American Collections blog

10 January 2022

Uncovering Free Ports in the Colonial Caribbean

R. Grant Kleiser is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, New York City, and was an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2021.

During my time as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library, I was interested in material concerning the diffusion of so-called ‘free ports’ in the Spanish, French, British, and Danish Caribbean from roughly 1750 to 1787. In this short period, all the aforementioned imperial powers enacted legislation to welcome foreign merchants to trade in certain colonial harbours (‘free ports’) under low customs duties. Previously, each European empire generally forbade or limited trade with other imperial powers, e.g. England and its colonies were only supposed to trade with each other. Thus, this free port movement marks a notable moment of colonial reform towards opening commerce with foreigners. In a testament to free ports’ importance, political-economic writers such as Adam Smith and Thomas Paine highlighted free ports in their treatises that advocated for what we might call “free trade” today.

Scholars are beginning to chart the origins of Caribbean free ports and their economic effects in the region. But few historians have considered such free ports’ establishment in conjunction with one another, nor have many works examined the impact free ports made on enslaved people’s lives. This is what my broader project sets out to do. Specifically, at the British Library, I wanted to understand how Spain’s lone free port of Monte Cristi (established in 1756) fit in with Britain’s Free Port Act of 1766 (which opened four ports in Jamaica and two in Dominica).

Monte Cristi lies on the northern coast of the island of Hispaniola, just on the border between Santo Domingo (the modern-day Dominican Republic) and Saint-Domingue (today Haiti). Spanish policy-makers had decided to experiment with liberalizing that port for ten years starting in the 1750s to stimulate the desperate local economy and provide support for the Spanish population there. For decades, settlers from Saint-Domingue had been attempting to push into Santo Domingo, and Madrid believed that sparking trade in that region would supply Spanish inhabitants who could defend against such incursions. Even though hundreds of British and British American merchants subsequently flocked to this port, Monte Cristi hardly figured into British politicians’ discussions to establish their own Caribbean free ports in 1766. Why did these policymakers in Westminster and Whitehall ignore Monte Cristi as a free port model when it was so popular with British merchants?



I found a critical folder to answer this question in the British Library, and it has all to do with the chaos of wartime. From 1756 to 1763 the British were engaged in a global military conflict with France, what we now call the Seven Years War. As well as head-on battles and skirmishes at sea, an important maritime wartime strategy for Britain was the naval blockade, when Royal Navy ships would try to prevent merchant ships from accessing French and French colonial ports and so starve these territories of vital supplies. To bolster the blockade effort, in 1756 the British Parliament enacted the so-called Rule of 1756. This Act extended the Navy’s efforts beyond interrupting France’s trade with its own colonies, by seeking to disrupt any neutral European power from trading with the French. British subjects were prohibited from trading with neutral powers who were also trading with France (such as Denmark and, before 1762, Spain), and in practice, the Rule often was used to legitimize the seizure of ships from any nation conducting commerce with the enemy French.

Since Monte Cristi was open to merchants of all flags and was located only a few miles from French Saint-Domingue, British naval vessels identified this port as a potential nest of illegal wartime commerce. Add MS 36213 contains the testimony from multiple appeal hearings concerning British Navy vessels that had seized merchant ships that had conducted commerce in Monte Cristi. The testimony from the appeal hearings demonstrates how many ships in and around Monte Cristi the British Navy captured, including ships from Ireland, British North America, Denmark, and the Netherlands. The captains of these ships swore that they were only trading with the neutral Spanish, and not with the enemy French. However, the British courts clearly suspected fraud on the part of the traders and also on Spanish officers in Monte Cristi providing false certificates concerning the provenance of the ships’ cargoes. These reports, taken together with other documents and Britain’s general stigma at this time against Spain as a decadent, corrupt, and lazy power, show that British policymakers in 1766 would not view Monte Cristi as a well-regulated free port worthy of emulation.

A handwritten eighteenth-century manuscript, which reads in the margin, "Slaves: Memorial of the Wets India planters complaining that the Spaniards invit the slaves to desert their masters."
“Memorial of the West India Planters complaining that the Spaniards invite the Slaves to desert their Masters,” read At the Council Chamber Whitehall, April 17, 1790, BL Add MS 38392, ff. 92-93.

I also came into the British Library hoping to find records that would detail the experiences that enslaved people had in such Caribbean free ports. While, as several historians have noted, free ports were sites of further sale and displacement of enslaved people of African descent, I argue that free ports also provided heightened opportunities for such enslaved people to claim freedom. Specifically, I note that the increased presence of Spanish vessels in British free ports offered enslaved people an easier means of escape. Spain promulgated several Reales Cédulas or royal decrees that promised freedom to any enslaved person escaping from Protestant empires who were willing to convert to Catholicism in Spanish realms. In British free ports then, Spanish merchants brought news of these decrees to eager people held in bondage as well as potential berths to stowaways. The above source, “Memorial of the West India Planters complaining that the Spaniards invite the Slaves to desert their Masters,” combined with other documents indicate that British Grenada experienced a heightened “problem” of freedom-seekers fleeing to nearby Spanish Trinidad after St. George’s, Grenada became a free port in 1787. Thus merchants and white inhabitants were not the only ones to benefit significantly from the free-port reform movement.

These documents in the British Library will serve as fundamental sources in my examination of the development of mid-to-late eighteenth-century Caribbean free ports and their impact on the Atlantic world. Not only can such research help us to understand the roots of many of our modern commercial and political-economic practices and ideas, but it can also shed light on historical actors’ experiences that have too often been silenced by contemporary writers, archival prioritization, and later scholars.