Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Smugglers' Roads

We have spoken on many occasions about the great service done to the pirate and/or privateer by the smuggler. It is one thing to know how to run a ship, keep a crew smart and take a prize. That is work a sailor can wrap his brain around. It is an entirely different endeavor to get prize goods from ship to market without the authorities poking their noses into your business, and taking your livelihood right out of your hands. As you stand there on deck looking at your seemingly good fortune you wonder, what to do now?

That’s when the smuggler becomes your best friend.

It goes without saying that some smugglers were independent operators, buying their goods at cost usually from a foreign source and then bringing them into their own country under cover of night to avoid paying tariffs or duties. The majority of historical smuggling, however, was done by experts who worked with freebooters to their mutual gain. Of course the pirate would be expected to give a cut of his prize to the smuggler, but in the end it was very much worth it. Our seafarer could be back on the water taking another prize while his smuggling connection was selling the goods from the last one. Faster turnover meant more profit and a win for everyone.

Smuggling rings fed goods by pirates have existed for centuries. The Romans battled for years with Cilician pirates who also ran a profitable smuggling business. Grace O’Malley headed an outfit of pirates and smugglers that made her family wealthy. Even the infamous Blackbeard worked with a smuggling ring in and around Charleston, South Caroline who readily sold prize goods and slaves for he brought in to Ocracoke Inlet.

The most sophisticated operation in recent memory – and perhaps in history – was the Laffite brothers’ Barataria. Rivaled only by their Galveston network, the Laffites’ system for providing a literal outlet store for prize goods made Barataria a one stop shop for everyone involved in both privateering and smuggling. The location, with it’s innumerable access to the city of New Orleans via bayou and swamp, was unquestionably made for the savvy smuggler. It helped that the city and the entire area had a long history of not only tolerating but embracing smuggled goods and smugglers. The business really took off in Louisiana when the French turned to territory over to Spain who brought high tariffs on all imported goods along with them. The Creole natives, used to getting goods from France almost literally at cost, weren’t about to put up with Spain’s taxes and the rest is history. Smuggling in and around New Orleans has not completely disappeared to date, but it has fallen off considerably since the recall of prohibition.

A fine reminder of this kind of symbiotic relationship was accidently found recently in Hastings, England. Situated on the Channel where England brushes very close to the northern coast of France, Hastings and its surrounding area have a long history of both smuggling and freebooting. Just as one example our friend John Criss of Ireland would have known Hastings well in both his smuggling and pirating exploits.

As this article from The Hastings Observer notes, recent excavations in the city revealed a hand-hewn tunnel that archaeologists have determined was built in the 18th century. From the article:

…Archaeology South-East were call in and confirmed the find was likely to be a smugglers’ tunnel built in the early 18th century and used to smuggle goods such as tea, tobacco, alcohol, silk and sugar – usually to avoid paying duty.

Though the tunnels are currently closed to the public, they are open for ongoing research by historians and archaeologists. As the old saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. But for those of us with piracy and smuggling in our veins it’s nice to see how clever our ancestors could be, exasperation of local authorities apologized for, of course.

Header: View of the Hastings tunnel via The Hastings Observer


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! No one likes to pay taxes and people will always find a way to get around them, whether they be "legal" or otherwise. There's one thing that will never change.

It's not a tax increase, its a "spending reduction in the tax code"...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! It's all in your perception, I guess. As my Creole ancestors liked to say with regard to purchasing smuggled goods - in a very loose translation - "The government has so much money, they will not miss mine."

Le Loup said...

Good post.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Le Loup, and thankee!