America. The semi-legendary Malinche in Mesoamerica provided the Spanish with information about Mexican forts, which contributed to the success of Hernan Cortés. When the Portuguese fleet commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral arrived at the lands that would later form the state of Brazil, he sought to overcome the difficulties of the initial contact based on the repertoire already developed by the Portuguese in other experiences. First he sent one of his captains with interpreters, in order to find a language in common with the indigenous peoples. Failing to do this, song and dance were used instead.16

After sailing around the African continent, Vasco da Gama tortured captive Muslim pilots to obtain information about “seas never sailed on before” and betrayed the trust of the King of Mombasa: after receiving presents of welcome he ordered the landing of two exiles to spy on the city’s defenses.17 It is important to mention that the conquest of the Americas occurred in parallel with the maturing of the European diplomatic system and Hapsburg-Ottoman rivalry, witnessing the multiplication and professionalization of information agents. During the 16th century the Iberians used similar tactics in the Americas, Africa, and India, testing instruments for collecting news that could serve the raison d’état of their sovereigns. The information policies of Portugal and Spain had multiple parts around the planet, like their empires.

Achievements in distant territories were followed by elaborate descriptions and reports, many of which received labels such as “true news” or “detailed news.”18 The concern with describing lands and peoples contacted, as well as giving an account of what was done, sought to overcome the figure of the isolated king, avoiding ignorance of the realities distant from the Court. It has to be taken into account that those responsible for these reports sought future rewards, following their own self-interest, but still serving as the eyes and ears of monarchs. In this way, respecting the transport conditions of the period, they sought to keep the Crown as updated as possible about what happened in the different spaces over which it claimed sovereignty, which was equivalent to stating that their reports operated to assert this power.

The consolidation of the Iberian presence in the Americas ended up bringing territories under different sovereignties into contact. In the 18th century it was common for authorities loyal to one or another monarch to officially exchange information, issuing alerts to common threats, giving explanations about abnormal situations so that these would not be misinterpreted, or even proposing cooperation in relation to specific questions. Nevertheless, the claiming of land rights was extremely common, and satisfactory explanations were demanded for incursions that exceeded the badly defined territorial limits. Governors and viceroys did not comment on the use of spies but left it clear that they had detailed knowledge of what was going on in areas controlled by rivals.

In frontier areas, coexistence between military officers from different Empires occurred on a daily basis, and the terms of letters between them were friendly. Invitations to dinner were not uncommon, and the reports confessed a great frankness in conversations. Close coexistence led to relations other than competition and war. However, the results were duly reported to military or government superiors, since the instructions received required this.19

Military troops also coexisted on expeditions to demarcate the frontiers established in diplomatic treaties, requesting and conferring explanations on a daily basis. Once again the most relevant themes were reported to superiors. This practice could be evidenced during the frustrated demarcation of the Treaty of Santo Ildefonso in 1777, which went on for various years in the southern and northern extremes of the Americas. The frequent exchange of messages did not eliminate the profound suspicion of representatives of each Crown.

In the seaports, vigilance was maintained when ships arrived. Their captains were questioned about the reports they brought from their ports of embarkation or from stopovers on their voyages. European gazettes and periodicals were requested in order to prove reported news. Whether through oral questioning or printed material, the news ended up in letters sent to superiors. When newspapers were consulted, care was taken to mention them, as this gave credit to reports. Similarly, private letters sent to commanders could be used to report news from distant locations or from the other side of the ocean.

In order not to depend on the pace of external dispatches, military commanders sent out border patrols to identify movements of enemy troops or criminals. These patrols always asked local inhabitants for news. Nor did they refrain from entering the territories of other sovereigns. In these actions guides and scouts were of importance: men with great knowledge of a region, who went ahead of the principal group, looking for signs of people or troops to be tracked. These functions were exercised by soldiers, but frequently men from outside the military were in charge, notably indigenous people and former slaves, who apparently knew the region from their economic occupations. Working as animal herders, transporters of merchandise, and even smugglers, they had precise knowledge about the best routes to be followed.20


Unlike the collection of information, intended to gather reports that circulated in different channels, espionage was a more specific activity. Its purpose was to obtain information that rivals did not want to circulate, done through deceit and dissimulation. It is important to elucidate that espionage was contained within intelligence services, although these did not depend exclusively on it. Intelligence could dispense with spying, operating only through official channels, however, the search for secrets could achieve nothing if it did not use this resource. The Iberian Atlantic witnessed many espionage actions, although mentions of this are non-systematic and most reports were secondhand, narratives in which other people mentioned spies. Reports written by spies are rare. Similarly, identifying their names is difficult, since the need for discretion led them not to sign their messages. Their superiors also did not name them, to avoid compromising their identities in the case of interception. Nevertheless, payments in money and other manner were mentioned. The institutions of the royal treasuries registered instructions from viceroys for payments to Portuguese secret agents, classifying their service as very necessary.21

The necessity of spies was experienced in different regions and for many purposes. At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, soldiers disguised as merchants left the Southern captaincy of Rio Grande de São Pedro to circulate in the Hispanic viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata. The military commander responsible for sending these men, Brigadier Manuel Marques de Souza, commented in a letter to the governor about the sending of a man of his confidence to a second season in the city of Montevideo, where he just spent six months. Due to the winter period the port of the city was not busy, and the informant did not return with relevant novelties at his first attempt. However, the agent would only carry out the new mission after the guarantee of the payment of a monetary value, which would overcome his fear of being arrested.22

In 1799 and 1800 Coronel Joaquim Xavier Curado was given a mission enveloped within multiple layers of secrecy. At the first level he received orders from the viceroy of the State of Brazil to transport secret letters to the viceroy of Rio de la Plata, without having access to their content. Curado did not know that the orders came from Secretary of State Dom Rodrigo de Sousa Coutinho, who was negotiating with the Spanish Court regarding the sending of silver from the Americas to Spain in Portuguese ships. The ruse was very possibly aimed at misleading English vessels, then at war with the Spanish. Nevertheless, Coronel Curado’s orders included another secret intention, to use the trip to Buenos Aires to circulate around the city and survey its defenses. For this reason, he was instructed to hide his rank, identifying as a junior officer and a mere messenger. He also did not shy away from pretending to be friendly with Spanish officers and to simulate difficulties in his vessel so that he could land in Colônia do Sacramento, which he originally was not going to visit, to complete his survey of the forces in Rio de la Plata.23 Plans within plans: the Spanish and Portuguese considered tricking the English (neutral in relation to Portugal), but their attempts were full of mistrust and deception. If Joaquim Xavier Curado had been arrested and interrogated he could not confess more than the plan to survey the military defenses or to implicate anyone other than the viceroy of Brazil. He was unaware of the important message he transported and the involvement of the strongman of the Portuguese, prince regent Dom João. Dissimulation among information agents can be interpreted as a security measure against problems and treason, preventing the path back to the origin of an initiative from being traced.

Further to the north in the Americas, spies left the captaincy of Mato Grosso in the direction of the provinces of Maynas and Moxos, in the viceroyalty of Peru. They received instructions from plans prepared by the Marquis of Pombal, the secretary of state, which were aimed at attracting attention to the products smuggled by the Portuguese.24 Meanwhile, in the vila of Belém, in the State of Grão-Pará, an interesting example of biological piracy emerged, once again under the instructions of Dom Rodrigo de Sousa Coutinho. The aim was to smuggle examples of plants that the French had been experimentally using to develop their agricultural policy in Cayena. The removal of specimens was carried out under diplomatic pretexts, when emissaries had secret orders to smuggle shoots and seed.25 Both cases occurred in the second half of the 18th century.

In the same century, a French adventurer, determined to discover the secret of cochineal, the famous red dye, successfully penetrated New Spain. Using false claims and simulated friendships he managed to reach Oaxaca Valley, in Mesoamerica, where he discovered that the scarlet powder was obtained from a small beetle. Taking advantage of his education as a botanist and doctor, Nicolas Joseph Thiery de Menonville forged numerous reports and simulated diseases and friendships to travel from the French colony of Santo Domingo to Cuba and afterward to the American continent. His dissimulation involved taking the care to carry plants the whole time, dissecting them and observing them with lenses, in order to sustain his lie. Skillfully dribbling friends and opponents, the Frenchman ended up defeated by the fragile nature of the insects, which rotted in the ship’s hold in the three-month voyage back to Santo Domingo. The few examples that survived could not stand the rainy climate and the voracious ants that preyed on the cochineal.26 The forger’s skillful efforts did not come to fruition.

It is difficult to identify when these adventurers and informers really entered the practice of espionage, due to the sparse and short reports. Generally speaking, the documentation makes it possible to see the existence of spies as common, though without entering into details of their operation. It is also safe to say that they existed in the educated world, since Iberian dictionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries used the word “spy” with similar meanings: “The person who walks unknown among enemies to discover their intentions and to warn his own.” Afterward the following expressions are mentioned: “double agent,” “bought spy,” “lost spy,” and “spy ship.”27 The Tesoro de la lengua castellana by Sebastian Covarrubia Orozco directly mentions the espión, whose meaning is close to spy and suggests that this term is more precise in its definition. Espionage was part of the political vocabulary and practices of the early modern age.

Information Analysis

Obtaining information was fundamental, however, it was only the first step in a chain of operations. News had to be processed and analyzed, which implied its transformation, interpretation, and verification. Many reports of espionage are indirect, compilations or assessments by high-ranking commanders who mentioned the collection of news by different channels: scouts, patrols, and informers. The absence of firsthand written accounts suggests that many of these were oral reports. This implied that by putting these reports on paper the officers established them and gave them form, filtering what they considered most relevant from what was commonplace or untrue. Actually, more than one letter provides evaluations in this sense, mentioning that they did not believe that certain information was true.

These opinions on information called into question whether it was truthful. Commanders judged how much information they actually had, although their verification methods were rudimentary. Certain informers, with a history of being correct, were trusted, or news was mentioned as obtained from other sources to contrast with them. When in doubt, commanders undertook to send new spies and informers to collect more data so that they could judge better.

Comparing reports was the most common manner of checking information. For this it was necessary to diversify both the sources and forms of obtaining reports. Divergences suggested doubts, while convergences indicated a greater veracity. The annexing of newspapers and printed material provided greater credibility.

The comparison of information, however, was related to the political hierarchy. A governor was thus able to consult different reports sent by different military commanders, each with their own information circuits. In this way the governor of a captaincy received more versions than each military commander subordinated to him. The viceroy of the State of Brazil was able to compare reports from regions thousands of kilometers away. This was the case when officers from the Amazonian captaincy of Rio Negro sought to obtain details about the Tupac Amaru indigenous revolt. Portuguese officers involved in the demarcation of the Treaty of Santo Ildefonso suspected that their Spanish counterparts had minimized the event in order not to show weakness. Confirmation came from far, from the southern Rio Grande de São Pedro, where news was collected through Buenos Aires and Montevideo, which certified that the viceroyalty of Peru was caught in a large conflagration.28 By themselves none of the commanders was able to access the two extremes, with it being a prerogative of the viceroy of Brazil to be supplied by such distinct channels and to decide to pass information on to others. Since information was precious, having it was a form of exercising power.

Counterintelligence: Disinformation Policy

One of the stratagems common to spying and information policies was the deliberate manipulation of information, in order to disorientate rivals and enemies. This preparation took advantage of the principles of simulation and dissimulation in order to omit information, pass on false information, or even pass on a fusion of truth and lies. This tactic protected sensitive information and induced competing analysts to make mistakes, showing simultaneously a defensive and offensive attitude.

The Portuguese commander of the frontier with the viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata, Manuel Marques de Souza, used this maneuver to outwit the Spanish captain Don Francisco de La Rosa. In a letter, Rosa initially questioned the Portuguese captain João José Palmeiro about a concentration of troops close to the frontier between the two empires, and the latter asked his superior for the response. Marques de Souza met his staff and wrote a draft reply, which was transcribed and signed by Captain Palmeiro as if it was by him. In the eyes of the Spanish the reply was only from the captain and not from the commander of the frontier. The content of the letter began by refuting the questions, considering them restricted to higher authorities, specifically the Portuguese governor and the Spanish viceroy, emphasizing that the supposed Portuguese officer did not have the authorization to deal with military movements. However, the second part mentioned that if he was authorized he could state that it was only routine exercises. Following this he discussed how the Spaniard could have obtained these reports, saying that this could only have been done through spies. It was stated strongly that if they used this expedient, the Portuguese also had their channels of communication and that they did not ignore what was going on in neighboring dominions. The letter ended emphasizing that the affirmation it contained had no official status, for which reason the Spaniard was warned not to write again about these subjects.

Manuel Marques de Souza’s action typifies counterintelligence. In seeing his subordinate questioned by the Spaniard, he acted on two fronts. In the first he forbade contact, reserving this for superior authorities. In the second, he directly answered what the Spaniard had asked, not refusing to do this, but doing it as if it was Captain Palmeiro writing and not Marques de Souza. The information was true, but the emissary was being misleading. If Marques de Souza had answered directly as commander of the frontier he would have been stimulating future demands, for which reason he finished by reprimanding Rosa’s demands.

Manipulation of information was proposed in the Plan de operaciones attributed to the revolutionary leader of Buenos Aires, Mariano Moreno, who described ways to consolidate and expand the revolution of May 1810. Among his advice, two aspects were based on simulation, both aimed at gaining adherents to the emancipatory project within the population of the Portuguese captaincy of Rio Grande de São Pedro and the Hispanic city of Montevideo, still loyal to the King of Spain. The plan recommended sending to the Portuguese dominions “agents in the class of merchants, or other manners, . . . to all destinations of Río Grande del Sud,” who, supported by the treaties of friendship and free trade they intended to sign, would have free transit. However, the same commercial agents were to be advised to transport newsletters and pamphlets, as well as giving as many speeches as possible about the principles of man, natural rights, rationality, and about “happiness, liberty, equality, and the benevolence of the new system.” In other words, the merchants were to act as propagandists for the emancipation of the Americas and the advantages of joining the government in Buenos Aires. The instructions were so precise that they indicated that the magistrates of each settlement were to be approached before the others, through friendly relations and presents, in order to get to know their political opinions and influence them.

For Montevideo, which previously had been part of the viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata, the plan indicated a great use of falsity. The first stage involved sending spies to different settlements to collect private and true news of all types. Knowing the names of people and their relationships in Montevideo the second stage would begin, in which anonymous letters were written meant to seem like letters written by the inhabitants of the city or that were addressed to them. They were to mention the names of people they knew and relatives and falsify signatures. It was intended to disseminate among the supporters of Spain the idea that there were sympathizers of the Buenos Aires government interested in changing sides. The effect was to disseminate mistrust and make the Montevideo government suspicious of its allies, eventually causing some of these to flee to Buenos Aires. “For these tricks we benefit from the diversity of opinions and divisions in which families are gives us a wide margin of action, since some are from one side and others from the other; and, therefore, letters have to be written from fathers to sons, from uncles to nephews, from wives to husband, etc., and . . . we will manage to divide the spirits and upset them in such a way that we cause dissension and popular convulsions, so that we can reap much fruit, sowing amongst them the seeds of discord and distrust.”29 In turn, the Portuguese government did not underestimate the strength that the insertion of news and propaganda in newspapers and other printed material could have in favor of political emancipation in the Americas. It thus ordered the confiscation and destruction of papers considered subversive.

Clandestine Operations

The final operation of the intelligence service included clandestine or hidden actions: sabotage, assassination, stimulating revolts. The Portuguese used this resource, taking advantage of the division of Spanish possessions in the Americas. In 1808, with the Portuguese court having moved to Rio de Janeiro, Secretary of State Dom Rodrigo de Sousa Coutinho sent Joaquim Xavier Curado to Rio de la Plata, taking advantage of the experience he had in the region. Under the pretext of establishing commercial contacts Curado had to look for interested parties in support of the establishment of the regency of Princess Carlota Joaquin over Spanish territories. The secret agent managed to reach Montevideo, but the authorities in Buenos Aires suspected his intentions and refused him access to the city, which prevented him from carrying out his ruse.30

In 1811, after the beginning of the emancipatory movement in Buenos Aires, the Portuguese Lieutenant José de Abreu went to Assumption, in the province of Paraguay. Once again trade served as a disguise for secret orders: offering the Spanish government a direct agreement with Prince Dom João. If they accepted to submit the territory and population of Paraguay to the prince he would send troops to stop the advance of the revolutionaries from Buenos Aires.31 In both cases the Portuguese did not achieve their objectives, but the examples show that they were willing to secretly negotiate parallel to their allegations of an alliance with Spain, which at this moment had also been invaded by Napoleonic France. Simulation and dissimulation found a justification in the defense of the interests of the prince and his state.

Discussion of the Literature

In 1919 Alfredo Varela looked at the secret actions of the Portuguese to attract sympathizers to the project of recognizing Princess Carlota Joaquina as the regent of Spanish territories in the Americas, a little before the revolutions that culminated in a series of South American independences. Although he dived deeply into the documents he did not systematize secret activity, as description was his priority. Varela’s transnational approach, although pioneering, was slow to attract interest and has only more recently been valorized. The recent valorization of the theme of the border and governments in early modern Iberian America has led to questioning the relations between the agents of the different Crowns, both Iberian, French, and English. Work on the Spanish context in Europe has impelled this change in approach, treating espionage as a recurrent activity umbilically linked to state action. The work of Emilio Sola Castaño, which can be accessed through Archivo de la Frontera, is indispensable here.

The books of Filippo de Vivo and Noel Malcom examine circuits of information in the 16th century and their implication for the consolidation of states and the maintenance of empires. In these the city of Venice gained considerable importance, as a pioneer in the use and organization of these systems and in the arena of disputes over information. In both the correlation with the animosities between states is evident, which approximates espionage to diplomacy and war. As a fundamental complement, for the same context, the doctorate of Emrah Safa Gürkan examines the information policies of the Ottoman Empire. Ardnt Brendecke’s book is a reference to understand the correlation between information, knowledge, and the affirmation of the Spanish Empire in the Americas.

In relation to the Portuguese, much of the work that dealt with their espionage has not been published and is only accessible in the form of final graduation projects, master’s theses, and doctoral dissertations, all from the early 21st century. Few take the subject as central, but a valorization of it can be perceived, especially in research about Luso-Hispanic relations in frontier regions. Actually, the mention of spies is quite recurrent in many studies, but it is seen as an accessory or treated as a curiosity. This treatment probably results from the idea that it is not easy to systematically follow the agents of information or even that these did not exist in a constant manner. More recently it has been shown that this premise is not true. Exploratory work of all the literature that mentions espionage—whether directly or in a secondary manner—is still required.

Although it does not specifically deal with espionage, Tamar Herzog’s book is an exciting study about relations between the Portuguese and Spanish in various frontier areas of the Americas and Europe. Her proposal that the conflicts over territorial possession were developed to a great extent as a rhetorical struggle expressed in letters is very important for the strengthening of studies of espionage as a valid field and with a potential for contribution. Similarly, the doctoral dissertations of Carlos Augusto Bastos and Adílson Ishihara Brito demonstrate what exists to be explored in the Amazonian region, where Iberian rivalry was added to proximity of the French and Dutch. A set of recent studies show the undeniable participation of Spanish and Portuguese authorities, not only as beneficiaries but also in the formation of information networks. Of particular importance is the participation of military officers, but equally their subordination to governors and the king’s secretaries, which implies the knowledge of the principal authorities of the empires in question.

Studies of international relations usually deal with the question of intelligence services and espionage in a more direct way than in history. For this reason, a large part of the analytical vocabulary comes from this field, profoundly interested in the analyses of the 20th century and their impacts and uses in the current early 21st-century scenario. Michael Herman’s manual is a safe starting point to enter the rationality and analytical instruments of intelligence. The comparison with later periods raises the question of the validity of maintaining or adapting common concepts. Nevertheless, the multiplication of studies tends to show that current intelligence systems are tributaries of experiences with profound historical roots.

Those interested in the theme should use the literature aimed at realities other than the Iberian. Robert Darnton’s book involves an exciting cultural and political analysis of subversive 18th-century Parisienne poetry, as well as the police repression it suffered. Evident in this work are the channels of communication that allow the transportation of ideas, as well as the intense use of domestic intelligence, that is, monarchical authority over its own population, a topic whose investigation for periods before the 20th century still needs further exploration.


Translated from Portuguese by Eoin O’Neill

Primary Sources

Reports on espionage are usually dispersed among different collections in various archives. Generally speaking, it is useful to start to look in archival fonds that include the communication between Spanish and Portuguese authorities, understanding that espionage was part of the administration. Portuguese military commanders frequently mentioned the reception of information from spies and informers in the Military Authorities documentary fond in Historical Archive of Rio Grande do Sul, in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The transit of written information indicates that important documents can be found in the National Library and the National Archive, Brazil, generally in codices that include letters from governors and viceroys. The Resgate Barão do Rio Branco Project, containing the consultations of the Overseas Council, is a good starting point. For Spanish regions searching the various national archives is recommended, such as Archivo General de La Nación, in Argentina, in which the Lavradio collection contains many sensitive letters related to 1808–1815. Part of the collection was published with the name “Portuguese Policy in Rio de La Plata,” in three volumes in the 1960s that can be found for sale in secondhand bookshops in Buenos Aires.

More recently, the Archivo General de Simancas in Spain organized an exhibition about spying, especially in early modern Europe. Named Spies: Secret Services and Ciphered Writing in the Monarchy, the exhibition has a digital catalogue in which photos of the originals can be accessed and their descriptions. It is also possible to access the Portal de Archivos Españoles: PARES, which includes the principal archives of the country, including the General Archive of the Indias, whose position as the depository of correspondence for the Americas gives it the potential to hold secret collections.

An episode about which there is much printed material is the British invasions of the River Plate in 1806 and 1807. Diving into the printed and manuscript documentation should show the role of informers and spies in the actions to retake Buenos Aires and reveal something about the participation of the Portuguese in the event. In short, the more studies are carried out about espionage the more historians will need to integrate these informal channels in the explanatory models of overseas empires in the early modern period.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Adelman, Jeremy. Sovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Azevedo, Francisca Nogueira de. “Dom Joaquim Xavier Curado e a Política Bragantina Para as Províncias Platinas (1800–1808).” Topoi (Rio De Janeiro) 3, no. 5 (2002): 161–183.
  • Azevedo, Francisca L. Nogueira de. Carlota Joaquina Na Corte Do Brasil. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Civilização Brasileira, 2003.
  • Darnton, Robert. Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012.
  • Guerra, François Xavier. “‘Voces Del Pueblo’: Redes De Comunicación y Orígenes De La Opinión En El Mundo Hispánico (1808–1814).” Revista De Indias 62, no. 225 (2002): 357–384.
  • Herzog, Tamar. Frontiers of Possession: Spain and Portugal in Europe and the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
  • Malcom, Noel. Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits, and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Metcalf, Alida. Go-Betweens and the Colonization of Brazil, 1500–1600. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.
  • Pimenta, João Paulo G. A independência do Brasil e a experiência Hispano-Americana (1808–1822). São Paulo, Brazil: Hucitec Editora, 2015.
  • Sola, Emilio. “Detrás de las apariencias: Información y secreto en el Mediterráneo clásico del siglo XVI.” In Detrás De Las Apariencias: Información y Espionaje (Siglos XVI–XVII). Edited by Emilio Sola and Gennaro Varriale, 243–272. Alcalá de Henares, Spain: Universidad de Alcalá, 2015.
  • Sola Castaño, Emilio. “Los que van y vienen: Marinos, espías y rescatadores de cautivos em la frontera mediterránea.” In Renegados, Viajeros y tránsfugas: Comportamientos Heterodoxos y De Frontera En El Siglo XVI. Edited by Martín Pedro García, Emilio Sola, and Vázquez Germán, 63–69. Torres de la Alameda, Spain: Fugaz, 2000.
  • Varela, Alfredo. Duas Grandes Intrigas: Mysterios Internacionaes Attinentes Ao Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay e Paraguay. Porto, Portugal: Renascença Portuguesa, 1919.
  • Vivo, Filippo de. Information and Communication in Venice: Rethinking Early Modern Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.