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of an Ocean of Smuggling

The Secrets


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.

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.

This research is supported in part by funding from Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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