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A History of Smuggling in the Western World

Updated on November 12, 2014


British Smugglers
British Smugglers | Source
Russian Smugglers
Russian Smugglers | Source
Spanish Smugglers
Spanish Smugglers | Source

A History of Smuggling in the Western World

Today corruption at the borders is present in many countries. I have experienced this myself in Mexico and in Turkey. In Mexico it was customary to pay the border agents no matter what you were carrying to not look at your cargo. If not they would find something to charge you for. Police further on would stop any car from north of the border and say "The matter can be solved here" which was their way of asking for a bribe. Sometimes people masquerading as police would do the same. Once some of these "faux" police asked me for a bicycle and when told 'no way" they asked for something else. I have heard that the police are now asking for huge bribes and people are well advised to hide their money in their socks.

The only exception to this was when I traveled with an old man. He said that in third world countries they respect age and when the police asked for a bribe he told me to ignore them and drive on. This worked, but you have to be very old.

Customs officials would take bribes to let contraband pass, and even drugs. In Mexico they would catch marijuana users and let drug cartels pass.

On the border to Guatemala you gave a bribe to the head of customs but it was accepted by his subordinate since he could not be charged with corruption.

Then in Turkey corruption was widespread and so obvious even I could see it. Border guards on the train to Germany out of 'kindness' would write false entries into passports. Passengers put cigarette after cigarette into the linings of their coats. The train was stopped to search suitcases for drugs.

Others made a living eluding the customs officials. I met coyotes, who would bring people across the border, both in Mexico and in the states. They are closer to the traditional smuggler. Smuggling was not always the work of outlaws in the eyes of the common man; originally this was regarded as 'a relatively honest business'.

All civilizations required sources of revenue to pay and feed an army. Where there are duty charges there are smugglers who evade them. The word itself comes from the Norse meaning to slip through a hole. The government wanted a share of merchant revenue. But this raised prices. Then they would turn to other sources of revenue. The history of the Jews and confiscation of their property follows the over taxation of the population to pay for war, when the treasury was empty.

The Greeks in Athens imposed a duty of 2% on imports and exports arriving through the mountains. Smugglers attempted to evade this. The Romans levied state and city taxes. They had customs stations which charged 2.5% the value of imported goods. Paved roads built for their armies were all Roman, but the paths were not; and a shipwreck off the coast of Sicily from 1700 years ago showed evidence of ancient smuggling activity by sea along with the regular cargo. The Byzantine Empire had smugglers too. In 552-563 CE several monks smuggled silkworm eggs and larvae from China hidden in bamboo canes. The monks were given gifts of small mulberry shrubs from which they fed the silkworms. They set up a silk industry in the Middle East.

Smuggling in Russia goes back as early as the tenth century and probably before. The penalties listed at that time were two rubles for hiding goods from custom agents, and 80 kopeks, 100 being a ruble, for transporting goods with a value of one to two rubles without showing them to customs agents. Later the penalties became much worse, including beatings.

The word contraband is French. Medieval smuggling of salt began in twelfth century France and became overwhelming in the 14thcentury. Different areas of the country produced different qualities of salt and these were taxed at different and often unfair rates. Smugglers would buy salt in other countries such as England and sell it in France without paying any tax. If caught smugglers were punished severely. They were sent to galleys if they did not use weapons, if armed they were executed. Later they would be sent to populate Canada. At one time half the population of the border towns of France were involved in salt smuggling. Eliminating it many centuries later put great numbers of people out of work.

England in the 16th century forbade the exporting of wool. But it was sold by smugglers in the Netherlands and France. In the course of the 18th century the British raised duties to pay for the War of Jenkins Ear, the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War and the American Revolution. George III made more than 1000 duty items. The tax on tobacco alone raised the price five times. 18th century smugglers brought England tea, wine, liquor, and luxury goods such as silks, lace, and cinnamon. Brandy was sold in England for 25 shillings without paying duties. Legal brandy cost 32 shillings a tub. Rum cost five shillings a gallon, but with custom duties it cost eight shillings, six pence. Port and sherry cost two shillings six pence a gallon but with tax they cost four shillings. Most of the tea drunk in England at this time had been smuggled in. The government tax was four shillings per pound. Smugglers purchased tea in the Netherlands for two shillings and then sold it in England for five to seven shillings, cutting the price almost in half. Everyone bought on the black market.

There were areas of Europe where smuggling was for more important than farming, fishing or other legal activities. In the early 1700's in Cornwall the boats landing with contraband were emptied in broad daylight. Goods would be hidden on ships behind false bulkheads, water tanks and decks. Illegal goods were stored in inns, pubs, and churches; cellars, hidden chambers and chutes.

Jews became involved in smuggling at this time. After the partition of Poland at the end of the 1700s, Russia inherited 4 million Jews. They were previously prohibited from living in Russia. Jews became involved in smuggling after Catherine the Great said many things could not be imported; paper, notebooks, silk, cashmere, gloves and lipstick. Tariffs for Jews who were essentially merchants, became very high and avoiding them was necessary in order to make a living.

Napoleon blockaded the English which resulted in legal smuggling in the early 1800s. England needed to sell and buy from Europe. The Royal Navy had to used smugglers and colonial goods to make up for the major loss of sugar, coffee, tea and textiles. After the Napoleonic Wars contraband once again in the realm of smugglers.

Smugglers traditionally were merchants who wanted or needed to make more of a profit, or farmers and sailors who were poorly paid, or Jews facing very high import tariffs on their goods. The money they were able to keep from the government was used to give the people a cheaper price.


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