Contraband

From the third decade of the sixteenth century, English, French and Dutch sailors prowled the Caribbean coasts searching for weak, easy access settlements to attack, which resulted, later on, in an exchange of products with the inhabitants. In 1537 a French corsair robbed and burned sugar mills near the Azua village and the Ocoa Bay. In 1540, a Spanish vessel was attached on en route to Europe.
The situation worsened very quickly, making the Crown have to create a regime or system of fleets and galleons to accompany all vessels in their commerce with the Indies; these fleets sailed from Seville twice a year with the manufactured goods and returned from Veracrus in Mexico, and Portobelo in Panama.

The system of fleets begins a long process of isolation and decay for the island of Hispaniola. The ships heading to Santo Domingo, would have to sail from Seville with the fleets and arriving in the Caribbean, and detour alone in their course to Santo Domingo, exposed to possible pirate attacks. The fleets began to cost twice as much and European goods reached unattainable prices, but, even then, ships continued arriving in search of export goods at low prices. The situation was even worse to the inhabitants of Hispaniola after 1566, when it was decided that the fleets coming from the mainland convene in Habana, which, from then on, would be the prime port in the Caribbean, totally displacing Santo Domingo.

Since the growth and expansion of the plantation system was directly related with the demands of the Casas Comerciales of Seville, in the second half of the century "the island began to produce more than what Spain was interested in"11 or what Spain could buy to resell. However, the northern European Countries were very interested in purchasing raw goods directly and at better prices than what Spain had for sale, in other words, buying them from the residents of the West Indies for whom this possibility meant their salvation, being able to sell their products for better prices than the Sevilian merchants, and buying European goods directly from the producers, for a lower price.

Due to the commercial monopoly imposed by the Crown, it's inability to supply the colonial market, as well as, the isolation and neglect that the island began to feel, surged the economic answer that would prevail for centuries in the island of Santo Domingo: contraband.

In 1563 John Hawkins, an English merchant, arrived in the village of Puerto Plata with three ships full of merchandise and slaves; after being denied entry by he authorities, he proceeded to the abandoned settlement of Isabella, where, with the same residents of Puerto Plata, including the town priest, he was able to trade all his merchandise for local products. Even though the authorities in Santo Domingo sent out a garrison which confiscated some of the articles that had been traded with the Englishman, and Hawkins himself and his crew had problems on their arrival in Europe, this voyage assured English merchants that the inhabitants of the Indies were very disposed to trade with them.

Soon, the incidence of contraband would begin to affect certain changes in the society and economy of the island, even seriously deteriorating the Royal finances; changes that resulted impossible to control by the local authorities, who very rapidly also engaged in the new and profitable business.

The majority of the population began to relocate to the coastal zones where contraband was carried out. The principal villages that benefitted by this contraband commerce were Yaguana, Bayajá, Monte Cristi, Puerto Plata, and, some authors also indicate that San Juan de la Maguana, La Vega and Santiago also became production centers of merchandise destined to the foreign commerce and not for sale in the port of Santo Domingo, which, on top of it all, represented a raise in the costs and transport difficulties, since the Indigenous roads had been erased due to the depopulation and the countryside had been invaded by wild (cimarrons) trees, men and animals.

The sugar mill economy began to be displaced by livestock, which had a larger foreign demand and had much lower costs due to its great abundance, lower need for manpower, and investment in machinery. At the same time, new farms surged offering crops, such as ginger, which was in demand in Europe, at better prices than sugar.

Little by little, the sugar industry began to decline and many of the sugar mill slaves were transferred to the cattle farms and ginger plantations, which eased their work hours and, in a way, contributed to the softening of the relationship between owners and slaves, which, having more freedom of movement, slowly, began developing new activities mutually convenient with their owners and foremen.