Trans-Pacific economic history shows us how Spanish-centred maritime commercial activities were not all that was going on in and across the Pacific. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the smuggling of Chinese silk and textiles to the Spanish colonies formed a persistent problem for colonial authorities. Silk from the Manila galleon route was smuggled from Acapulco to Peru. Mule trains then ferried it to the ‘silver capital’ of Potosí. While Spanish authorities repeatedly attempted to curtail this smuggling, it effectively undercut the European colnial market, giving rise to a ‘subversive economy’. This paper explores the silk and bullion smuggling trade between China and Peru, revealing a more complex trans-Pacific exchange beyond the routes involving the Spanish ‘Manila Galleon’. The research into these cultures and practices forms part of the ERC Advanced Grant Project on ‘The Structure and Impact of Trans-Pacific Trade, 16th to 18th centuries’ (TRANSPACIFIC, Grant agreement 833143) at KU Leuven, which reinvestigates hidden transpacific commodity flows, specifically looking at invisible or overlooed actors beyond the official Manila galleon trade.
This paper also shows how the (semi-)processed states of the commodities both determined their potential declaration as illegal goods and the practical possibilities for their clandestine transport. Consequently, the refined or finised state of the commodities mattered in smuggling as much as it did in legitimate commerce, as it influenced and determined both their valuation and physical form as they moved along the commodity chain, with an impact on the agency and organisation of the workers transporting them.
New evidence from archives in Potosí and Peru, coupled with European sailors’ personal letters, reveals ways in which the processed and unprocessed states of silk textiles and unminted bullion played a crucial role in the long-running smuggling culture of the Spanish colonies and at sea. This paper aims to indicate on what levels this subversive economy exteneded. It looks at which agents were involved, how it crossed over the contingent line between legal and illegal economic practices, and what consequences and influences this had on subsequent commercial developments. It questions how the qualitative nature of silk and bullion as unfinished or processed commodities determined or impacted transpacific smuggling. Lastly, it also indicates how information was gathered on the nature of these commodities, and the state in which they could be smuggled. This paper thus provices a sweepoing look at the early-modern trans-Pacific smuggling trade from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and its extension into the Ostend-Asia ventures, providing some indications on how these questions can be addressed.