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Contraband Trade under Swedish Colours: St. Barthélemy's Moment in the Sun, 1793–1815

  • Victor Wilson

Abstract

The article explores the emergence and workings of the free port of Gustavia, founded in 1785 shortly after the Swedish acquisition of its first Caribbean colony, St. Barthélemy. Its free trade policy was modelled closely after Dutch and Danish predecessors in the region, which had been successful for centuries as neutral marketplaces, especially during times of international conflict. An increasing field of scholars have begun reconsidering the significance of contraband trade in Caribbean and Atlantic history. Arguments have been made for a more nuanced understanding of Caribbean geopolitics, one that acknowledges the necessity of informal transnational trade networks. The history of Gustavia is poorly explored in this context. With the aid of new sources, it has become possible to assess the economic role of Gustavia in the Caribbean transit trade during the European conflict of 1793–1815; these sources show that the free port was of greater importance than previous research has found it to be. Through its creation, the Swedish government hoped to commercially exploit a colonial territory of marginal value. War was the primary catalyst that drew people as well as capital to the island, contributing to both its commercial strength and cultural diversity. Former inhabitants of Dutch and French colonies sought refuge there in the wake of the French Revolution and the subsequent wars. Albeit for a brief time, Gustavia gained the character of an international, polyglot merchant community and functioned as an imperial crossroads where business could be conducted as usual between allies, neutrals, and enemies.

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Victor Wilson holds a PhD in History from Åbo Akademi University. For his 2016 dissertation, Commerce in Disguise: War and Trade in the Caribbean Free Port of Gustavia, 1793–1815, he received the annual research prize awarded by the Swedish Society for Maritime History. The dissertation covers the neutral Swedish free port and the role it played in the Caribbean regional transit trade and smuggling during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Wilson is currently finishing a biographical work about John Gardberg, a twentieth-century Finnish educator and intellectual. Since 2017, he is a member of the Global History of Free Ports Research Project, a transnational network which strives to investigate how free ports arose in early modern Europe and how they made an impact upon the global history of ideas pertaining to trade.

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Contraband Trade under Swedish Colours: St. Barthélemy's Moment in the Sun, 1793–1815

  • Victor Wilson

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