4/8/2024 - Politics and Society

Taxes, slaves and opportunities on the fringes of the law

By Marcos Pascis

Taxes, slaves and opportunities on the fringes of the law

Taxes are a necessary element for the maintenance of the institutions of the state, without the extraction of rents it would not be able to afford the complex web that implies the monopoly of violence, the essential attribute of the state as a concept. However, it can be argued that state presence through the direct presence of bureaucrats is imperative for optimal tax collection, and the absence of a professional bureaucracy, in favor of indirect rule or officials with incentives for patronage, results in wide margins of action outside the law.

There are thousands of examples of actions outside the law, encouraged by high taxes in controlled areas. One of them is the entry of slaves into the Río de la Plata in the 17th and 18th centuries, since traders saw opportunities in the Spanish crown's lack of control over the port of Buenos Aires, as opposed to the port of Lima, the epicenter of the Viceroyalty of Peru. According to several studies, 80% of the viceroyalty's trade passed through the port of Lima between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For this reason, new types of taxes were introduced, such as the tax on stamped paper in 1640, and the viceroyal authorities increased fiscal pressure, largely to pay remittances aimed at maintaining the crown's dynastic policy in the metropolis (Klein, 1994). The quasi-monopoly of trade in the port of Lima resulted in an increased fiscal effort for merchants willing to unload their products, for this reason, it can be said that there were strong incentives to look for ports where to enter and export goods without the control of the state. The port of Buenos Aires was ideal for these purposes, as can be seen by the drastic drop in the coffers of Lima, in the graph extracted from Arrigo Amadori (2012).

One of the main commercial goods throughout history were the slaves extracted from the African continent, it is estimated that, between the sixth century and the present, between 11 and 18 million slaves were destined for the Middle Eastern markets (Gakunzi, 2018), and precisely 12,521,337 slaves from Africa arrived to the American coasts between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The need for labor generated dynamics of its own on both sides of the Atlantic. In Africa, different coastal tribes came into contact with European enclaves on the coasts to trade slaves for weapons, which were in turn used to capture individuals from other tribes with whom they went to war. The traders bought those who, if they were optimal, could be resold as slaves in America. One market, undoubtedly smaller compared to that of present-day Brazil, was the Río de la Plata, and one of the main buyers of slaves from Brazil were the Jesuits in the northern part of present-day Argentina and southern Paraguay.

Since its second foundation in 1580 by Juan de Garay, Buenos Aires was a route to trade with Spain, an alternative to the official one in the port of Lima. This meant that many products from cities such as Córdoba, Tucumán and Potosí were channeled through the city's port and others from Brazil, including slaves, but also foodstuffs for subsistence in the city which, due to its population, did not demand too much.

For example, Crespi (2001) reports that in 1590, seven slave companies left the city for Angola to supply the market. This situation was unacceptable to Lima's monopolistic merchants who, faced with this competition, complained to the crown, which resulted in the official closure -unless they had a royal license- of trade in the port of Buenos Aires in 1594. However, to avoid depopulation and to prevent other powers from having a free hand to enter Upper Peru "it would be necessary that up to two medium-sized ships go to this city every year, dispatched in that Casa [de Contratación de Sevilla], and that in them the necessary merchandise and things be carried.". However, these shipments were insufficient, especially in the case of the slave market, where numerous merchants had invested considerable sums of money to carry out their operations. Moreover, the slave market was in high demand because slaves were cheaper than those sold by Lima merchants and in regions such as Potosí, where the need for labor was rapidly increasing. This panorama favored the flourishing of illegal forms of supply, which were tolerated and even perpetrated by the authorities in part because, in addition to being a lucrative business, they were integrated into the moral framework of the Ancien Régime. In the context of the "pact" between subjects and lords, it was considered that a law could be overlooked if it was not perceived as just (Veras, 2007).

Various techniques were used to introduce slaves into the forbidden port, on a larger scale than the legal means, such as permits and "black licenses"; ships arrived at beaches far from the main port that were not guarded, then took their merchandise to the commercial center. Arrivals" were also common; these consisted of ships coming from different places, mainly from the Portuguese port of Colonia de Sacramento, arriving at the port of Buenos Aires in emergency stops, such as breakdowns or accidents, and, in the time that the repair took, they disembarked the merchandise (Prado, 2018). More often than not, it was more profitable for the crown to seize the slaves with the agreement of the merchants and then auction them off at a price up to four times lower than the rest of the markets in Spanish America, and also to "manifest" the slaves bought illegally, declaring for them and paying the corresponding duties. As can be seen in an inventory of a "fairly normal" year -1625- according to Mörner (1968), of the total inventory of the city, that is 19,551 pesos, 7,926 -plus 967- entered through manifestations, 1,887 pesos through seizures and 3,995 through "licenses" and other legal means.

Through smuggling and official arrivals between the years of trade prohibition until 1767, 48,183 slaves arrived at the port of Buenos Aires in 179 ships coming directly from the African coasts and 10,246 in 188 ships through intra-American traffic. Although the reality is that few of them stayed in the city, but went to the interior of the region through different trade routes, to the governorate of Chile, the province of Paraguay and Alto Peru (Contarino Sparta, 2011). There were two routes that had connections with the different missions of the Society of Jesus, both going up the Paraná River and ending in Asunción. The first was mainly overland and its route could be more than 1,000 km long if it went to Lima. The second started in Sacramento, passed through Buenos Aires and from there, through the river, headed north, and although it involved more infrastructure since they had to cross the Rio de la Plata, the Portuguese colony was a safe place for supplies and rest.


Contarino Sparta, L. (2011). "Africans in Argentina: a complex visibility". XIII International Congress of ALADAA (pp. 4-6). Bogotá: Latin American Association of Asian and African Studies.

Crespi, L. (2001). "Comercio de esclavos en el rio de la plata." in r. c. gómez, rutas de la esclavitud en África y América latina (pp. 102, 109). Editorial Universidad de Costa Rica.

Gakunzi, D. (2018) "The Arab-Muslim Slave Trade: Lifting the Taboo." Vol. 29, No. ¾, Jewish Political Studies Review.

Klein, H. (1994). "Fiscalidad real y gastos de gobierno: El virreinato del Perú, 1680-1809", No. 66, Serie de Historia 12; Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos.

Mörner, M. (1968). Chap. V and Statistical material. In M. Mörner, Actividades Políticas Económicas Jesuitas En Río De La Plata (pp. 154-158 and 205). Buenos Aires: Biblioteca Argentina de historia y política.

Prado (2018). Trans-Imperial Interaction and the Rio de la Plata as an Atlantic Borderland. Oxford University Press Danna Levin and Cynthia Radding, eds. 4.

Veras, M. P. (January-June 2007). Behavior at the margins of the law: smuggling and society in Buenos Aires in the seventeenth century. Historia Crítica (33), 162, 173.

Viñuales, Graciela (2007). Jesuit Missions of Guaraníes (Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil). Apuntes: Revista de Estudios sobre Patrimonio Cultural - Journal of Cultural Heritage Studies. 20. 108-125.

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marcos pascis

Marcos Pascis

Hello, my name is Marcos, I am a historian and teacher, Magister in historical research by the University of San Andrés. Interested in political ideas, cultural exchanges and public policies.


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