Regele on Reeder, 'Smugglers, Pirates, and Patriots: Free Trade in the Age of Revolution'

Tyson Reeder
Lindsay Schakenbach Regele

Tyson Reeder. Smugglers, Pirates, and Patriots: Free Trade in the Age of Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. 368 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-5138-8.

Reviewed by Lindsay Schakenbach Regele (Miami University of Ohio) Published on H-Diplo (January, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

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Tyson Reeder fills a major gap in the historiography of the Age of Revolutions: Luso-Atlantic trade. While much has been written about North and South America during the independence movements that swept the hemisphere in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the relationship between Brazil and North America remains understudied. Reeder marshals diplomatic records, merchants’ papers, newspapers, and trade statistics from three continents to connect Anglo-American officials and merchants with their Luso-Brazilian counterparts. The book’s connection of economics, foreign relations, race, and ideology represents the virtues of comparative transnational work. Reeder deftly navigates the tensions between government and private interests and between slavery (both metaphoric and literal) and freedom to ultimately show that free trade, imperialism, and slavery were impossible to disentangle, and that North Americans’ contradictory ideas about race and republicanism are best revealed by comparing and connecting the British and Portuguese Empires.

The book is divided into four parts. The first sets the imperial context, and the remaining three analyze the effects of the American Revolution, Portuguese trade liberalization, and Brazil’s emergence as an independent monarchy on the commercial relationship between Brazil and the United States. Each section has a brief introduction that helps orient the reader to the complicated shifts in the ever-changing trade dynamics.

Reeder begins in the seventeenth century, when England and Portugal developed a trade relationship based on gold, slaves, and military power. Although Portugal’s control of slave-mined Brazilian gold made it a desirable Atlantic trade partner, England’s relative military power gave it the upper hand in treaty negotiations. Portugal absorbed British manufactured goods and kept duties for English imports low. It also permitted several British merchant families to operate out of its colonial ports. In exchange, England was supposed to purchase Madeira wine, but British and Portuguese traders defied Crown policy by smuggling gold from Brazil to London. This helped cement the centrality of Brazilian gold, enslaved Africans, and London financiers to the rectangular trade between the Americas, Africa, Portugal, and England.

The legal and illegal privileges Britain secured through its financial and military strength, and, after 1713, through its control of the asiento (the monopoly license the Spanish Crown transferred from Portugal to Britain to carry its slave trade), extended to their American colonists. These privileges ultimately served to undercut Britain’s status in the transatlantic trade. Reeder introduces British Americans’ role in Atlantic commerce through Madeira, a place that receives little attention in the historiography of Anglo-American trade, save for David Hancock’s Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste (2009). Britain’s Navigation Acts exempted the American colonies’ Madeira trade from having to pass through England, which offered merchants a strong incentive to exchange the island’s wine for wheat and flour from the mid-Atlantic colonies. British-American privileges set the stage for American colonists’ resistance to imperial policies as they quickly became the main grain suppliers for Portugal and grew to resent restrictions on their Atlantic trade, and to participate more effectively in the smuggling activities their colonizer had perfected. At the same time, Portugal began to adopt many of Britain’s mercantilist policies, which stunted British commercial networks. Although smugglers continued to defy state restrictions on trade, as Reeder shows, licit and illicit networks were often interconnected and undistinguishable, and British merchants suffered.

As the Seven Years’ and Napoleonic Wars and the American and Brazilian independence movements continuously reconfigured restrictions and freedoms, trade routes and networks adjusted, ultimately reorienting the main flows of the Luso-Atlantic trade to Brazil and the United States. One of the major strengths of this book is the degree to which Reeder can identify the causes and consequences of these changes—a complex interplay of diplomacy, personal relationships, naval power, consumer preferences, and ideology. His extensive collection of commercial laws and court cases, diplomatic negotiations, and mercantile correspondence and account records enables him to identify with precision the winners and losers throughout the revolutionary era. We see, for example, US diplomats unsuccessfully petitioning Portugal for direct access to Brazilian sugar in the 1790s. Family connections allowed the Whartons of Philadelphia and the Bulkeleys of Lisbon to withstand this decade’s decline in the US-Portugal trade, while the Madeira firm Leacock & Sons suffered. We later see Massachusetts representative Edward St. Loe Livermore and a Savannah merchant complaining about the deleterious effects of the Embargo of 1808 on trade with Brazil, and Robert Goodwin avoiding the restrictions of the 1818 Neutrality Act by outfitting his schooner as a foreign warship to trade freely with weapons. Of the individuals Reeder describes, US consul and merchant Joseph Ray perhaps best embodies the book’s central themes. After being dismissed from his official State Department duties for assisting rebels from the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, Ray continued to profit from his personal connections to local merchants, revolutionaries, and privateers. Ray and other American merchants chose smuggling and republican revolution over international legitimacy.

Reeder excels at highlighting the shifting interests and activities that existed throughout the “imperfect geographies” of the Atlantic (p. 191). The United States’ emerging geopolitical strength and territorial acquisition were accompanied by the policing problems of the modern state, specifically around slavery and piracy. The US government restricted the capture of Portuguese ships by US citizens but failed to stop the illicit slave trade; in both cases, it sacrificed its ostensible commitment to republicanism and free trade. Reeder uses these mixed results to highlight the contradictions of revolutionary commerce in the closing pages of his book. By the 1820s, the US grain trade to Brazil had more than rebounded, and US diplomats were no longer submissive to Portuguese demands. Commercial success, however, came at a cost. The United States ultimately achieved this success by endorsing Brazil’s status as a slaveholding republic.

The book ends with an ominous epilogue on the two Americas that solidified their status as slaveholders with contradictory commitments to the ideals of the Age of Revolutions, a nice complement to Caitlin A. Fitz’s Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolution (2016). Reeder’s final commentary on North Americans’ abandonment of their commitment to republican government and free trade caps off a work that is chock full of analytic nuance, illustrative graphs, geographic diversity—from Pennsylvania farms to London banks to winemakers in Madeira to consular offices in Recife to privateering hotspots in Baltimore and the Banda Oriental—and a wealth of insight into transatlantic diplomacy, business, and ideologies. Even if readers struggle to tally up accurately the wins, losses, and ties in this complicated story of legal and illegal trade, they will walk away from this book with a richer understanding of the imperial origins and legacies of Brazil and the United States.

Lindsay Schakenbach Regele is an assistant professor of history at Miami University, Ohio. She is author of Manufacturing Advantage: War, the State, and the Origins of American Industry, 1776-1848 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).


Citation: Lindsay Schakenbach Regele. Review of Reeder, Tyson, Smugglers, Pirates, and Patriots: Free Trade in the Age of Revolution. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL:

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