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By Cindy Vallar
Piracy and smuggling are both professions that date back to ancient times. Contraband trade cropped up once governments decided to regulate and tax consumable and luxury goods, for the imposed tariffs increased their prices. For example, the British Parliament raised these duty taxes to finance the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), and the American Revolution (1775-1783). Although consumers still wanted these goods, many could no longer afford them.1 Smugglers circumvented legal trade channels to provide these products at cheaper prices, because no taxes inflated their cost or because the items were illegal (banned from importation perhaps because of a war or an embargo). Those who participated in smuggling, either directly or indirectly, came from all walks of life and all occupations. Although smuggling occurred around the world, our focus here is predominantly on England, where the heyday of the smuggler lasted from the later decades of the seventeenth century into the mid-nineteenth century.
Each tradesman smuggled or dealt in smuggled goods; each public-house was supported by smugglers . . . each country gentleman . . . dabbled a little in the interesting traffic; almost every magistrate shared in the proceeds or partook of the commodities. – G. P. R. James, a nineteenth-century historian (Karras, 5)
Earlier in England, practitioners of this illicit occupation dealt in the smuggling of exports, taking goods from within to markets outside their own country. For example, before and during the Tudor period, the government prohibited the exportation of wool because it wanted to bolster weaving within the realm. In spite of these restrictions, a large percentage of raw English wool found its way to Dutch and French markets, and the principal suppliers were the “owlers” of Romney Marsh.2
Illicit trade played a vital role in the British economy as a result of the Trade and Navigation Acts parliament passed. Smugglers were found in almost any coastal region, but Boston, New York, Philadelphia, London, Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow, Port Royal, Cork, Newport, and the Isle of Man were particularly popular. Rather than pay steep tariffs on items, merchants and buyers turned to smugglers and pirates to provide needed and luxury goods, especially those from countries other than England. Laws and edicts dictated that only Spanish ships could provide that country’s colonists with trade goods in the New World, but the people rarely received what was needed or desired, sometimes waiting one to three years for supply ships to arrive. As a result, they purchased the plunder of French, English, and Dutch pirates, privateers, and smugglers, who brought the items ashore in sheltered coves and displayed their wares on makeshift tables, while the officers and crew provided protection and hospitality.3 The Spaniards called this type of trade rescate, which referred to bartered, ransomed, and traded goods. Payment for the contraband was made in cash or kind only. Those colonists who participated in these transactions knew what they did was wrong, but followed the saying Obedesio pero non cumplo – I obey but I do not comply.
What smugglers offered for sale depended on the region in which they conducted their business and the needs of their clientele. Among the contraband offered for sale in Puerto Rico were slaves, fine cloth, linens, dry goods, soap, wax, and mercury. Among the favored goods that found their way into British markets were silks, lace, tea, brandy, wine, and cinnamon. Leeches were popular “imports” in the 1840s in the Strait of Gibraltar. Moroccan officials at Tangier discovered 24,000 leeches aboard a Spanish falucha in 1847.
The general rule of thumb was if a product was taxed, it was potentially an item to be smuggled. One of the most popular commodities sold in Britain and her colonies around 1740 was tea. For every pound sold, the government collected a tax of four shillings, a steep price for the poor to pay. That’s why tea became a favorite product of smugglers, as did many items from the East Indies. English smugglers purchased tea in the Netherlands for two shillings a pound then sold it to their fellow countrymen for five to seven shillings, a price cheaper than legitimate merchants offered, for they usually sold tea for eight to ten shillings per pound. The tariffs on tea added from sixty-five to 119 percent to the initial cost of the beverage. The 1794 tax on tobacco was five times the value of the crop.
French brandy was also popular. It came in either a tub or a half-anker (equivalent to four gallons) and cost as little as sixteen shillings. The smuggler sold a tub of brandy for twenty-five shillings, whereas if purchased legally, the consumer paid eight shillings a gallon or thirty-two shillings a tub. Rum cost five shillings a gallon, but once the tariff was imposed, the cheapest it could be had for was eight shillings six pence. Port and sherry cost two shillings six pence a gallon before importation, but afterward the cost was at least four shillings.
Not all smuggled goods were sold to customers. A small portion of the contraband found its way into the homes of people who assisted the smugglers. James Woodforde, a parson, kept a detailed journal of daily life in Weston Longville. On March 1777, he wrote:
Andrews the smuggler brought me this night about 11 o’clock a bag of Hyson Tea 6 Pd weight. He frightened us a little by whistling under the parlour window just as we were going to bed. I gave him some Geneva and paid for the tea at 10/6 a Pd. (Platt, 21)
Just who might that smuggler be in real life? The records of tried smuggling cases in Dorset reveal that the accused were a: quarryman, dressmaker, tin-plate worker, ferryman, laborer, cooper, needlewoman, butcher, flax dresser, innkeeper, chairwoman, pig jobber, miller, shoemaker, twine spinner, fell-monger, and bricklayer. While this list included women, females were always based on the land side of the operation as opposed to being on a vessel. If they didn’t sell, transport, or hide the smuggled goods, they provided protection, alibis, or assistance to those who did.
Cornwall, England was a notorious smuggling center in the eighteenth century. Most contraband brought ashore went to local markets, but elsewhere in southern England, smuggling was comprised of complex networks that permitted the illicit goods to reach more distant markets, including London. Regular convoys of carts and pack horses journeyed at night accompanied by hired thugs for protection.
Interference from revenue agents was rare. In Cornwall most smugglers were fishermen by trade. They were considered too poor to pay the fines associated with prosecution or too old to be impressed into the Royal Navy if convicted. Elsewhere, gangs did the smuggling and their members often outnumbered the officers and were better armed. Thus agents preferred to watch the criminal activities from a distance, rather than face humiliation. In June 1744, customs officers stationed at Eastbourne received word of smugglers near Pevensey. They set off with five dragoons to capture the criminals, but found themselves prisoners instead. Following a brief skirmish where shots were fired and swords were crossed, the hundred smugglers quickly overwhelmed the agents and officers. The smugglers loaded their contraband onto their horses and departed.

Such confrontations, however, were rare. In Britain the worst penalty a smuggler could receive if caught was the loss of his ship and her cargo. Then parliament enacted the Smugglers Act of 1736 to curtail the illicit trade. If a revenuer was wounded or if the smugglers used arms against him and were caught, the court was entitled to impose the death penalty. Resisters who didn’t use weapons could be transported, sentenced to hard labor, whipped, or pressed into the Royal Navy. This was one reason why smugglers refrained from violence and worked clandestinely to accomplish their objectives. This differentiated them from pirates, who either threatened to hurt or inflicted brutality on their victims to obtain the plunder.

Smugglers, either on a vessel or on shore, weren’t usually the major players in this shadowy business. Those tended to be highly organized “operators,” who often had some standing in their communities. They didn’t see themselves as criminals, but considered themselves good citizens providing a much-needed service to the public. An operator, who could be either male or female, always took into account the amount of risk in a venture before setting it into motion. He often had an “investor,” someone who remained in the shadows and fronted the necessary funds for the scheme to go forward. This silent partner was often a man or woman of wealth whose reputation was beyond reproach – the least likely person in a community to be in league with smugglers – and the operator made certain this person’s identity remained hidden.
His contacts in the country or countries from which he imported goods secured the desired contraband. He also owned, or had access to, a boat to transport his cargo. He relied on a lander, a person who handled contraband once it was delivered ashore. Half of those in his employ, often numbering more than 200, offloaded the cargo, stowed it, and led the pack animals and/or wagons along the route to the distribution point.4 The rest of his men, known as batsmen, flanked the landing site and caravan. Their only purpose was to protect the contraband from revenuers. They usually carried cudgels, although many also had pistols.
Few smuggling ventures would have succeeded if the operators and landers lacked the support of the locals. Villagers, both along the shore and inland, provided transportation to convey the contraband to market and hiding places to store it. In 1799 George Lipcomb described an encounter with several such women.
We met several females, whose appearance was so grotesque and extraordinary, that I could not imagine, in what manner they had contrived to alter their natural shapes so completely; till, upon enquiry, we found that they were smugglers of spirituous liquors; which they were at that time conveying from their Cutter to Plymouth, by means of bladders fastened under their petticoats; and, indeed they were so heavily laden, that it was with great apparent difficulty they waddled along. (Karras, 21)
Villagers also warned smugglers about the movements of the customs officers. Few citizens opted to inform on their fellow countrymen.
English smugglers either ran their vessels aground to unload, or anchored offshore and ferried the cargo on smaller boats, sometimes called “tub-boats” because the smuggled product was often alcohol stored in tubs. Both methods took time, which increased the risk of detection. Eventually, smugglers created another means of delivering cargo that involved less risk. The tubs were tied together and weighted with sinking stones, then dumped overboard at a pre-arranged location just offshore. While the contraband sank, the end of the line bobbed on or close to the surface where someone, who knew to look for it, could easily spot it. Boats, disguised as fishing vessels, recovered the tubs whenever it suited. This was known as “sowing the crop,” and was used more frequently after the Napoleonic Wars. Another method involved lashing the tubs together to form a pyramid, which would “float low in the water and [was] anchored to the sea-bed by a grapnel.” (Phillipson, 62) The pyramid was painted a sea-green color, while the top tubs were painted white. This made them almost invisible in choppy water.
There were five ways to signal a boat that it was safe to offload her smuggled cargo. At night someone stood on a hill, in a cave, or at another prominent landmark and waved a lantern visible only to those at sea. Or he might ignite a straw bundle near the edge of a cliff overlooking the water. He could burn a blue light or fire a pistol. In daylight hours, the lander might display a pre-arranged signal flag at a mill. The warning was visible to those at sea, but didn’t interfere with the miller’s work. As one witness testified:
The master-smugglers contract for the goods, either abroad, or with the master of a cutter which fetches them . . . and the captain of the cutter fixes a time and a place where he designs to land, and seldom or never fails, being pretty punctual as to the time, if the weather permits, as the master-smugglers cannot fetch all the goods themselves, so they hire men whom they call ‘riders’, and they allow each man half a guinea a journey, and bear all expenses of eating and drinking, and horse, and allowance of a dollop of tea, which is forty pounds weight, being half of a bag, the profit of which dollop, even of the most ordinary sort, is worth more than a guinea, and some 25s, and some more; and they always make one journey, sometimes two, and sometimes three in a week, which is indeed such a temptation that very few people in the country can withstand, and which has been the cause of so many turning.5 (Phillipson, 25)
The citizenry might find smuggling tolerable, but not so the government. Unpaid tariffs meant less money in royal or national coffers. Jean Laffite, who history has labeled as either a pirate or a privateer, was a smuggler in the early 1800s. He offered the people of New Orleans needed commodities (such as slaves and cinnamon) at cheaper prices than regular merchants did.6 While the Creoles saw smuggling as an acceptable part of their everyday lives, the American government did not, and Governor William C. C. Claiborne attempted numerous times to deal with the problem.
With smuggling so popular in some English counties and so many people involved in such operations, a revenue agent was often seen as the guilty party, especially if a smuggler was killed in the confrontation. While arguing as to whether or not to pass the Smuggling Bill of 1736, members of parliament heard this testimony:
In some parts of the maritime counties the whole people are so generally engaged in smuggling that it is impossible to find a jury that will, upon trial, do justice to an officer of the revenue in any case whatever. In those counties where smuggling has become general, the majority of the coroner’s inquests always consist of smugglers, so that it has been found by experience that these inquests always bring the officer and his assistants in guilty of murder, even though it be made clearly to appear, by the most undoubted testimonies, that the killing happened ‘de defendendo.’7 (Phillipson, 28)
Revenuers received good salaries, and many men applied for the positions.8 When contraband was confiscated, the officer received a reward on top of his yearly salary of £30 to £40. In 1786 those agents who captured tea on which no duties had been paid were awarded more than £3,000, but that reward amount was a rarity. By 1820 a revenuer also received a pension.
These agents didn’t just patrol on land. A few were present on the eight revenue cutters that guarded the British coastline from North Foreland to the Bristol Channel in 1703.9 Until the mid 1700s, the government contracted with private ships to patrol coastal waters. These contractors received half the profits realized from the sale of confiscated cargo. The other half went into the royal treasury. The crews of such boats consisted of a master, one or two mates, and seamen (the number varied according to the vessel’s size), one of whom was chosen to act as the customs officer. This gave him the right to legally detain and search a ship and seize any contraband. After 1816 most revenue cutters sailed under the command of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy because there were too many officers to man the regular fleet.

In 1783 William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He felt the best way to curb smuggling was to lower the duties paid on goods. The following year he reduced the tariff on tea from 119% to 12 1/2%. This policy of reduction would continue into the next century until the 1840s when Britain instituted free trade, which drastically reduced the duties assessed on imports. Sir Robert Peel, who became Prime Minister in 1841 eliminated tariffs on more than 600 products while decreasing those added to many others. He did this at a time when the nation’s coffers were nearly bankrupt, but realized this was the best way to curb smuggling. To compensate for the loss of revenue, he instituted the income tax. Although illegal contraband still continued to enter the country, it had a far less impact on the economy and citizens changed how they viewed the smuggler.
With the reduction of duties and the removal of all needless and vexatious restrictions, smuggling has greatly diminished and the public sentiments with regard to it have undergone a very creditable change. The smuggler’s no longer an object of public sympathy, or a hero of romance, and people are beginning to awake to the perception of the fact that the offence is less a fraud on the Revenue than a robbery of the fair trades. (Smith, 26)

The Smugglers
Burton Bradstock
Gunsgreen House
Robin Hood's Bay
Smugglers Cove - in Kinson?
Smuggling & Piracy on the Isle of Wight
Smuggling on Llyn
Tales of Smuggling in Cornwall

Free Trade & Smuggling
Smugglers & the Whisky Road
Smugglers & Wreckers


1. When George III became king in 1760, more than 800 items were assessed tariffs. Over the next several years, that number increased by more than 1,000.
2. Owler refers specifically to smugglers of wool.
3. The French referred to this form of smuggling or trade as traiter à la pique, which means “trading by the pike.” English seamen called it “trading by stealth.”

4. Inns, pubs, and churches were frequently used as hiding places for illicit cargo when it wasn’t possible to get the goods to their final destination once landed. Other places were used as well and sometimes the hider was quite ingenious in where he stowed the merchandise. A Scotsman installed a fireproof trapdoor in his kiln, and when he suspected revenuers would visit, he lit a fire in the kiln. John Nisbet built a house in Eyemouth, Scotland. Underground cellars and secret hiding places were incorporated into the architectural design. Beside the stairs to the second floor, he inserted a chute, lined with tin, to store boxes of tea. The floor of the entrance hall concealed a brick-and-stone chamber where smugglers hid during custom raids.
5. Such compensation caused problems for farmers who hired people to harvest their crops, for the average daily wage was only a few pence.
6. One successful raid by revenue agents in 1812 netted twenty-six bales of cinnamon worth $3,000 ($42,000 today).
7. Such officers were eventually acquitted most of the time, but until such judgments were handed down, they lived in peril for just doing their duty.
8. One such revenue agent, also known as an exciseman or gauger, was the poet Robert Burns. He worked as such in Dumfries, Scotland from 1788 until 1796. He even wrote a poem about one entitled “The De’il’s Awa wi’ the Exciseman.”
9. The historical record doesn’t actually refer to these vessels as cutters. The term used is “cruisers” – a word that might mean a cutter, but another type of boat might be employed. The ideal vessel combined speed with strength. Smugglers also favored cutters, but also used wherries and luggers.

For more information, I recommend these resources: 
Anderson, John L. “Piracy and World History” in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader edited by C. R. Pennell. New York University, 2001.
Antony, Robert J. “Introduction: The Shadowy World of the Greater China Seas” in Elusive Pirates, Pervasive Smugglers: Violence and Clandestine Trade in the Greater China Seas edited by Robert J. Antony. Hong Kong University, 2010.
Beal, Clifford. Quelch’s Gold: Piracy, Greed, and Betrayal in Colonial New England. Praeger, 2007.
Bibliography on Smuggling compiled by Mathieu Deflem and Kelly Henry-Turner, 1999 [accessed online 6 April 2011]. 

Chatterton, E. Keble. King’s Cutters and Smugglers 1700-1855. George Allen & Co., 1912. 
Chin, James K. “Merchants, Smugglers, and Pirates” in Elusive Pirates, Pervasive Smugglers: Violence and Clandestine Trade in the Greater China Seas edited by Robert J. Antony. Hong Kong University, 2010.

Doe, Helen. “Captain James Dunn: Eighteenth-century Smuggler,” Maritime Life and Tradition (Summer 2005), 36-49.
Doe, Helen. “The Smugglers’ Shipbuilder: The Customers, Trades and Vessels of a Mevagissey Shipyard, 1799-1816,” The Mariner’s Mirror 92: 4 (November 2006), 427-442.

Fajeon, Joseph Jefferson. The Complete Smuggler: A Book about Smuggling in England, America and Elsewhere, Past and Present. Bobbs-Merrill, 1938.

Graham, Eric. J. Maritime History of Scotland 1650-1790. Tuckwell, 2002.
Guttridge, Roger. “Isaac Gulliver – the Ferndown Connection,” Dorset Magazine (July 2007) [accessed 6 April 2011] 

Higgs, Liz Curtis. My Heart’s in the Lowlands. Water Brook, 2007.
Hopper, Brian. “Treasure Island,” Realm (October 2003), 36-43.

Karras, Alan L. Smuggling. Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.
Kimball, Steve. “Dr. Syn or Capt. Clegg?” The Pyrates Way IV:III, 30-35.

Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas 1500-1750. M. E. Sharpe, 1998.
Little, Benerson. Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674-1688. Potomac Books, 2007.

Matthews, Sarah. “Bootleggers and Bandits,” Realm (October 2006), 58-62.

Nadle, Gonçal López. “Corsairing as a Commercial System” in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader edited by C. R. Pennell. New York University, 2001.
Nagle, Margaret. “The Golden Era of Smuggling," UMaine Today Magazine (Dec. 2001/Jan. 2002). [accessed 6 April 2011] 
Nightingale, Benedict. “A Kentish Countryside Possessed,” The New York Times (28 August 1988) [accessed 6 April 2011] 

Parmentier, Jan. “Profit and Neutrality: The Case of Ostend, 1781-1783” in Pirates and Privateers: New Perspectives on the War on Trade in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries edited by David J. Starky and others. University of Exeter, 1997.
Paxton, John, and John Wroughton. Smuggling. Macmillan, 1971
Pearce, Cathryn. Cornish Wrecking 1700-1860: Reality and Popular Myth. Boydell Press, 2010.
Pennell, C. R. “The Geography of Piracy” in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader edited by C. R. Pennell. New York University, 2001.
Pérotin-Dumon, Anne. “The Pirate and the Emperor” in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader edited by C. R. Pennell. New York University, 2001.
Phillipson, David. Smuggling: A History. Penguin, 1984.
Platt, Richard. Smugglers’ Britain [accessed online 6 April 2011]  
Platt, Richard. Smuggling in the British Isles: A History. Tempus, 2007.
Prenderghast, Gareth. “Honest Thieves,” Realm (June 2002), 73-76.

Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Cambridge University, 1999.
Ross, Shân. “A Smuggler’s Lair,” Scottish Life 16:1 (Spring 2011), 32-32, 73.

Shore, H. N. Smuggling Days and Smuggling Ways. Philip Allan & Co., 1892 [accessed on 6 April 2011] 
Smith, Gavin D. The Scottish Smuggler. Birlinn, 2003.
Smuggling & Smugglers in Sussex. Y.J. Smith, 1749. [accessed online 6 April 2011]  
Stevenson, Roy. “Smugglers!” Renaissance Magazine 15:1, 27.

Tagliacozzo, Eric. “Smuggling the South China Sea” in Elusive Pirates, Pervasive Smugglers: Violence and Clandestine Trade in the Greater China Seas edited by Robert J. Antony. Hong Kong University, 2010.
Tiegnmouth, Baron [Henry Noel Shore]. The Smugglers: Picturesque Chapters in the History of Contraband 2 v. George H. Doran, 1923.

Van Zijverden, Jan. “The Risky Alternative: Dutch Privateering during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, 1780-1783” in Pirates and Privateers: New Perspectives on the War on Trade in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries edited by David J. Starky and others. University of Exeter, 1997.
Watson, Drennan. “The Smugglers and the Whisky Roads,” Scottish History Online: An 18th Century Military Road in the Scottish Highlands and 3 of Its Bridges [accessed online 6 April 2011]. 
Weir, Bryan. “Robert Burns as an Exciseman,” Alexandra Burns Club, 2004 [accessed online 3 May 2011]. 


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