Free Trade and Smuggling Between British West Florida and Spanish Louisiana
Between 1763 and 1783 there was free trade in our neck of the woods, if you count British and American merchants trading with British West Florida and the French of Spanish Louisiana trading exclusively with Spain and its New World colonies in Middle and South America. Fortunately for all concerned, such restrictive policies were ignored. The reasons are two fold: one being the sheer determination of the practical British merchant to turn a profit, the second, the economic needs of Spanish Louisiana’s French subjects, who got down-right rowdy if they had to do without.
Britain and British West Florida provided the only markets for Louisiana goods (deerskins, beaver pelts, tobacco, indigo, and mules—Louisiana mules seem to have been a big item) and the goods the French in Louisiana needed and wanted, as a rule, came from Britain (rum, shoes, saddles, Chinese tea, crosscut saws, cutlery, hats, gunpowder, shot, linen, flour, sugar, ironmongery ((objects made of metal)), textiles, and slaves) or France (brandy, cottonade[homespun], French soap, coffee, sugar—and again flour. Flour, apparently was a big seller). In the early years of Spain’s dominion over Louisiana, trade with France was as forbidden as trade with Britain, but unlike Britain, France lacked the base to push the issue; however, British merchants, however, routinely traded with France, and provided French goods they acquired to Louisiana.
Despite London’s and Madrid’s official policies to the contrary, British and American merchants from West Florida, with affiliations primarily in New York, Philadelphia and London, carried on a very profitable trade with Spanish Louisiana, under the noses of, and with the tacit approval of, Spanish authorities.
When I started this article, I was familiar with the Spanish Intrigue, that game of espionage, treason, and Machiavellian carryings-on that dominated the Spanish-American frontier after the British ceded the Natchez District to both Spain and the newly-formed United States at the end of the American Revolution. [Those Brits are probably still laughing in their graves after pulling off that one.] I didn’t realize, however, how long such illegal, double-dealing, and even treacherous behavior had been going on before Britain threw up her hands and said farewell to her North American colonies.
For British settlers, at least those with prospects, the lure of the unpopulated West Florida province was not so much the “call of the wild” as the temptation of Spanish coin. Spain had hard currency. The French had a limited number of exports and paper money, and British merchants had the best supply (in variety and quality) of desired items in the western world.
Both London and Madrid enacted trade policies that were detrimental to their provinces. For example, cargo could only be carried on vessels registered to their respective nations. Spanish ships could not sell their goods in a British port and vice versa; however, depending on who was in control of the British fleet in Jamaica, that policy was loosely interpreted—foreigners could trade as long as goods sold did not hurt British manufacturers (in other words—they could sell what Britain did not/could not provide). For Spain (and its French subjects in Louisiana) that specification didn’t include much.
Madrid’s official policy toward the British was worse and Spanish authority, on scene, more lax.
The French citizens of Louisiana were not happy with their Spanish masters—I don’t think they ever were, but certainly not in the beginning. When Spain finally assumed control of New Orleans in 1765 (it took them two years to relieve the French), the new governor, Don Antonio de Ulloa, tried to strictly enforce Madrid’s trade laws.
So, whereas British authorities, governing British citizens, loosened trade restrictions, the French citizens of Louisiana struggled under the thumb of a “foreign” governor who didn’t understand the meaning of the word flexibility.
Worse yet, Spain had not provided Ulloa the coin he needed to effectively support the new province’s trade requirements. In 1768, the French colonists (and their British “guests”) revolted and ran him out of the province (Spain hadn’t provided him much in the way of troops, either.) By the time his replacement, Allessandro O’Reilly [there had to be an Irish daddy back there somewhere], arrived ten months later, he found British merchants running his colony. According to O’Reilly, the British pocketed ninety percent of all profits made in New Orleans.
O’Reilly showed up with two things Ulloa hadn’t had—coin and troops. In short order, he banished British merchants from New Orleans and brought trade (or lack of) back under Spanish control.
The British merchants dealt with the situation as they would a hiccup—just held their breath for a little while and waited. They were actually glad for O’Reilly’s arrival—remember, he brought coin. British enterprise in Louisiana had started to decline, due to lack of hard currency, during the ten months the colony was without official leadership.
O’Reilly must have been the Spanish equivalent of an “equalizer” or gangbuster. No sooner did he have the situation under control than Governor Luis de Unzaga replaced him. In Mobile and Pensacola, British merchants sat poised to take advantage of the situation in Louisiana. Spain simply could not supply the colonists what they needed, and Unzaga did know the meaning of flexibility (or Madrid, in a rare moment of lucidity, gave him proper marching orders).
Under terms of the 1763 treaty ending the French and Indian War, Britain had unobstructed use of the Mississippi. British merchants bringing ships laden with goods into New Orleans had to pass through Belize at the mouth of the Mississippi and receive a permit to sell goods in the city. Spanish authorities set the price on those goods.
Eventually, British merchants began passing through Belize, informing authorities they were going north to Manchac on Lake Pontchartrain or Natchez, both British territory. Madrid might not have had the brightest candles in the holder, but its minions in Louisiana weren’t stupid. Those British merchants sailed north of New Orleans, dropped anchor in the river, and carried on their business there. Governed by the terms of the treaty, Unzaga couldn’t do a thing about it—unless he caught Britain dealing with his subjects. Usually Spanish authorities looked the other way for a small percentage of the profits.
Additionally, British merchants would take their cargo-laden vessels to Pontchartrain’s north shore, then covertly ferry goods to New Orleans via Bayou St. John.
Periodically, the Spaniards would raid the “smugglers” sitting in the river and/or run the merchants out of New Orleans. Such events were normally retaliation for action against Spanish ships in British ports. The British merchants usually requested recompense, recouped a portion of their loss, then returned to business as usual. Business must have been lucrative for these men to put up with the periodic hassles.
Truth be told, trade was good for all parties concerned. British merchants got rich meeting the needs of Spain’s French subjects. Britain sold much more than it bought, and Spain made up the difference from its coffers. Spain never showed interest in making its Louisiana colony viable, the reason being—and I alluded to this in an earlier article—for Spain, Louisiana was nothing more than a buffer between its lucrative colonies in Central and South America and Britain's North American colonies. In Madrid’s opinion, Louisiana was worth that relatively small price paid.
Britain had problems with her subjects as well. Unlike Spain, her woes were homegrown—and as we know would end with the American Revolution.
British West Florida had timber and pine by-products such as pitch, which the Spanish in Louisiana needed to build ships. You can guess where this is leading. To London, that trade made about as much sense as our selling technology to the Chinese today. Suffice it to say, Britain forbid such sales and for British West Florida, it meant the loss of a lucrative market. But then as now, economic gain outweighed the risks, patriotism be damned, and such intercourse did occur. In 1781, Mobile and Pensacola fell to the dominion of Spain.
Another source of London’s discontent was the fur trade. British manufacturers’ in London desired beaver pelts—they made hats out of them, and those hats were very popular—everywhere. Anyway, British fur traders up on the Ohio and northern Mississippi, instead of selling their furs to Britain via Philadelphia and New York, ferried them downriver to New Orleans where hides sold for eight percent more than what London paid.
British merchants were adept at acquiring much-sought-after French goods, then turning around and selling those goods in New Orleans (and probably anywhere else in British West Florida where they could get the stuff in and not get caught by the Admiralty). There was no profit for London’s manufacturers on such sells or duties paid to the British government.
Finally, after the Revolution started, the Admiralty couldn’t tell a loyal merchantman from a disloyal one. A number of merchants home ported in the colonies and sailing under a British flag, were dedicated Americans operating with their future nation in mind. Spain preferred the Americans and provided them gunpowder and shot. As it turned out, Spain probably should have sympathized more with Britain, but as y’all know, European powers had a habit of screwing with one another every chance they got.
In 1776, Spain, in hopes of ending its trade dependency on Great Britain, opened its ports to French shipping. For years, British vagabonds, smugglers, and merchant sailors created havoc inside New Orleans. Outside the city limits, they terrorized plantation owners, and British citizens outnumbered the French two to one in New Orleans’ jails. On top of such miscreant behavior, British Loyalists and American Rebels skirmished along New Orleans’ streets, something the new Spanish governor, Bernardo de Galvez found intolerable. In 1777, Galvez weighed the pluses and minuses of action, then seized British ships along the river and expelled the British merchants from the city, unless they swore loyalty to Spain. A number actually did. Afterwards, however, some of those turncoats got the boot or landed in a Cuban prison after warning British authorities in Natchez that an American ship was headed upriver loaded with ammunition for the American cause.
Unfortunately for Galvez, the French were slow to take advantage of the new trade agreement between France and Spain. Louisiana still needed British trade, so despite the intensification of the same old conflicts, legal and illegal trade between Britain and Spanish Louisiana continued pretty much as normal until June of 1779 when war broke out between Britain and Spain.
Two years later, Cornwallis surrendered Yorktown and Galvez seized West Florida up to the mouth of the Yazoo River. (By 1783, Spain had East Florida as well). Britain had thrown in the hat, leaving her “ungrateful” American colonies to fend for themselves. As a parting gesture, she ceded the rich Natchez District to both her wayward children and an old, old enemy. Don’t know for sure what her devious plan was with that move, but the old enemy turned out to be as insipid as ever, and she’d raised those kids true to her own image. Hardly a fair match.
My primary source for this article is Robin F. A. Fabel’s The Economy of British West Florida, 1763-1783, University of Alabama Press, 1988. [He provides a great bibliography there, too.]
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