The Temptations of Trade: Britain, Spain and the Struggle for Empire

The Temptations of Trade: Britain, Spain and the Struggle for Empire

The Temptations of Trade: Britain, Spain and the Struggle for Empire

The Temptations of Trade: Britain, Spain and the Struggle for Empire


The British and the Spanish had long been in conflict, often clashing over politics, trade, and religion. But in the early decades of the eighteenth century, these empires signed an asiento agreement granting the British South Sea Company a monopoly on the slave trade in the Spanish Atlantic, opening up a world of uneasy collaboration. British agents of the Company moved to cities in the Caribbean and West Indies, where they braved the unforgiving tropical climate and hostile religious environment in order to trade slaves, manufactured goods, and contraband with Spanish colonists. In the process, British merchants developed relationships with the Spanish--both professional and, at times, personal.

The Temptations of Trade traces the development of these complicated relationships in the context of the centuries-long imperial rivalry between Spain and Britain. Many British Merchants, in developing personal ties to the Spanish, were able to collect potentially damaging information about Spanish imperial trade, military defenses, and internal conflict. British agents juggled personal friendships with national affiliation--and, at the same time, developed a network of illicit trade, contraband, and piracy extending beyond the legal reach of the British South Sea Company and often at the Company's direct expense.

Ultimately, the very smuggling through which these empires unwittingly supported each other led to the resumption of Anglo-Spanish conflict, as both empires cracked down on the actions of traders within the colonies. The Temptations of Trade reveals the difficulties of colonizing regions far from strict imperial control, where the actions of individuals could both connect empires and drive them to war.


In 1679, a young surgeon named Lionel Wafer left Jamaica, ending a visit to his brother there for more adventurous company. Like many men leaving the island at the time, Wafer had joined the buccaneers. Over the next decade, he would sail through Spanish waters, annoying their ships and settlements, making note of the natural and human resources of that empire, and even living among a native group in modern- day Panama and learning their language. He acted as a surgeon on pirate vessels and spent time in a Jamestown prison. But more than a tale of exploration and misadventure, Wafer’s is a story of empire. After returning to the safety of England, Wafer published a book, A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America, encouraging his countrymen in England to move into the Americas in whatever ways they could in pursuit of glory and profit. Early clandestine exploration into the forbidden territories of the Spanish empire fueled English interest in imperial expansion, and published accounts gave prospective voyagers details about what they might expect to encounter.

European empires in the Americas grew not only as projects of largescale thinkers in London or Madrid, or even of the men and women who funded and organized expeditions across the Atlantic to conquer and claim land. Individuals who moved through these areas or lived there permanently, including merchants, seamen, travelers, and settlers, created the empires on the ground, shaping local realities that sometimes conflicted significantly with the hopes of those in the metropole. In this context, empire was not only a project of European nations, but a kind of strategy for some groups of subjects who could take advantage of the places that governments could and could not assert power over land and trade, making their own fortunes by valuing pragmatism over ideology. Men like Wafer pushed for an expansion of empire through conquest or commerce into places few Englishmen had . . .

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