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New Worlds: Illicit Goods

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This week’s essay kind of belongs back with the theft-related essays that started off Year Six, but for reasons of logistics it’s getting tacked into our bloodier month of violent crimes. 🙂

Smuggling is, in a sense, a kind of theft. Sometimes that’s because what you’re smuggling is literally stolen goods, but more broadly, it’s because you’re attempting to relocate goods from where they should be to where they shouldn’t — mostly across borders, but we can also speak of smuggling items into and out of prisons, for example. There are a number of reasons you might want to do this, especially depending on what’s being smuggled, but all of them hinge in some fashion on the existence of an authority with the capacity to forbid that relocation.

Possibly the most common type of smuggling is a form of tax evasion. If there are tariffs on the trade of a particular good, taxing either its import or its export, then there’s money to be made — or rather, saved — by smuggling it past the border guards or port authority, avoiding the additional cost of the tax. This is especially true, I suspect, for products and materials with a high value-to-bulk ratio: it’s much easier and more profitable to smuggle something like brandy than, say, grain, where you might need to move whole wagonloads or an entire ship’s hold to achieve a small savings.

But it isn’t just about the taxes. Sometimes transporting a particular good across borders is prohibited entirely, at any price. In modern times we see this especially with the illegal drug trade, but it can also apply to anything officially disapproved of in the receiving country, from alcohol to pornography, religious icons, seditious materials, and more. Or it’s a form of protectionism, trying to keep foreign products from crowding out the work of local crafters. Or it’s not about what’s being smuggled, it’s about where it’s being smuggled from: if two countries are at war, then legal trade between them may have been suspended. At that point some entrepreneurial types will look for a way to profit around the edges of the conflict — particularly for luxury items, because the rich will be the ones most willing and able to keep paying for their familiar comforts.

Smuggling is a two-way street, though — or perhaps it would be better for me to say, a street with two ends. Are the smugglers circumventing a block around bringing something into a country (or other controlled place), or are they bringing it out? Rulers have been known to prohibit the export of all manner of items, to keep the price from being run up at home or just to keep the items there, period. Nowadays we particularly see that latter cropping up in the realm of antiquities and other cultural artifacts, in an attempt to keep looters from ransacking sites and hocking the nation’s patrimony abroad. On the smaller scale of something like a prison, what’s smuggled out might be communications from the prisoners, containing anything from encouragement to their political supporters to information on the layout and security of the place, useful in staging an assisted escape.

The methods for smuggling are legion. I can’t hope to give a full survey of them; it depends too heavily on what’s being smuggled and what measures are in place to prevent the illegal movement of goods. But I can give a brief survey, at least, nodding in the direction of some of the usual tactics.

Very common, but not very glamorous, is simply passing a valuable or restricted thing off as something more innocuous. Instead of packaging your brandy in distinctive brandy bottles, put it in ordinary jugs and tell the inspecting officials that it’s apple juice, olive oil, or anything else vaguely plausible. Since they may well take a closer look, you’re well-advised to have some containers filled with genuine juice or oil — but keep your fingers crossed that you can get the inspectors to test the right ones, and that no over-zealous do-gooder goes digging more deeply into your cargo.

Or put your trust in something more reliable than crossed fingers: cold hard cash. Bribing inspectors is hugely common, and while it constitutes an expense (the very thing you’re often trying to avoid), for a profitable smuggling enterprise, that’s just the cost of doing business. Of course, this too can go wrong; someone else is on duty that day, or your bribed official gets transferred, or increased scrutiny from higher up the chain of command forces the inspectors to do their jobs properly. Or your goods get through just fine . . . but your partner in crime is getting steadily more greedy, demanding higher and higher fees to keep turning a blind eye.

So maybe you start getting fancier. Hide your illicit goods! Secret compartments work best for relatively compact, high-value products; the larger the compartment is, the easier it is for even a casual glance to spot that something’s off. But you might be able to hide things more cleverly, by putting them inside other, unimportant goods. In movies this often means kitschy statues filled with heroin or gems, but in times past it might be as simple as rolling a length of silk inside a bolt of workaday wool. Much as with the brandy example above, though, you’re relying on the officials not to look too closely; if they unroll the entire bolt instead of just the outer layers, the game is up.

Which brings us to the option I most often see depicted in historical fiction: avoid the inspection officials entirely. Transport your goods in true secret, taking them across a border via some backwoods trail instead of the main road, or landing them on a remote bit of coast. It’s still not foolproof, and it can be quite dangerous; people normally use ports and main roads because they’re safer than the alternative. Plus then you have to figure out how to move your smuggled material onward, from a location that probably doesn’t see a lot of trade which could act as cover. But in a historical context, where the state’s capacity to monitor what’s going on within its borders is pretty limited, you might get away with this for quite a long time. It’s not until somebody traces the influx of foreign brandy or seditious books back toward their source that you have to worry about soldiers ambushing you on arrival.

And in the meanwhile, you’re raking in the profit. Not hard to see why people might find this line of work attractive!

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: Illicit Goods”

  1. As colonial metropoles frequently prohibited the colonies from even developing and manufacturing any finished goods of their own — iron mined in the colonies must be shipped to the metropole or its other designated destinations to be worked into everything from nails to cooking pots to plough shares, for instance, then the worked items are shipped back to the colonies where the purchasers paid not only tariff and customs, but taxes too — smuggling nails is the right and proper thing to do. Your neighbors aren’t about to snitch you out for they need nails as much as you do.

    The North American colonies from the git go, particularly ship building mercantile New England, were smugglers and tax evaders.

    I’ve always found this historically fascinating, particularly as this was going on throughout the ‘New World’ colonies and their metropoles. The New Englanders of the 17th C made really good money smuggling North American goods and supplies to the Spanish Main for instance, exchanging them for high class rum — which, of course, the North Americans were forbidden to distill themselves. The New Englander mercantilists also supplied most of the slave goods — including food, since every square inch of the islands like Barbados were planted in the hot cash crops such as sugar and tobacco, so the food had to come from elsewhere. Sell the legit cargoes — though most of that was forbidden too — and bring back, as from Spanish and French islands undeclared, illegal porcelain, tea, silk, etc., as well as rum and wine at home. Colonies were for extraction of raw resources and to be captive markets for (often discards, inferior runs) of the products produced in the metropole, at inflated prices.

    No wonder the hatred of taxation and tariffs was so deep in North America, and still runs deep and wide.

  2. Ever think of lace as something worth smuggling? In the 16th and 17th C. courtiers were known to mortgage their country estate for enough lace to wear to court–if they attracted enough attention they _could_ receive a royal appointment, or arrange a profitable marriage, which could recoup their loss. Every region of Europe had their own patterns and “style.”

    In one recorded instance, a “lady” wrapped yards of fine lace around and around the belly of her underweight lapdog, then clothed the poor pup in the skin and fur of a larger dog. She and her cohorts made money by the bucketful until the dog ran away and an innkeeper (I believe) ratted out the woman. Only then did customs officals start looking into why she traveled to France and Flanders so often, always leaving and ariving at different ports in England.

  3. In the 17-18c salt and tobacco smuggling was big business in some parts of France (not so much international smuggling but within the kingdom, since some provinces were high tax zones and others were low-tax). In certain regions smugglers used dogs to carry the goods: they would put bags of salt on the dogs, then send the dogs out to find their own way cross country to the destination. Job done, the dogs would come home on their own. The dogs could travel by routes in rough country that humans and horses could not, so they could evade the customs patrols more easily. And if necessary defend themselves. Smuggler dogs supposedly trained their own pups to the trade. They were highly valued partners in crime!

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