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Illicit Affairs : Philadelphia’s Trade with Lisbon before Independence, 1700-1775

Negócios ilícitos : o comércio entre Filadélfia e Lisboa antes da independência, 1700-1775
Affaires illicites : le commerce entre Philadelphie et Lisbonne avant l’indépendance, 1700-1775
Jeremy Land e Rodrigo da Costa Dominguez
p. 179-204


Este artigo explora a relação económica entre Lisboa e Filadélfia antes da sua independência do império britânico. Tecnicamente ilegal de acordo com as várias políticas imperiais que a Grã-Bretanha impôs às colónias americanas, Filadélfia construiu e manteve uma robusta parceria comercial com o porto de Lisboa. Usando dados de arquivos tanto em Filadélfia como em Lisboa, argumentamos que esta relação significa uma orientação de Filadélfia à margem das Ilhas Britânicas e a sua importância na economia atlântica.

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Notas do autor

The research for this paper was financially supported by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), grant ref. SFRH/BPD/110798/2015 and by an Exploratory Travel and Data Grant from the Economic History Association. The authors thank the collaboration of the employees of the Municipal Archive of Lisbon – Historical Archive. Preliminary versions of this paper were presented at the 42º Annual Meeting of the Economic and Business History Society (Oklahoma City, EUA, 25-27 May 2017) and the 42º Annual Meeting of the Social Science History Association (Montreal, Canada, 2-5 November 2017). The authors would like to thank Price Fishback, Jari Eloranta, and Ghulam Nadri for their comments on initial drafts.

Texto integral

1Traditional narratives of colonial America and the Atlantic World tend to accept, without few deviations, that empires were mostly consolidated and trade between colonies and metropole traveled in two directions. Recent research in the field of Atlantic and imperial history has eroded the historical hegemony of empires, showing the diverse and complex nature of trade in and around the Atlantic Ocean. In this vein of analysis, we investigate the surprisingly robust trade between Philadelphia and Lisbon during the 18th century while Philadelphia was still under British rule.

2Our main efforts will be to try to detail and quantify the commerce and shipping movement between the two cities on two sides of the Atlantic and in two different empires. Some of the questions we ask of the archives include what the nature of this trade was and how did it come to pass. Perhaps most importantly, how did the British and Portuguese officials view this trade and what were their responses ? Lisbon’s and Philadelphia’s archives hold mentions of this trade in Customs House papers which suggest that British officials were at least aware of the trade and even permitted this trade to continue. In the end, we contend that Philadelphia practiced an economy that was trans-imperial in nature and oriented away from its imperial master, and its trade was much more diverse than what would be allowed under a truly mercantilist empire. In addition, we hope to highlight the early origins of economic connections between Portugal and British America, contrary to the historical relations of British supremacy to Portugal and to the thirteen colonies. In the end, we seek to clarify the role that both Lisbon and Philadelphia had in shaping not only Portuguese and American trade, but their role in shaping the entire Atlantic economy.

  • 1 Some ships transported all three at the same time, such as the ship “Hetty”, captained by Thomas (...)

3Overall, our main objectives are to emphasize the continued economic power of Lisbon in Atlantic trade and show how Philadelphia developed into a major, nodal center of trans-imperial Atlantic trade. First, we provide an overview of the historical context and economic situation in both Philadelphia and Lisbon. Furthermore, we highlight how the difficulties that Portugal faced disabled its imperial power and capability to hold off the British, Dutch, and French efforts to control transatlantic trade. Secondly, we want to emphasize the political and economic realities that made colonial subjects in North America interested in trading directly with Southern Europe, mainly Lisbon. We are aware that Philadelphia-owned ships, in apparent contradiction with the British Navigations Acts, shipped goods to Lisbon on a regular basis. We also know that ships from different empires maintained regular routes shipping wheat (both raw and flour) and staves from Philadelphia to Lisbon where they brought aboard salt to take back to Philadelphia.1 What made this particular route so attractive to ship owners, merchants and captains ? Finally, we hope to detail specific examples in the archival sources to help explain how individual merchants and ship owners/captains engaged with this peculiar trade route. Were they concerned with the imperial border between Portugal and British America ? Was smuggling a substantial portion of the overall trade between the two ports, or was most of the trade legal or at least tolerated by imperial officials ? The micro data will allow us to better understand the historical context surrounding this fascinating example of inter-imperial trade.

4We utilize primary and secondary source material found on both sides of the Atlantic to build and compare datasets in order to find and quantify missing numbers of ships flowing between the two cities in two different empires. For Philadelphia, we utilized Philadelphia Customs House records and the papers of individual merchants, many of which found in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, to uncover previously unused data sets that document the longstanding economic relationship between Lisbon and Philadelphia. We also utilize customs house entry and exits reported by the Pennsylvania Gazette to establish a baseline of figures officially accepted by the British imperial structure. We then compare these figures with the numbers of ships reported by Lisbon’s Marco dos Navios (Tonnage duties). We also lean on the work of previous historians on both sides of the Atlantic for general and occasionally specific trade data that helps to provide background for our new data analysis.

5In our conclusions, we highlight the importance of this relationship to later political and economic developments. Portugal becomes an essential partner in trade with the fledgling United States, becoming primary for both nations during major crises of war, especially during the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal and the British-American War of 1812 (Land, Eloranta and Moreira 2019, 43-45). Did these early relationships between Philadelphia and Lisbon allow for later growth in trade ? This article intends to shed some light into those questions.

1. Background : Portugal, Britain, and British America

6Portugal in the 18th century can be defined by two distinct periods. The first fifty years is best described as the lull after the storm. It opens what Nuno Gonçalo Monteiro (2000, 132) calls a cycle “of internal and external political stability. A stability that not even the financial difficulties, only definitely controlled with Brazil’s apogee at the beginning of this same period, or the disturbances generated by the Church’s action would do”. All of this in the course of the long eighteenth century, “usually marked by jockeying for position and preparations for the next outbreak of hostilities” (Findlay and O’Rourke 2007, 247). On the other hand, the second can be portrayed as the time of “almost uninterrupted war in Europe, combined or coincident with occasional war outside” (Hobsbawm 1996, 77), as it would change the political status of the colonies in the New World and transform their economies. Nevertheless, this scenario was preceded by a period of political rupture, following the Portugal Independence’s Restoration wars (1640-1688). At that point, the Portuguese economy was in dire straits, associated with a downward trend of the Indian trade, and a series of military defeats in Africa and India, with the consequence of its possession’s losses (Newitt 2005, 246-248), which weakened its economy and resulted in a shift to an “Atlantic” focus in the empire’s exploration policy.

7The Portuguese diplomacy played a very important role, sewing the marriage of Catherine of Braganza with Charles II (1660-1685). This matchmaking policy cemented the conditions to consolidate Portugal’s independence, underpinned by Britain’s military and naval support. On the other hand, this strategy paid its toll, offering to the British a series of commercial and territorial privileges (Hermann 2000, 175-176 ; Faria 2008, 128-129). Militarily, the realm was dragged into the succession of the Spanish king. However, the war forced Portugal to ally with Great Britain, under the supervision of British ambassador John Methuen. On one hand, it represented a major financial setback to the Portuguese, creating an enormous external trade deficit (Schwartz 2010, 38). On the other hand, the Peace of Utrecht (1713) determined precisely new formal borders of colonial territories in South America, where the Portuguese developed mining activities, attracting more people to the colony (Alencastro 2010, 133-134). The transposition of that border enabled Portugal’s successful gold and diamond exploration as we can see in Table 1. Moreover, mining activity, combined with cattle breeding in Southern regions, helped “transforming the nature of the Portuguese Empire and Lisbon’s economic thought” regarding Brazil status as the backbone of Portugal finances (Schwartz 2010, 38-39).

Table 1. Brazilian gold production (in metric tons), 1700-1799


Minas Gerais


Mato Grosso















































Source : Pinto (1979, 114) and Schwartz (2010, 39).

8Recent works has shown that most of that gold ended up in private hands, with merchants and slave traders sending their profits, taking advantage of the fleets funded by the Portuguese crown, originally destined to state revenues’ remittances. Moreover, it enabled the establishment of comissários-volantes (brokers) to intermediate the shipments (Costa and Rocha 2007, 94-95 ; Costa, Lains and Miranda 2011, 256-258 ; Sousa 2012, 337-340). Nevertheless, despite the debate and the evidences around the nature of gold remittances to Portugal, the actors involved and their receptors, as well as its utilization and how much Portugal profited effectively, it is evident the relevance of those revenues to the Portuguese state (Sampaio 2003, 165-169 ; Costa and Rocha 2007, 79-84 ; Sousa 2012, 345).

9At least if not directly, through the taxation, gold exploitation triggered a major social and economic change through the operation of those mines, which requested a specific model of labor force utilization. Opposing the Spanish archetype, which used more Native Americans (either as slaves or salaried worker) than Africans brought into Spanish America (Bakewell 2012, 118-126 ; Borucki, Eltis and Wheat 2015, 439-440), African slaves were the main gear that kept the whole Portuguese structure working, and indirectly, that institutional option boosted and consolidated the slave trade as one of the empire’s main economic pillars. Not by chance, Rio de Janeiro became capital in 1763 and the empire’s main maritime hub from the 1750s onwards, associated to both the fleets going to Portugal, carrying the gold from the mining districts and taxes collected, with commercial activity and the slave trade business boom (Sampaio 2003, 148-149 ; Fragoso 2014, 358-367). The outcome of that expansion was a negotiation for new territorial boundaries, resulting in a new treaty signed in Madrid in 1750. Nevertheless, Pombal’s regime had major challenges to tackle. A substantial decrease in state revenues from the two main sources of income – customs duties and monopoly rights – demanded quick resolutions. Furthermore, a decline in gold extraction in Brazil, limiting both the gold shipping to Lisbon and the tax collection on gold exploration itself, began to deplete metallic deposits, compromising the empire’s financial capacities (Silva 2005, 254-255).

10Shortly after taking office, the new prime-minister Pombal had to deal with the greatest natural catastrophe of Portugal : The Earthquake of 1755. The enormity of such tragedy was measured, reaching level 10 (up to 12) of Mercalli’s ‘intensity’ scale and level 9 (maximum) of the Richter scale, which measures the magnitude of earthquakes (França 2008, 345-346), whose local impact was obviously felt in economic terms, in several different areas, requesting a governmental intervention especially in the real estate and credit markets (Costa, Rocha and Brito 2018, 79). Across the Atlantic, the Seven Years’ War dragged Portugal, once again, into another conflict : a series of Spanish attacks to the Portuguese possession of Sacramento. Portuguese settlers, reinforced by military forces, took Spanish fortresses near Montevideo in 1763. They resisted Spanish attacks for more than a decade (Faria 2008, 148-149). In that sense, Portugal’s international position relied, strategically, on the “management of a vast empire which includes Brazil’s territory and the control of Atlantic shipping to the African coast, as servile labor’s supplier” (Magalhães 2012, 173). Management which, in the short term, relied on the Portuguese neutrality (Cruz 2010, 62-63 ; Cardoso 2010, 39-40), Britain’s support and a tentative policy of good relations with Spain.

11Britain’s 18th century, however, was a period of nearly endless war and expansion. Wars between Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands seemed to blur together throughout the 18th century, with a new major war virtually every decade. The Nine Years’ War in 1689-1697, the War of Spanish Succession (1702-1713), the War of Austrian Succession (1739-1748), and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) were all major wars before the American War for Independence that dragged multiple empires and regions into intense conflict. Still, skirmishes on the waters of the world’s oceans and at the fringes of empires continued uninterrupted throughout the entire century (Eloranta and Land 2011, 108-112).

12While many of these wars seemed to be tied, on the surface, to political developments in Europe, all brought warfare to the empires of European combatants in efforts to expand the geographic reach of all those involved. For Britain, its wars before 1750 were largely efforts to stave off French and Dutch encroachment into its empire in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Following these wars, many of the various territories captured or occupied during the conflicts would be exchanged back during treaty negotiations. However, the Seven Years’ War changed this practice, as Britain purposely sought to end France’s empire in North America and India. With the success of the British in the Seven Years’ War in 1763, Britain took control of the vast majority of North America and pushed the French nearly entirely out of India (Eloranta and Land 2011, 102-105).

13British America factored greatly into Britain’s imperial expansion. Britain joined the list of European empires comparatively late. Starting slowly in the early 17th century with a few colonies in North America, it quickly became the preeminent imperial power in the Atlantic by the early 18th century, with colonial holdings in the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa. For British Americans, however, this expansion meant limited attention from its imperial master. As a result, they were given unrivalled autonomy to establish local governments. In fact, many of these governments were tasked with supporting, both in terms of funding and manpower, the many wars that Britain fought between 1700-1750 (Anderson 2000). Britain’s expansion was not merely territorial, but economic as well. With the Asiento of 1713, British merchants were given the exclusive rights to export, sell, and ship slaves from Africa to the empire of Spain. This development provided enormous opportunity for British economic expansion, as they also dominated the slave trade to Portuguese colonies.

14This meant economic growth for British America as well. Throughout the 18th century, a growing number of immigrants, indentured servants, and African slaves continued to provide additional labor for the growing territory of British America, especially in the southern colonies. More importantly, British Americans developed an expanding maritime sector, with shipbuilding and mercantile activity achieving predominance in major ports such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. As part of its mercantilist empire, British American imports into Britain, “grew at roughly twice the rate of total imports, exports to them [Americans] nearly three times as fast as the total” (McCusker and Menard 1985). This reality forced the British imperial structure to recognize the growing economic power of British America, helping to convince British leaders to attempt to limit that growing power with new restrictions on trade and additional taxes in the late 1760s and early 1770s.

2. Philadelphia and the Atlantic economy

15When establishing the colony of Pennsylvania, William Penn realized that maritime commerce would be central to the success of the venture. Though Penn envisioned a more subsistence-based society, he recognized that maritime commerce would allow for Pennsylvanians to live above a mere subsistence level by selling surplus crops and timber products in the larger Atlantic marketplace. His choice of location for the port of Philadelphia allowed it to not only become a place where surplus agricultural products could find a home ; Philadelphia also developed into a bustling, cosmopolitan center of economic activity well beyond subsistence, located on the banks of a river relatively deep into the hinterland granted agricultural areas access to a worldwide market otherwise unattainable. In fact, being located on the major waterway into the interior of Pennsylvania made agricultural expansion into the frontier economically feasible and desirable (Jensen 1963, 2-3).

16As Table 2 shows quite clearly, Philadelphia began its maritime trade with little focus on sending goods to the British Isles. Tobacco (one of the first products shipped out of Philadelphia) appears to have been shipped to anywhere but England. In much the same way, the vast majority of goods leaving and coming into the Port of Philadelphia were going to and coming from other colonies and other empires. In the period 1730-1734, 959 ships cleared the port in those five years. Of those 959 clearances, only 138 or 15 % went to either England or Ireland. Thus, 85 % of those ships went elsewhere. 43 % (416) went to the West Indies, and 33 % (312) sailed throughout the coast of North America (see Appendix 1). This trend continued throughout the 18th century with Great Britain and Ireland only making up 12.6 % of total exports from Philadelphia by 1772 (McCusker and Menard 1985, 196).

Table 2. Distribution of Philadelphia tobacco exports, 1704-1709


# of Ships

 % of Total



1 %



5 %



62 %



1 %



11 %



1 %

Curaçao and Bonire


6 %



2 %



3 %

New York


6 %

Rhode Island


1 %



100 %

West Indies


78 %

North America


22 %



100 %

Source : Duties Account Book, 1704-13, in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

17Philadelphia’s export trade throughout the 18th century, excepting the first decade, was dominated by grain and flour. Wheat is the most common commodity exported, but its form changed over time. Initially, raw grain was dominant, but as the colony developed, flour and bread (of various types) became primary. This transition indicates a couple of developments. First, exporting flour rather than grain suggests a growing milling industry that required capital investment beyond just subsistence milling. Second, it hints at a growing separation between farmer and merchant. Rather than take the grain directly to the merchant, the farmer may only need to sell or contract his grain with a mill owner/operator who would then sell milled flour to merchants in the grade (coarse, fine, etc.) and quantity they requested (Hunter 2001, 2-3). According to Brooke Hunter (2001, 13-15), this development provided a means for colonists to expand agricultural production deeper into the hinterland, aided by the vast waterways of Pennsylvania.

18The growth in Philadelphia’s grain trade was substantial. Philadelphia exported 38,570 barrels of flour in 1730 (Lydon 1967, 402), but by 1774 a total of 265,967 barrels were shipped out of the port – a 590 % increase (Jensen 1963, 292). Much of this growth was due in large part to a series of wars in the Atlantic World, especially Europe. During the Seven Years’ War, the influx of soldiers into North America provided a boost to the farmers and millers of Pennsylvania (Hunter 2005, 508). Wheat and flour were rarely sent in large amounts to Britain proper. Rather, the West Indies continued to serve as a major market for Philadelphia’s grain and flour production. In Table 3, the destinations of bread and flour from Philadelphia are broken down into regions. West Indian destinations composed about one-third of total exports. Surprisingly, Southern Europe is also roughly a third of Philadelphia’s bread and flour trade. Philadelphia merchants clearly were oriented away from the mother country, focusing instead on colonial and inter-imperial markets. As we discuss in greater detail below, we have also seen an enormous number of ships going in ballast from Lisbon to undisclosed locations in the West Indies, where they then turned north to Philadelphia as their final port of call before returning to Lisbon. This suggests that both Lisbon and Philadelphia merchants may have been operating trade in slaves, illicit goods and wares, or moving legal goods (wheat, flour, staves, etc.) from ship to ship to avoid British customs.

Table 3 : Exports of bread and flour from Philadelphia, 1768-1772


West Indies (tons)

Southern Europe (tons)


America (tons)


& England (tons)



(£ PA





































Source : Jensen (1963, 292).

  • 2 “The Navigation Act of (Sept. 13) 1660” as printed in Greene (1975, 134-136).
  • 3 “The Staple Act of (July 27) 1663” and “The Plantation Duties Act of (Mar. 29) 1673” as printed i (...)
  • 4 “The Navigation Act of (Apr. 10) 1696”, “The Woolen Act (May 4, 1699)”, and “The Naval Stores Act (...)

19As a colony, North America’s production and trade were meant to enrich Britain and British merchants. Between 1660 and 1673, several laws and acts were passed by the British Parliament to create a mercantilist empire wherein the colonies were only to trade with or through Britain. The Navigation Act of 1660 stipulated that “no goods or commodities whatsoever shall be imported into or exported out of any lands, islands, plantations, or territories [that belong to the King of Britain]… but in such ships or vessels as do truly and without fraud belong only to the people of England or Ireland”.2 In short, trade can only be conducted outside of the British Empire as long as the ships or cargoes be majority owned or operated by British merchants and mariners. The Staple Act of 1663 and the Plantation Duties Acts of 1673 levied taxes, duties, and penalties on commodities entering or leaving British colonies.3 Responsibility to enforce these laws were given to the governors of the colonies, under the supervision of the Privy Council’s Committee on Plantation Affairs (or “Lords of Trade”), which was also tasked with overseeing trade throughout the entire British Empire (Barrow 1967, 7). Because colonial merchants frequently violated the laws, Britain issued new acts re-enforcing the original ones and increasing the penalties. The Navigation Act of 1696, the Woolen Act of 1699, and the Naval Stores Act in 1705 increased the number of commodities that were to be taxed, which further restricted the scale and scope of trade carried out by colonial merchants.4

  • 5 “The Commission of the Board of Trade (May 15, 1696)” as printed in Greene (1975, 218-221).

20In order to enforce these laws, the British Parliament created a supervisory agency that formally brought the previously decentralized customs houses and officers into alignment. The Commission of the Board of Trade, passed on May 15, 1696, formally created a “Board of Trade” tasked with centralizing and improving the enforcement of trade restrictions and collection of duties in British colonies, which replaced the old “Lords of Trade” with commissioners of trade.5 At the same time, the Commissioners of the Customs, based in London, was revamped to approve basic salaries for customs officers and collectors to be paid out of the government’s accounts. Under the reforms of 1696, 29 positions for customs collectors were formalized, but many of these positions remained unfilled until 1764. It seems that the customs department never received the full resources it required to enforce the acts, which then enabled the colonial governments and merchants to circumvent and even disregard the laws (Barrow 1967, 64-66).

21We have yet to find any example where imperial officials legally made exceptions for direct trade to Portugal’s mainland, making the Navigation Acts of the late 17th century the primary laws regarding trade in the colonies and direct trade with Lisbon technically illegal. The only exceptions made for trade to Portuguese destinations were for salt and wine from islands south of Cape Finisterre, such as Madeira, in the 1663 Staple Act, yet illegal trade still composed a large portion of that commerce likely to avoid customs duties (Ribeiro 1997, I, 37 ; Fisher 2006, 19). However, it was well known to British officials, colonial governors, and merchants in Philadelphia that customs officers generally allowed for trade between Southern Europe, especially Portuguese locations, and British America. Before 1764, the general rule was that cargoes of wheat and flour could be exported to Lisbon and imports of salt, wine, and lemons were allowed as long as they met even the slightest of requirements such as an English merchant having even the smallest share of the cargo or ship. In cases where even the pretense of legality could not be established, customs agents accepted lemons and wine as “presents” to grease the wheels of commerce. These conditions reigned until 1763 when the end of the Seven Years’ War brought reforms and a new imperial effort to enforce the Navigation Acts. In 1764, the governor of Massachusetts defended a collector who had accepted one such bribe because until the reforms of the 1760s, those gifts had been a normal part of business. Therefore, it was unfair to charge him of dereliction of duty since the collector had just recently received new instructions prohibiting such practices (Barrow 1967, 145).

  • 6 HSP, Port of Philadelphia Customs House Papers, 1704-1789, vol. 1.

22Smuggling and the problems associated with it were of primary concern to British officials and customs houses. In the Port of Philadelphia Customs House records, the first volume or so is largely composed of documents relating to court cases regarding possible smugglers. For instance, a customs official in Barbados had impounded a ship that was carrying Spanish soap that was still packaged in chests that were much like the chests that Spanish merchants used. In effect, the official charged the captain with merely moving the chests from a Spanish ship to a Philadelphia ship to hopefully smuggle into Barbados.6

  • 7 HSP, Port of Philadelphia Customs House Papers, 1704-1789, vol. 1.

23Of additional concern was the continuous importation and export of goods from British colonies and rival empires. The very first document in the Customs House records detail the job requirements of the customs officers for Philadelphia. The British official suggested to his deputy : “I, therefore, most earnestly recommend it to you, to be particularly careful, that no foreign vessel touching in your district, land any tea, linen, or any other European or Asiatic commodity”.7 For most of the 18th century, British efforts to quell smuggling and inter-imperial trade were limited in both form and success. Part of the problem was that legislators had assumed that most of the colonial trade would be handled by ships owned by British merchants and companies. Unfortunately, that was just not the case (Barrow 1967, 6). Colonial owned shipping managed to carve out a substantial profit from not only carrying colonial products but products from around the Atlantic and beyond. In this sense, the charges for freight carried on board colonial-owned shipping was greater than the value of any one commodity exported from the colonies (McCusker 1997, 246).

  • 8 There is much on the topic of the Navigation Acts and subsequent efforts to raise funds leading t (...)
  • 9 HSP, Port of Philadelphia Customs House Papers, 1704-1789.

24Following the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War with France in 1763, Britain redoubled its efforts to limit colonial smuggling. Though in their success, dramatically increased tensions between the colonists and the metropole (Barrow 1967).8 In the British efforts to consolidate its newly expanded empires, Philadelphia played a central role in organizing the British Customs Offices into a more effective force. As early as 1759, officials in Philadelphia served as overseers for customs houses in Quebec City and Montreal as they were captured and occupied by British troops. Furthermore, regular updates and accounts from West Indies ports were sent to Philadelphia to be included in Philadelphia archives throughout the last half of the 18th century.9

25Regardless of British efforts, Philadelphia’s trade with Southern Europe only increased during the 18th century. From 1750-1772, the percentage of Philadelphia’s total annual exports shipped to Southern Europe grew from 7 % to 19 % (McCusker and Menard 1985, 196). By 1770, Southern Europe’s share of Philadelphia’s overseas raw wheat exports approached 100 %. Table 4 shows how important Southern Europe was to Philadelphia’s grain trade. Combined with the information from Table 3 above, Philadelphia’s merchants may not have considered the British idea of mercantilism all that appealing. From their standpoint, it is understandable that increased restrictions on foreign trade would have been enormously detrimental to the economy of Philadelphia.

Table 4. Exports and value of wheat from Philadelphia, 1768-1772


Southern Europe

British Isles



£ stlg


£ stlg


£ stlg




































Source : Shipping data from Jensen (1963, 293) ; Prices from Bezanson et al. (1935).

  • 10 HSP, Port of Philadelphia Customs House Papers, 1704-1789, vol. 1. This is just one of several co (...)
  • 11 French ship “Maria Iara”, captained by Bertrand Guequem, whose entrance in Lisbon was registered (...)

26The relationship between Philadelphia and Lisbon is of a peculiar nature. There are large numbers of observations that imply that a longstanding trade existed between Lisbon and Philadelphia that not only occurred throughout the 18th century, but official port records of the Port of Philadelphia contain myriad examples of trade coming and going between Lisbon and Philadelphia.10 This suggests that British officials were aware of the trade and apparently gave their blessing to the growing trade between the two. In the port registry of Lisbon, one entry is quite confusing considering the nature of 18th century imperial relationships. In that entry, a French owned and crewed ship apparently made regular trips between Philadelphia, Lisbon, and sometimes a French colony in the Caribbean. In Philadelphia it picked up a shipload of grain or flour, proceeded to unload that cargo in Lisbon, and then continued in ballast (empty) to the Caribbean. It is as yet unclear what, if anything, the ship picked up in the Caribbean, but the entry is intriguing nonetheless.11 All this suggest that Philadelphia may not have only served as a nodal center of the British Empire, but possibly as a nodal center of the larger Atlantic economy.

  • 12 HSP, Bills of Lading, 27 June and 4 July, 1765, Marshall Bills of Lading.

27Philadelphia trade to Lisbon is also odd considering that individual merchants and customs officials were apparently unconcerned with listing Lisbon as a port of destination. For example, Christopher Marshall, a Philadelphia merchant, processed three separate shipments in quick succession between June and July 1765. All total, the shipments contained 2.905 bushels of corn, 2.281 bushels and 101 bags of wheat, 321 barrels of flour, 128 barrels of bread, 21 barrels of middlings (medium or coarse grade flour), and one barrel of gammon. Each shipment was meant for a different merchant or merchant house in Lisbon.12 This variety of goods, though all of which were foodstuffs, indicates a deep and complex relationship between merchants on both sides of the Atlantic. Furthermore, it indicates responsiveness to specific requests, suggesting a communication network that transcended imperial and lingual borders.

28Clearly, wheat shipments were a major sector of Philadelphia’s economy. Nevertheless, by the beginning of the American Revolution, Philadelphia’s trade in raw wheat alone was extremely valuable, and a major source of capital that allowed Philadelphia merchants and ship owners to reinvest in additional ships and crews. As seen in Table 2 above, trade to Southern Europe (nearly all of which went to or through Lisbon) accounted for 89 % (£ 48,976) of total wheat exports in the year 1768 (£ 55,124). Lisbon was key to Philadelphia’s economic success, and during the year 1770, a total of 24,560 ship tons traveled through Philadelphia on the way to or from Southern Europe compared to 7,913 that went to England. Southern Europe made up 26 % of that year’s total tonnage entering and clearing the port of Philadelphia, whereas England supplied 8 % (see Appendix 2). Given the discrepancy in the amount of tonnage moving between the two destinations, it is clear that Philadelphia’s trade was oriented away from England (her imperial master) and extremely invested in trade with Southern Europe and, more specifically, Portugal.

3. Lisbon and British America

29As the “newly minted United States” (Atack 2014, 550) emerged, a new window of opportunity opened to the Portuguese empire. Nevertheless, the starting point of those relations began long before 1776. The establishment of Portugal as one of the driving forces of the early modern Oceanic expansion relied on the commercial connections with Northern Europe and the Mediterranean, based on the trade of one of the country’s main commodities since the Later Middle Ages : salt, as a vital article to both cod fishery and pork breeding industries (see Rau 1951 and 1984 ; Abreu 2005). Of course, it would be essential to cooking, for seasoning dishes, but also fundamental to leather production. The absence of salt among the Navigation Acts’ restrictions, as well as the recognition of the Portuguese salt’s excellence by the Americans, superior to the British equivalent, would help to boost its use enough to be relevant to their exports’ activities in the 1600s and 1700s, bring up the attention of French and British to the salt business in Cape Verde (Ribeiro 1997, I, 35-38, 48).

30As the salt, wine was one of the fundamental items of the Portuguese set of exports. However, the whole process, from the production until the shipping and retailing, received a major British investment, resulting in an effective supremacy of the British since the 1650s, even more evident in the Douro region and Oporto’s international maritime connections (Silva 2008, 146). This fact is inserted within the context of the Anglo-French commercial, political and military competitiveness, as well as to the Portuguese independence restoration and the openness of Brazilian markets to British textiles (Fisher 2006, 24-29 ; Soares 2008, 215). In fact, when Methuen first negotiated the treaty’s terms within the context of the War of the Spanish succession, Portugal made a risky bet. As already observed by other scholars, the Portuguese “…specialized in a commodity that did not have the same growth potential as did cloth for England. Portugal’s economy suffered consequently, as the productive structure and institutions were molded in the direction of wine production” (Cypher and Dietz 2004, 117). A choice that “undermined a newly born program of manufactures’ creation initiated in the end of 17th century” (Schwartz 2010, 38), despite the opposition of D. Luís da Cunha, directly involved in the diplomatic negotiations of the treaty, who anticipated the negative impacts of that agreement to the Portuguese economy (Silva 2014, 21-24).

31On the other hand, Portugal’s wine business had other strongholds in the islands of Madeira and Azores. The massive presence of wine from both places in British North America since the 1690s, as well as Spanish wine from the Canary Islands, is already known, entering especially at the ports of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston (Ribeiro 1997, I, 41). So popular was wine from Madeira in British America, it transformed from a luxury item into a regular dinner table staple in colonial America (Hancock 2009, xxix). Notwithstanding the limitations imposed by the restrictions of 1663, and its reinforcements through the 1696 Act, not only Portuguese wine entered the colonies, but also plenty of North American grainstuffs were shipped to Lisbon and other Portuguese ports, such as wheat, barley, oats, rye, malt and flour (Bebiano 1960, 40-41, 77 ; Fisher 2006, 17-18), as well as rice from the Carolinas. Technically, that trade was forbidden by the regulations of 1660 and 1663, but that trade kept going on illicitly between the colonies and Portugal, illustrating partially the British incapability of shutting it down and the reinforcement of colonies’ local powers (Cruz 2014, 7), which resulted in a later authorization for rice exports to Southern Europe (Ribeiro 1997, I, 51-52, 57-58).

32In this sense, the lack of a more effective colonial control is something associated to an attempt of a reform movement between 1727 and 1733, when British Parliament decided not to fortify the Crown’s power by endorsing a colonial policy reinforcement (Henretta 2015, 104-106). Moreover, the debate around the illicitness of that trade is something that permeates not only the dynamics around the commodities’ flow between the colonies and European metropolises and their respective empires’ border areas, but also the transport of labor force from Africa to the Americas and Britain’s share on that business (Hernández González 1991, 98-103 ; Ribeiro 1997, I, 42-43 ; Eltis and Richardson 1995, 467). The issue of contraband, or a “legalized contraband” in slave trade, also interconnects the success of English sugar business in the Caribbean and the low price of slaves (Borucki, Eltis and Wheat 2015, 438-439 ; Fisher 2006, 30-33) with the dispute for dominance in the slave trade in West Africa between the Dutch WIC, Britain, France and the Luso-Brazilians (Lopes 2008, 176-182 ; Soares 2008, 220).

33In another part of the negotiations which resulted in the Peace of Utrecht, Great Britain received from Spain, as well as the French, the asiento (concession) to trade African slaves in Spanish America for a period of 30 years, with permission to include a merchant ship with British goods every time the Spanish fleet was sent to America. This had a substantial impact because it “decisively changed one of the main principles of colonial trade’s protectionism : the foreigners’ exclusion” (Souto Mantecón 2015, 194-195). With Portugal, the same principle would be adopted to try to ensure British participation in the slave trade, built and controlled by the Portuguese, at the Western African coast in Cabinda (Monteiro 1996, 126). That situation established the Pax Lusitana, i.e., the network assembled in South Atlantic, which ensured the British entrance in the South Atlantic circuit before the Opening Ports to friendly Nations’ decree of 1808 (Penha 2011, 34-35). With these agreements, Britain created a multilateral network, using Portuguese outposts to try to quell slave trade and, at the same time, insert their captains and businessman into that trade, holding a privileged position in the Atlantic shipping by operating the main sea routes and ports, both in North (Lisbon) and South (River Plate, Brazil and Africa).

  • 13 Letters of July 4th and July 11th, 1752. ANTT, Ministério dos Negócios Estrangeiros, cx. 688.

34Other commercial circuits and connections between the Northern and Central Spanish American colonies (Campeche, Guatemala and Honduras), and even Spanish ports (Cartagena) were British targets as well, since the hostilities started with the War of Spanish Succession kept going throughout the century.13 Nevertheless, regional navigation and trade was done by locals and Spanish authorities avoided (when possible) piracy and smuggling, including the permission to take by sea products normally transported by land (Pinzón Ríos 2015, 317). Within this particular situation, British ships possibly used the Portuguese flag in order to breakthrough those circuits, largely dominated by the French and Spanish especially in the Caribbean, just as they penetrated South Atlantic trade during the Napoleonic Wars to dodge the Continental Blockade imposed by France (Moreira and Eloranta 2011, 416).

  • 14 Ships “Anna” (1771) and “Maricas” (1775), captained by Thomas Dean and George Johnston, respectiv (...)
  • 15 “Com a carga que se lhe oferecer”, as the source’s original text in Portuguese. AML-AH-MN, liv. 6 (...)

35Although the Portuguese sources used for this essay are primarily fiscal in nature, limiting in part our trade and shipping approach, it is possible to see in the Lisbon’s harbor tonnage tax entrance records a few ships between 1771 and 1775 practicing flag shifting.14 In those cases, they are going through the route Falmouth/Philadelphia-Lisbon-Rio de Janeiro, carrying wheat, flour and staves to Portugal and, then, being loaded with “the cargo that would be available” at the port, continue its travel to Rio de Janeiro.15 In Table 5, the volume of British vessels passing through Portugal is quite significant in this period, especially considering the ones circulating between Lisbon and Philadelphia. For such a small city in comparison with London, Philadelphia’s share of British-Portuguese trade was substantial even during this period. At no point between 1769 and 1775 did the share of British shipping into Lisbon drop below 14 %, and the vast majority of those ships carrying goods to and from Philadelphia were owned and operated by merchants based in Pennsylvania.

Table 5. Number of British ships in Lisbon’s Port, 1769-1775


Total entries


 % of total

Entries from Philadelphia

 % of British

Clearances to Philadelphia

 % of British

























































Source : Lisbon Municipal Archive, Historical Archive, Collection “taxes”, Tonnage tax fund, Tonnage tax book of entries, refs. AML-AH-MN 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67 and 68.

36On the other hand, if we consider Table 6, the Portuguese numbers show a notorious contrast when compared with the data revealed by Fisher (2006, 150, Appendix XI), which displays a lower number of vessels clearing British Ports for both Portugal and Madeira. In this sense, it is evident that British data accounts for a major part, but not the entire shipping movement into Portugal. Besides, it is also important to highlight that the Portuguese data refers only to the entries in Lisbon’s port, not considering other relevant coastal harbors as Oporto, Setúbal or Aveiro, relevant commercial hubs during the 1700s. In fact, this number could be even more significant. Philadelphia, therefore, was a substantial partner in trade with Lisbon, and when one considers the expanding and diverse trade networks going through Philadelphia, it is clear that Philadelphia was one of many nodal centers that created such a vibrant oceanic marketplace. Moreover, Fisher’s data contemplates fundamentally the ports from the British Isles, disregarding Ireland and trade with Madeira Islands (Fisher 2006, 13). On the other hand, Lisbon’s records accounts for all ships coming under British flag (including Ireland), bringing to light a relevant issue of methodology on both sides. However, the number of entries and clearances from and to Irish ports is balanced with all British Isles’ ports, not interfering in the analysis as a whole.

Table 6. Vessels clearing British ports for Portugal and Madeira, 1771-1775






Average Tonnage



Average Tonnage



Average Tonnage














































Source : Public Records Office, Board of Trade 6/185 (extracted from Fisher 2006, 150, appendix XI).

  • 16 Ship “White Oak”, captained by John Savage. AML-AH-MN, liv. 63, fl. 24v. (1770).
  • 17 Ship “Otter”, captained by George Catton. AML-AH-MN, liv. 65, fl. 2 (1772).
  • 18 Ship “Harmony”, captained by William Barber. AML-AH-MN, liv. 68, fl. 2v. (1775).
  • 19 Ships “Beautiful Daisy”, in 1772, and “Globe”, in 1775, captained by Samuel Darison and Thomas Pi (...)

37Within these numbers, one of the aspects that we see as the most intriguing is the number of ships returning to Philadelphia from Lisbon in ballast. Between 1769 and 1775, over 130 vessels traveled the transatlantic voyage empty. More surprisingly, however, is the fact that many of those actually passed through either the Portuguese Islands, i.e., Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde, or through the Caribbean islands. Not by chance, many of the British ships’ endpoints after leaving Lisbon towards to America are to the same as important slave trade hubs, such as Barbados,16 St. Kitts and Nevis,17 Jamaica,18 and Saint Domingue.19 This evidence reinforces our suggestion about the British presence within the Caribbean markets, by means of the established Portuguese networks and hubs to infiltrate those circuits using merchant ships in a kind of “multi-task” or “ad-hoc shipping”.

38A wide range of goods were shipped from Philadelphia to Lisbon, such as raw grain (rice, corn, wheat, peas, fava beans), corn and plain flour, biscuit, ham, bacon, meat, staves, wax and textiles. Among those products, more than 76 % of those exports were flour, wheat and staves. But on the way back to Philadelphia, imports from Lisbon were focused on one item : salt. Yet an astonishing 25 % is related to ships returning to Pennsylvania in ballast, when another 30 % were vessels carrying whatever cargo that was available in ports the ship visited either in Lisbon or in other ports of call.

39In Philadelphia, however, customs house entries and clearances show a different story. As seen in Table 7, British customs officers recorded about half of what Lisbon officials recorded as coming and leaving Lisbon. Some of the disparity, no doubt, is due to multiple stopovers, but still, the different figures indicate a substantial amount of illicit commerce (from the British perspective) flowing between the two cities. Whether commerce between Southern Europe and British America was largely allowed, much of that trade still found its way into American hands without going through the proper channels (i.e. customs). As we can see below, both cities relied on each other far more than they relied on trade with London, providing further evidence that the colony-metropole relationship that mattered to Philadelphia’s merchants was its relationship between Philadelphia and Lisbon and not London.

  • 20 Tench Francis Invoice Book, 1759-1761, HSP.

40Lisbon commerce was essential to many of Philadelphia’s merchants. One such merchant was Tench Francis. In the space of three years, between 1759 and 1761, Francis imported more than 17 million réis worth of cargoes from Portuguese locations, evenly composed of wine, lemons, and salt – salt being the largest quantities of the three commodities. Of that 17 million, just over 9 million réis came from Lisbon directly, the rest coming from Madeira and other small Portuguese islands. Though his export records are incomplete, he still managed to earn just under 9.8 million réis in profits in Lisbon from the sales of sugar, wheat, and a small number of European manufacturers he reexported to Lisbon.20 Francis was just one merchant among many who had dealings with Lisbon merchants, and the fact that all but one small shipment was paid and received in réis indicates that he was dealing directly with Portuguese merchants and not English middlemen.

Table 7. Philadelphia entries and clearances compared with Lisbon figures

(yearly averages, 1769-1774)


Philadelphia Customs

Lisbon Tonnage Duties




















Source : Pennsylvania Gazette, 1769-1774 and Lisbon Municipal Archive, Historical Archive, Collection “taxes”, Tonnage tax fund, Tonnage tax book of entries, refs. AML-AH-MN 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67 and 68. Note : We only compared 1769-1774 as in 1775 the Customs House stopped reporting entries and clearances to the Gazette by May 1775, likely due to the growing rebellion in British America. Tonnage is not reported in the newspapers, but almost all of the entries and clearances have been matched with the Lisbon records. These numbers, unlike Table 5, include ships that carried all flags, not just English.

  • 21 HSP, Port of Philadelphia Customs House Papers, 1704-1789.

41The figures in Table 7 above are from the years 1769-1775. These years coincide with the most tenuous period for colonial American merchants as Britain began to more fully enforce its longstanding Navigation Acts of 1673. Following the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, Britain pursued a more aggressive stance against illicit trade. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, its success also made it a central location from which British officials could expand its customs collection apparatus. As stated above, Philadelphia became the new home to a more centralized bureaucracy collecting customs house records from newly acquired ports in Canada beginning in 1760.21 In 1760, only five comptrollers were installed in the British colonies, likely the reason for such relaxed enforcement until 1763. However, between 1764 and 1766 twenty-five more such officers were added to the colonial customs systems. Parliament also passed new acts, such as one in 1765 to establish the exact fees that customs officials were to be paid for doing their duty. Prior to 1765, customs officials’ fees were set by the colonial legislatures, but that arrangement left the door wide open for abuses (Barrow 1967, 186-189). It is entirely plausible that Philadelphia’s trade with Lisbon was severely hampered by the growing enforcement of customs rules and regulations and by the magnifying glass placed on Philadelphia by the new role it played in controlling trade in other ports as well.

4. Conclusion

42From the data we have, it is apparent that the Lisbon-Philadelphia trade relationship is a special one. On both sides of the Atlantic, the trade from the other side was essential to the local economy. In Philadelphia, salt, Madeira, and port wine became profitable commodities and, in the case of salt, used to produce goods that were then shipped back to Lisbon and other markets. Lisbon was in constant need of Philadelphian wheat, flour, and lumber products to relieve shortages of the same. Perhaps even more important to this story are the trade routes that took ships from Lisbon to Brazil to the Caribbean and then on to Philadelphia. The commonality of this route suggests that imperial borders were merely obstacles to overcome rather than walls between maritime networks. More to the point, the many stops in these ships’ travels serve as evidence for trans-imperial trading being primary in the Atlantic, and Lisbon and Philadelphia were key choke points by which an entire ocean was connected. Once we apply the methodology of comparing data from multiple accounts, it is clear that a substantial portion of trade between the two cities did not get counted by the British imperial structure, providing further evidence of a weak mercantilist imperial structure.

43Though Lisbon greatly profited from Philadelphia trade, Philadelphia is likely the partner that gained the most from its connection to Lisbon. Nevertheless, the connection between Southern Europe and British America was not limited to Philadelphia. In fact, Boston maintained a vibrant trade in fish, specifically cod, to Portugal, Spain, and other Catholic majority empires. When the Revolution arrived, Boston fishing merchants turned those Southern European fish markets into gunpowder access points. Merchants in Boston and Philadelphia took advantage of their colonial connections with Portugal and Spain to buy gunpowder and military supplies (Magra 2009, 27, 165). For both the United States and Portugal, their shared trade became essential in the Napoleonic period and especially during the War of 1812. In fact, between 1810 and 1814, Portugal composed just shy of 40 % of total foreign imports into U.S. ports. Conversely, the United States was the second most important importer for Portugal between 1808 and 1813, largely due to the grain and foodstuff needs compounded by the Napoleonic Wars. The earlier trade connections discussed in this essay served as the foundations for trade that could be scaled up or down as necessary to meet either partner’s needs (Land, Eloranta and Moreira 2019, 41-45). Philadelphia’s relationship with Lisbon highlights the importance of Philadelphia in the larger, Atlantic and global maritime trade networks that defined the 18th century.

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Appendix 1. Numbers of ships entering and clearing the port of Philadelphia in selected five year periods



West Indies

South. Europe

North America























































Source: Jensen (1963, 290).

Appendix 2. Tonnage of ships entering and clearing the port of Philadelphia, 1768-1772

West Indies

Southern Europe

Coastal Trade

















































































Source: Jensen (1963, 290).

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1 Some ships transported all three at the same time, such as the ship “Hetty”, captained by Thomas Luch. Arquivo Municipal de Lisboa – Arquivo Histórico, Colecção Impostos, Fundo Marco dos Navios (hereafter, AML-AH MN), Livro de Entradas do Marco dos Navios, ref. AML-AH-MN, liv. 63, fl. 22v. (1770).

2 “The Navigation Act of (Sept. 13) 1660” as printed in Greene (1975, 134-136).

3 “The Staple Act of (July 27) 1663” and “The Plantation Duties Act of (Mar. 29) 1673” as printed in Greene (1975, 136-139).

4 “The Navigation Act of (Apr. 10) 1696”, “The Woolen Act (May 4, 1699)”, and “The Naval Stores Act (Mar. 14, 1705” as printed in Greene (1975, 210-217).

5 “The Commission of the Board of Trade (May 15, 1696)” as printed in Greene (1975, 218-221).

6 HSP, Port of Philadelphia Customs House Papers, 1704-1789, vol. 1.

7 HSP, Port of Philadelphia Customs House Papers, 1704-1789, vol. 1.

8 There is much on the topic of the Navigation Acts and subsequent efforts to raise funds leading to the American Revolution. Barrow (1967) is an older, but still relevant perspective on the British efforts to enforce its economic policies. Another valuable title is Lawrence Harper (1939). While the laws, no doubt, had significant impact in England, they had little impact in British America prior to 1763, thanks in no small part due to geographic realities.

9 HSP, Port of Philadelphia Customs House Papers, 1704-1789.

10 HSP, Port of Philadelphia Customs House Papers, 1704-1789, vol. 1. This is just one of several collections held by the HSP that contain clear evidence of Lisbon being a primary port of call for Philadelphia shipping. Most of the collections listed in the Bibliography contain mentions of this trade.

11 French ship “Maria Iara”, captained by Bertrand Guequem, whose entrance in Lisbon was registered in January 16th, 1769. AML-AH-MN, liv. 62, fl. 2 (1769).

12 HSP, Bills of Lading, 27 June and 4 July, 1765, Marshall Bills of Lading.

13 Letters of July 4th and July 11th, 1752. ANTT, Ministério dos Negócios Estrangeiros, cx. 688.

14 Ships “Anna” (1771) and “Maricas” (1775), captained by Thomas Dean and George Johnston, respectively. AML-AH-MN, liv. 64, fl. 12v (1771) and AML-AH-MN, liv. 68, fl. 84 (1775).

15 “Com a carga que se lhe oferecer”, as the source’s original text in Portuguese. AML-AH-MN, liv. 68, fl. 84 (1775).

16 Ship “White Oak”, captained by John Savage. AML-AH-MN, liv. 63, fl. 24v. (1770).

17 Ship “Otter”, captained by George Catton. AML-AH-MN, liv. 65, fl. 2 (1772).

18 Ship “Harmony”, captained by William Barber. AML-AH-MN, liv. 68, fl. 2v. (1775).

19 Ships “Beautiful Daisy”, in 1772, and “Globe”, in 1775, captained by Samuel Darison and Thomas Pitt, respectively. AML-AH-MN, liv. 65, fl. 14 (1772) and AML-AH-MN, liv. 68, fl. 31v. (1775).

20 Tench Francis Invoice Book, 1759-1761, HSP.

21 HSP, Port of Philadelphia Customs House Papers, 1704-1789.

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Jeremy Land e Rodrigo da Costa Dominguez, «Illicit Affairs : Philadelphia’s Trade with Lisbon before Independence, 1700-1775»Ler História, 75 | 2019, 179-204.

Referência eletrónica

Jeremy Land e Rodrigo da Costa Dominguez, «Illicit Affairs : Philadelphia’s Trade with Lisbon before Independence, 1700-1775»Ler História [Online], 75 | 2019, posto online no dia 31 dezembro 2019, consultado no dia 28 maio 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Jeremy Land

Georgia State University, USA

Rodrigo da Costa Dominguez

Universidade do Minho, Portugal

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Apenas o texto pode ser utilizado sob licença CC BY-NC 4.0. Outros elementos (ilustrações, anexos importados) são "Todos os direitos reservados", à exceção de indicação em contrário.

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