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Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Spanish-American Frontier, 1783‑1795

Arthur Preston Whitaker

as reprinted by
Peter Smith,
Gloucester, MA, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p171  Chapter XII
The French Revolution and the Spanish Empire

If you want to follow along on the author's maps, they're here. (They'll open in another window, so you won't lose your place.)

Virtue and vitality

As Carondelet's frontier policy began to take shape and just as Spain and England were being drawn into the war against France, William Short arrived at Madrid in tardy response to Floridablanca's invitation of 1791. On February 6, 1793, he and William Carmichael, the resident chargé, who held joint powers, informed the secretary of state, Manuel de Godoy, the Duke of Alcudia, that they were ready to begin the negotiation.1

It was just at this juncture that the Red Terror in France reached its grand climacteric in the beheading of Louis XVI, royal cousin of His Majesty of Spain and the Indies. No event more disastrous to Spain has ever occurred in its history, for it was thereby involved inextricably in the European wars of the next twenty years, with fatal results to the dynasty, the nation and the empire. Even though we are concerned with only a small corner of the colonial and diplomatic fields, and that for a brief period of time, we shall have abundant occasion to note how cruelly Spain suffered from the convulsions that shook its neighbor to the north. In Spain, as in England, liberalism was brought into disrepute by the excesses of the French republicans, and, as we have seen, an interesting experiment in immigration policy, based on religious toleration, was abandoned in the conservative reaction of the 1790's at the Spanish court. In the following pages it will appear how, in other respects as well, such as colonial commerce and finance, Indian trade and international relations, the  p172 results of the French Revolution handicapped Spain in its bloodless conflict with the United States.

The king of Spain at that time was Charles IV, whose reign was one of the most disastrous in the history of Spain, or for that matter of any European country. The disaster was all the more poignant because of the fair promise of the preceding reign, which ended with the death of Charles III in 1788. For those who are satisfied with such explanations, it may be said that Charles IV was simple-minded and his queen a nymphomaniac, and that the youthful chief minister, Godoy, was one of the queen's lovers.​2 If one tests this interpretation by a comparison of the conduct of relations with the United States in this reign and the one that preceded it, the hollowness of it becomes at once apparent. Charles III was possessed of at least normal intelligence and of a most extraordinary chastity, for during the last twenty years of his life he had neither wife nor mistress. His chief minister was no upstart youth, but the tried and true Floridablanca. And yet a crisis was never more incompetently handled than the one that the austere king and his patriotic minister had to face at the outbreak of the American Revolution. If the youthful Godoy had at last to surrender to the Americans, it was because the middle-aged Floridablanca had let slip a golden opportunity and had not been able to rectify his blunder in the nine remaining years of his ministry after the end of the American Revolution.

It is difficult indeed to establish any causal relation between the private morality of the ministers and the issue of the struggle between Spain and the United States. While Godoy lay in the arms of his royal mistress, Alexander Hamilton was similarly engaged with the wife of one of his underlings in the treasury  p173 department. It is also an interesting fact that Godoy was a far more industrious person than George Washington.​3 If we consider the case from the point of view of public morality, the situation is not altered. On the contrary, the Spanish government seems to have been punished for its virtues. Loyalty to monarchy induced it to undertake the disastrous war of 1793 with France, and loyalty to the Catholic faith handicapped it hopelessly in the frontier competition with the United States.

What Spain lacked was not virtues but vitality, the power of adaptation. Perhaps she had neither the man-power nor the money-power nor the brain-power to maintain her heritage from another world, but certainly she was unable to adapt herself to the needs of a changing age. For a generation past, enlightened Spaniards had made notable efforts at readjustment; but when the rhythm of change was accelerated by the French Revolution the nation would not, and by its very nature could not, keep pace. Soon hopelessly maladjusted to the new world, the Spaniards resigned the effort, canonized their faults, consoled themselves with reveries of a glorious past, and dreamed away an empire. The most heroic of ministers could have done little more than shake an impotent fist in the face of the storm that broke upon the just and the unjust in 1793.

The English alliance

Spain's first and most urgent need was an ally. Since the Nootka episode the Family Compact had been as good as dissolved, and for a time Spain stood in dangerous intimation. As the progress of the revolution in France made the renewal of the Compact unlikely, and as the contagion of republican ideas became more  p174 menacing Floridablanca suggested an alliance with no less a power than the ancient enemy, England. His fall and the rise to power of the Gallican Aranda interposed a delay; but Aranda was supplanted by Manuel de Godoy, Duke of Alcudia, in November, 1792, and the English alliance was pressed to an early conclusion.​4 The alliance was of course directed primarily against France, but the treaty also provided that if either power should be drawn into war with another power through its measures against France, the other contracting party must make common cause against the new enemy. Thus if British restrictions on neutral trade with France should result in war between Great Britain and the United States, Spain would be obliged under this treaty to come to the aid of the British.5

No matter how much one may sympathize with the Spanish court in the terrible dilemma of 1793, and no matter what cogent reasons it may have had for concluding the English alliance, the fact remains that Britain was the age-old enemy of the Spanish empire, that French aid alone had long sustained the tottering power of Spain in the Indies, and that the French and the Spaniards now set merrily to work sinking each other's ships for the greater glory of Great Britain. The result might have been foreseen. It was foreseen by some, among them the doughty old Count Aranda, who warned his king of the wrath to come, and was rewarded for his pains by dismissal, disgrace, and imprisonment at Granada in the palace of Charles V.

Economic penetration

On the Spanish frontier in North America the disastrous results of the French Revolution were soon apparent. In the first place, the increasing gravity of  p175 the European situation prevented the court from carrying into effect its plan of 1789 for supplying trade of Louisiana and the Floridas with Spanish goods. Since the colonists had long been accustomed to French and English goods, the court had proposed in 1789 to facilitate the change by duplicating in Spanish factories the articles of common colonial consumption. Martin Navarro, former intendant of Louisiana, was actually sent to France and England, where he secured samples and information with regard to methods of production and marketing; but by the time that he returned to Spain (1790) the menacing European situation had diverted his government's attention to other matters.​6 And yet some provision must be made for supplying these North American colonies. The commerce of Louisiana was regulated by the cédula issued in 1782 and limited to ten years' duration, and was in the hands of merchants of France, with which country Spain went to war in May, 1793. To meet this situation, the Spanish government issued in July, 1793 a reglamento de comercio, which was to apply to East and West Florida as well as to Louisiana.​7 The reglamento contained the apparently liberal provision that these provinces might trade with all friendly nations with which Spain had a commercial treaty; but since Spain was at war with France and had no commercial treaty with the United States, the practical effect of the reglamento was to restrict the trade of the colonists to Great Britain. Furthermore, the new regulations required all foreign ships going to and from Louisiana and the Floridas to touch at the port of Corcubión in Galicia, a requirement which its sponsor supported by the touching observation that it would be of great benefit to that little port.​a This onerous provision was  p176 subsequently repealed, in view of the strenuous protest of the New Orleans cabildo or town council; but the court had given convincing proof that it was either ignorant of the interests of its North American colonies or was willing to sacrifice them for the benefit of a single insignificant Spanish port.

Worst of all, the French Revolution made it impossible to prevent Spanish subjects in Louisiana and the Floridas from trading with the United States. On the Mississippi Carondelet stretched to the utmost the discretionary power granted him by the Royal Order of December 1, 1788, and reduced from fifteen to six per cent the duty on importations from Kentucky which included fourteen thousand barrels of flour in a single year (1792). In defence of his course, he declared that the exaction of the higher duty would provoke the Kentuckians to invade Louisiana and that in that event they would probably be aided by a creole insurrection, so great was the ferment caused by the French Revolution. As for the seaborne commerce of Louisiana, Carondelet warned that it was falling into the hands of the United States, and frankly admitted that American ships were trading at New Orleans, flying the United States flag on the Atlantic and in the Gulf of Mexico, and hoisting the Spanish flag only when they entered the Mississippi River. In extenuation he not only pleaded the danger of rebellion in Louisiana, but actually espoused the cause of the colonists, arguing economic necessity. Since, he said, the war with France had closed the normal channels of Louisiana's trade, but one market for many of the colonial productions was left and that was in the United States. If this were closed, the colonists would be ruined.8

While the court never approved Carondelet's course,  p177 neither did it take effective steps to cut off contraband trade with the United States, and the opening of the Mississippi to the United States shipping under the treaty of San Lorenzo increased enormously the facilities for smuggling. In conclusion, we are justified in saying that the French Revolution had a most disastrous effect on Spanish commercial policy in Louisiana and the Floridas, for it not only prevented the execution of the plan to supply their wants with Spanish goods but actually opened the way to economic penetration by the very nation, the United States, that Spain was most anxious to exclude from contact with its frontier colonies.

The Indian trade

In that highly specialized branch of commerce, the Indian trade, the French Revolution again exercised an influence unfavorable to Spanish interests. Spanish policy, as we have seen, was designed to control the territory in dispute with the United States by keeping the occupant Indian tribes, the Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw, dependent upon Spain, and this was to be accomplished through the medium of trade. By the year 1793, when Spain went to war with France, this policy gave fair promise of success. Spanish influence was paramount among the Southern Indians, whose trade was falling more and more into the hands of Panton, Leslie and Company. The company with stores at St. Mark's, Pensacola and Mobile, and with a business whose capital value in 1794 was estimated by Panton and Carondelet at $400,000, seemed most favorably situated to engross the fur trade as it retreated westward in the face of the advancing American and Spanish frontiers. In addition to long-standing  p178 connections among the Indian tribes and to a monopoly protected by the Spanish government, the company enjoyed several other advantages. First among these was its direct communication with England, where its correspondents, Strachan and McKenzie, sold its furs and bought its next year's supply of goods for the Indian trade; and these goods were bought in what was then the cheapest market in the world. Furthermore, economies were made possible by the magnitude of the enterprise; and finally the finances of the company were stabilized by its manifold activities, for it traded not only with the Indians but also, sometimes openly and sometimes surreptitiously, with the colonists; it owned its ships, supplied the Indians with salt from its own salt mine on the Island of Providence, imported slaves, exported timber, and speculated in lands.9

Supported by the imprudent but vigorous Carondelet, the company made rapid strides in the period 1792‑95. It prevented the execution of the Creek treaty of 1790 with the United States, which would have endangered the company's hold on the Creek trade. It built up a powerful party among the Chickasaw, who had hitherto been largely under the influence of the Cumberland settlers, and even began to penetrate the Cherokee, most of whose towns lay beyond the extremest limit of Spain's territorial claims.​10 In 1794 Fort Confederation and in 1795 Fort San Fernando were built by Carondelet to strengthen the company's hand among the Choctaw and Chickasaw; and Panton's store at San Fernando (Memphis) opened up to him the Mississippi River fur trade and would have made it possible for him to follow the trade as it retreated westward across the Mississippi.

This fair prospect was ruined by the wars of the  p179 French Revolution and the simultaneous rise of a strong federal government in the United States. Spain's war in alliance with England against France (1793‑95) resulted in many losses to Panton, Leslie and Company, for they were now unable to secure in England the indispensable supply of guns for the Indian trade. When they invoked Carondelet's good offices, he was forced to send to the United States for the guns and even then was unable to obtain them, since their exportation was prohibited by the United States government. The company suffered further losses through French depredations, as its ships sailed under the British flag; and to the delight of Panton's sworn rivals, the Georgians, a French privateer brought one of his richly laden ships a prize to the port of Savannah.11

At the same time, the increasingly vigorous Indian policy of the United States, executed through Blount at Knoxville and Seagrove in Georgia, gave Panton great concern; and when in 1794 he learned that United States government itself was planning to take over the Indian trade he was utterly dismayed and sought the aid of the Spanish government. As he stated in his memorial, the American project was a tribute to his company's efficiency, since it was equivalent to the admission that private enterprise could not compete with him; but at the same time Panton admitted his inability to hold the field against the United States government.12

These and other difficulties led the company to beg the court for a loan and other concessions, urging as the only alternative the purchase and operation of its business by His Catholic Majesty's government. Unfortunately for Panton, the European war, which was in a large measure responsible for his memorial, was  p180 also largely responsible for Spain's inability to adopt either of the alternatives that he proposed. Both involved heavy expenditures, and these were lean years for the Spanish treasury. Economy was the order of the day, and we shall soon see how important a part an empty treasury played in bringing about the Spanish surrender to the United States in 1795. Left to shift for itself, the company succeeded in controlling another generation the trade of the Indian towns nearest the coast; but as early as 1796 one of its members, John Forbes, wrote Carondelet that he was on his way to Knoxville to close out the company's Cherokee trade because of the "proximity and cheapness of the American supplys."

Spain retreats

To return to the mission in Spain of Carmichael and Short: Until the end of 1793, they accomplished absolutely nothing, and Short was more than once inclined to give up the effort in disgust. The English alliance and a few easy victories over the French made Gardoqui for a few months quite indifferent to the attitude of the United States, and a better man than Gardoqui, appointed plenipotentiary to negotiate the treaty, could hardly have been found to baffle the American commissioners. He had an excellent excuse for putting them off, since they had nothing to offer in return for their extravagant demands. He had an interest in putting them off, since his own family were merchants at Bilbao, and since Spanish commerce, he thought, was being ruined by colonial contraband trade, which would be facilitated by the opening of the Mississippi River to the United States. Finally, he had a genius for putting the Americans off, and not only the  p181 Americans but everyone, for he was a master of evasion and, as the British ambassador wrote, "repeating what falls from Gardoqui" was "next to saying nothing."13

Not for long, however, did this happy state of affairs endure. The British alliance, so recently cemented, soon cracked under the strain of the opposing thrusts of Spanish and British interests, first at Toulon, then at Santo Domingo and elsewhere. No longer could the Spanish government stand so unyieldingly on its rights in the American controversy as it understood them, and it is interesting to observe that the first concession to the Americans (many were soon to follow) was made in frontier affairs, in the field of Indian relations. As we have seen, Jáudenes and Viar, instigated by Carondelet, had taken an absurd position in regard to Indian affairs on the Spanish-American frontier, and had maintained their absurdities in such offensive language that Jefferson had transferred the discussion of the subject to Madrid. Making skilful use of the data at their disposal, Carmichael and Short forced Gardoqui and Godoy from one position to another until finally, on January 19, 1794, Godoy surrendered the argument, admitting that the Indian allies of Spain had been the aggressors against the unoffending American frontiersmen and promising to use his authority to prevent the recurrence of such episodes.14

Another concession soon followed that of January 19. On March 7, 1794, Godoy laid before the Council of State a copy of the treaty concluded by Gayoso at Nogales in October, 1793, whereby a Southern Indian confederation had been created in alliance with Spain. On Godoy's advice, the King and Council approved the treaty only on the express understanding that it did not contain any provision that might endanger the continuance  p182 of friendly relations with the United States. Jáudenes and Viar were informed of their decision and instructed to communicate it to the United States government. And so the treaty that Carondelet had designed as a prelude to war with the United States was used by his government to prove its earnest desire for peace and friendship with that power.15

In the course of the first seven months of 1794, Godoy received from various quarters of Europe and America reports which broke down still further his will to resist the Americans and determined him to press to an immediate conclusion the pending negotiation. From St. Augustine and Havana he learned of the imminent invasions of East Florida and Louisiana planned by Elijah Clarke and George Rogers Clark at Genêt's instigation. From Philadelphia he learned of the opposition of the United States government to Genêt's plans and of its inclination to maintain friendly relations with Spain.​16 From London, the Spanish ambassador, Bernardo del Campo, sent him the disquieting news that an envoy from the United States was expected there to negotiate a treaty.​17 Almost every week brought a fresh reason for dissatisfaction with the English alliance. The campaign of 1794 in the eastern Pyrenees was marked by the most alarming succession of victories by the French invaders over the Spanish troops, and already Gardoqui was warning the Council of State that the finances of the crown could not stand the strain of war much longer.18

Spain's change of policy in Indian affairs was soon followed by its necessary complement, a modification of its diplomacy. The same spirit that curbed Carondelet's belligerency led Godoy in May, 1794, to request the United States to send a new plenipotentiary to  p183 Spain, a more eminent person than Short and Carmichael and one armed with ampler powers. On May 9, 1794, seven days after the Council of State had discussed many fresh reports of forces gathering in the United States to invade Louisiana and the Floridas, an order was sent to Jáudenes instructing him to lay this request before the president of the United States at the earliest opportunity.​19 Jáudenes did so in August, and it was in answer to this invitation, though after a considerable delay, that Thomas Pinckney was appointed to Spain. Jefferson, who was offered the appointment, declined it.20

Under the circumstances, it can hardly be doubted that Godoy's invitation was dictated by a sincere desire for an accommodation, especially when we remember his simultaneous modification of Spain's Indian policy for the express purpose of maintaining friendly relations with the United States. On what terms he intended to conduct the negotiation it is impossible to state with certainty, but we may be sure that a complete surrender was not intended. In view of Gardoqui's influence with Godoy, his advice to Floridablanca on Short's memorial of 1791, and the inclination, recorded in the correspondence of Godoy's office, of Jay and Jefferson​21 to agree to a mutual territorial guarantee in return for the thirty-first parallel and the free navigation of the Mississippi, we may suppose with no great probability of error that Godoy hoped to secure some such settlement before Spain's situation became still more disquieting.

Fate was against him. The French advance continued, funds were exhausted, and even the Spanish aristocracy seemed tainted with republicanism. Early in July, 1794, Godoy received from Jáudenes the  p184 startling news that John Jay had been sent by the United States government to conclude a treaty with England.​22 Godoy was terrified. The spectre of an Anglo-American alliance that had so long haunted the Spanish foreign office seemed about to assume corporeal substance; and Spain's tenuous connection with England offered her no security. Albion's perfidy was taken for granted by the Spanish court.

The other portions of Jáudenes's despatches did not afford Godoy the comfort intended. Describing the unstable equilibrium of the American frontier, which might incline the Kentuckians either to secession and alliance with Spain or to an attack on the Spanish dominions, Jáudenes failed to console his youthful chief, for Godoy knew that the former alternative would be as disastrous to Spain as the latter.

The only escape, it seemed, was to forestall England by a quick negotiation with the American government. Consequently Godoy laid the case before the Council of State on July 7, 1794. After hearing a lengthy statement of the diplomatic and frontier situation, the Council determined unanimously to make fresh overtures to the United States.​23 The next two weeks were occupied in drawing up the necessary instructions, Godoy writing out the first draft in his own hand,​24 a rare thing for the first secretary of state to do, even in the time of the faithful Floridablanca. Before the instructions were sent, however, Godoy received from Carondelet letters of such a character as to require the reconsideration of Spain's policy towards the United States and its frontiersmen. The origin and contents of Carondelet's letters and the government's resolution thereon will form the subject of the next chapter.

The Author's Notes:

 p240  1 AHN, E, l. 3889 bis, exp. 11, Carmichael and Short to Alcudia, Aranjuez, Feb. 6, 1793.

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2 There is no biography of Godoy in Spanish. Edmund B. D'Auvergne, Godoy: the Queen's Favorite, is well illustrated. Godoy's Memoirs are not reliable. There is a good biographical sketch in the Enciclopedia Universal Ilustrada. In November, 1792, when he became first secretary of state, his title was Duke de la Alcudia. In September, 1795, Charles IV conferred on him the title of Prince of the Peace, as a reward for having secured peace with France in the treaty of Bâle.

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3 B. P. R. O., F. O., Spain, 72/38, Bute to Grenville, Aug. 5, 1795, No. 14; AHN, E, ACE, Nov. 22, 1795; Department of  p241 State, Despatches, Hague and Spain, I, 150, Short to Sec. of State, Jan. 9, 1794.

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4 AHN, E, ACE, Nov. 16, 1792, and Feb. 19, 1793.

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5 A. S. P., F. R., I, 278; AHN, E, ACE, July 7, 1794.

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6 AI, 87‑3‑19, contains an expediente on this subject.

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7 AI, PC, l. 2353, Gardoqui to the Captain-General of Cuba etc., June 9, 1793, copy.

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8 Ib., l. 178, (Carondelet) to Gardoqui, May 16, 1793, No. 74 res., draft; ib., l. 104, same to Jáudenes and Viar, Aug. 13, 1793, draft.

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9 AI, 86‑7‑9, Representation to H. C. M., signed by Francisco Xavier Sánchez and others, St. Augustine, Nov. 27, 1794; Pickett, History of Alabama, 367; cf. A. S. P., I. A., I, 458.

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10 See my article, "Spain and the Cherokee Indians, 1783‑1795," in North Carolina Hist. Rev., July, 1927.

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11 AI, PC, l. 203, Panton to Carondelet, April 4, 1793, and July 3, 1794; ib., l. 104, Carondelet to Jáudenes and Viar, Sept. 18, 1793, draft.

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12 Ib., l. 2354, Panton, Leslie and Co. to Carondelet, not dated.

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13 B. P. R. O., F. O., Spain, 72/38, Bute to Grenville, Sept. 10, 1795, No. 20, "Most Secret."

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14 AHN, E, l. 3889 bis, exp. 11, (Alcudia) to Carmichael and Short, Jan. 19, 1794, draft; A. S. P., F. R., I, 445‑46.

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15 Ib., ACE, March 7, 1794.

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16 Ib., l. 3895 bis, Jáudenes and Viar to Alcudia, March 13, 1794, No. 213.

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17 AHN, E, l. 4249, Campo to Alcudia, March 28, 1794, No. 1.

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18 Ib., ACE, Dec. 13 and 20, 1793.

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19 Ib., May 2, 1794; AME, Archivo de la Legación de S. M. C., Washington, D. C., Alcudia to Jáudenes, May 9, 1794, in cipher, accompanied by a deciphered copy.

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20 A. S. P., F. R., I, 469; AHN, E, l. 3895 bis, Jáudenes to Alcudia, Nov. 30, 1794, No. 273; W. H. Trescot, The Diplomatic History of the Administrations of Washington and Adams, 239‑40, 240‑45; Washington, Writings, XII, 459, note.

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21 Yela, II, 342‑50; AHN, E, l. 3894 bis, Jáudenes and Viar to Floridablanca, Dec. 18, 1791, No. 61; Jefferson, Writings, VI, 206.

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22 AHN, E, l. 3895 bis, Jáudenes and Viar to Alcudia, April 23, 1794, No. 220.

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 p242  23 AHN, E, ACE, July 7, 1794. The session began with the reading of the letter cited in note 22, above.

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24 Ib., l. 3895 bis, (Alcudia) to Jáudenes and Viar, "[blank] de Julio de 1794," in Godoy's handwriting.

Thayer's Note:

a A map shows that by specifying Corcubión the ministry was bending over backwards to accommodate shippers while maintaining appearances of Spanish trade:

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Page updated: 26 Oct 18