The Secrets

of an Ocean of Smuggling

SMUGGLING IN EARLY MODERN BRITAIN

Smuggling was big business in eighteenth-century Britain. The British government raised most of its revenues from customs and excise duties. As the country fought wars with France, parliament needed to raise more money. Tariffs on imported goods like cotton, tea, tobacco, wine and brandy made smuggling --- in the words of eighteenth-century writers -- a "temptation." Smuggled goods could undersell those that were legally imported and demand for these commodities was high.

Even by the 1730s contemporaries estimated that possibly one-half of the total flow of certain highly taxed goods like tea were illegally imported.

The Customs and Excise services sought to enforce the revenue laws against increasingly stiff resistance from professional smugglers profiting from the "running trade." These were well-organized and capitalized gangs, sometimes numbering in the dozens. Customs officers in lonely spots along the coasts were often outgunned and intimidated by these gangs.

Professional merchants and traders also illegally imported goods. Dozens of tricks and strategies were available to them and developed from year to year as the laws changed. There were even jurisdictions like Guernsey and Jersey known to be havens for "tax free" goods and friendly to smugglers.

Today, we still know little about this clandestine world and the strategies of the Customs and Excise services. Yet the smuggling economy was tied to a global network of sometimes clandestine and sometimes open trade. It was also a crucial conduit to make available cheaper consumer goods for those in Britain and Europe. Disputes over smuggling were also behind some of the biggest political eruptions of the period, including The War of Jenkins Ear and the American War of Revolution.

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THE PROJECT

Autumn Road

THE RUNNING TRADE

Autumn Road

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

Autumn Road

THE DATABASE