Dark Markets Observatory:
The Story of 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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Intensity of Enforcement During the 1720s 

(darker green = more enforcement)

The Database

My research project on smuggling transcribes a unique source: a report requested by the House of Commons in 1733 of all the prosecutions of smuggling in England from c. 1721-1732. This report is the first to provide comprehensive data on who was prosecuted and the outcomes of those prosecutions. We have used TransKribus, a machine learning transcription platform, to transcribe the hand written reports. The Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada has generously provided funding for this research.

We have produced a database of these prosecutions, which is still incomplete and contains raw data. There are about 3,800 prosecutions in the reports.

Getting at these Networks

Data such as these reports provides only a narrow window on the smuggling economy itself. After all, only those who were caught or accused are included. We can't tell how many more people evaded prosecution.

The data does tell us a lot about the struggles of the Custom to enforce the law. It also reveals where enforcement was most intense. The cases themselves also reveal the broad socio-economic composition of those who smuggled and even provides light on some of the gangs and professional networks.

The Report also reinforces the knowledge of the "near network"of smuggling havens around Britain (reproduced on the map).

Future research will provide new insights into enforcement patterns, the long history of tax havens, and the growth of bureaucracies and administrative law. 

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The Isle of Man's European Smuggling Network

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