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Smugglers and the Napoleonic Wars

Updated on May 25, 2017

The French Revolutionary Wars and their attendant Napoleonic Wars played a critical role in the development of the modern world. The French revolution avoided being crushed in its cradle and spread its ideals across Europe before the defeat of Napoleon, laying the foundations of a century long contest between liberalism and reaction. Nation-states jumped into the popular imagination as the armies of the French nation spread their ideals from Lisbon to Moscow, forever altering both the very map of Europe and what the very meaning of political structures and sovereignty were. The memory of it continues to live on in our popular conscious, varying by country, as nations choose to focus on their triumphs (Austerlitz or Trafalgar), or their perceived agonies (the long German memory of Napoleonic occupation).

But at the same time that these went on, there was also the needs of everyday life and contact between those on alternate sides of the war. Simply being at war doesn't mean that people stop desiring goods from another state, and if the choice is between the atrocity that is called English wine and imports from France (most imports of French alcohol tended to be brandy in fact, but a good jab against the English is never to be missed), risking death to smuggle it in - and to gain a hefty profit - makes a great deal of sense. During the war, a great amount of smuggling would happen, both into England and into Europe, bringing goods, currency, newspapers, and prisoners to all sides.

The general situation, showing the continental system.
The general situation, showing the continental system. | Source
English Guineas, the gold coin of choice of smugglers
English Guineas, the gold coin of choice of smugglers | Source

Smugglers of the French

The attempts by France to use smugglers to undermine the British economy is impossible to explain without reference to previous conditions. English tax rates in the 18th century were very high, systematically higher than their French counterparts. These tended to be tariffs and indirect taxes, and circumventing these was a profitable enterprise indeed; before the passage of the Commutation Tax of 1784 which lowered the tariff on tea to 12.5%, it stood at an astounding 119%. Under such conditions the smuggling of tea into Britain from the continent (and in the distant land of what would become the United States, the smuggling of tea there) was a profitable endeavor, with up to 70% of the tea imported into the United Kingdom being smuggled. The dramatic drop in the tariff was a terrible blow to smugglers, although it did not fully end their presence. Smugglers in Sussex, Kent, Cornwall, Devon, and Jersey and Guersney, the principal locations of smugglers, would still ply their trade. British attempts to stamp out this smuggling was with little effect, although changes in French policy towards smugglers towards the Napoleonic wars would in time act to the detriment of the Channel Islands. On the opposite coasts, smugglers hailed from coastal communities and particularly from the Netherlands.

Smugglers themselves tended to come from lower classes backgrounds, often fishermen, utilizing their knowledge of the sea and maritime skills to ferry their cargoes in sleek and fast galleys which British revenue cutters struggled to catch. They were more vulnerable when they were docked though, with British troops in one case burning the beached smuggler fleets in one of the more draconian acts of Pitt the Younger. Ironically, these smuggling men would be much in demand in the formation of British militia like the Sea Fencibles, who would be charged in maritime defense in case of a French invasion. Some of this came from material interests, for pay and for protection from impressment into the Royal Navy, but perhaps there was also patriotism and civic defense; thus the same men who plied the illegal smuggling trade with France would also be for the British important lines of defense in case of French invasion.

During the Napoleonic Wars, smuggling rose again, and this time there was active French state involvement in promoting it, resulting in one of the most fascinating developments of smugglers; official regulation and bureacratization of the smuggle trade from the French side. In 1810, Napoleon would order the opening of French ports to smugglers, opening the port of Dunkirk to the English and constructing a special compound at Gravelines for English smugglers. This would grow to house up to 300 smugglers, becoming known as the Ville des Smoglers. In France, they were regulated, subject to police surveillance, had to fill out paperwork, and most importantly, separated from the general French population, except for those merchants with licenses to trade with the smugglers.

This had important reasons and benefits for Napoleonic France. Economically, France stood to benefit from being able to send goods to England, exporting alcohol and luxury textiles to fill its coffers and assist French industries. For French maritime communities, smuggling offered a welcome boost in trade, after years of being blockaded and only licensed trade, local commerce, and a few privateers providing for employment. Fishing would be disrupted by the war, with Dieppe losing up to 52% of its fishing community's employment between 1789 and 1810. Smuggling would offer valuable support to these communities hard hit by war.

If sending goods to England was a major part of the reason for smuggling, most important was what the English could bring back. Most wars in Europe saw the paroling and the exchange of prisoners, but during the Napoleonic wars, this ceased. Napoleonic France perhaps saw advantage in keeping British prisoners in France, as the much smaller British population naturally made it more difficult to replace these losses. The result was that over 100,000 French prisoners would pass through the United Kingdom between 1803 and 1814. Naturally, not all of these prisoners were exactly overjoyed about the prospect of being kept there, and many would escape, with 509 officers between May 1803 and August 1811, and 209 more until 1814. Escaping from England to France required passing across the English Channel, and thus smugglers were needed to get them out. Newspapers would come through as well, being directed to the French ministry of police, and providing vital information on developments in England.

For the French state, there was another, even more vital mission for their support for smuggling; bullion. By encouraging the import of gold from England into France, the French hope was to achieve a collapse of the English currency. Napoleon has often been viewed as a bullionist, placing his faith in hard money backing the currency. This is a view which might be overstated, as after the financial collapse of the French Revolution and the assignats (a French revolutionary paper currency which soon suffered from severe inflation and hyperinflation), Napoleon declaring his propensity for a hard currency, and not for a paper currency which had caused so much woe during the revolution itself made for good public relations, but it is also easy enough to see that that very chaos could have caused Napoleon to be doubtful of risky finance against the security of gold (and silver, for France was on the bimetallic gold-silver standard, with the British very much an outsider in Europe for subscribing to only the gold standard). By drawing down British gold reserves, France, with suspicions that the English economy was on insufficiently firm grounds, could seek to achieve the financial collapse of its opponent. In Britain, concerns proliferated too about the amount of gold available, and resultantly its export had been illegal after 1797.

The results of the French exports to England were large in monetary terms. In 1812 604 English vessels left from Gravelines, carrying cargo worth F 4,579,346, with lace, silk, and leather making up 62.5% of the exports and alcohol 32% more, some 933,000 liters of alcohol reaching English soil. The English paid in gold, mostly guineas, for their purchases. Currency speculation as the British pound decreased in value, encouraging payments in gold, would send some 1.6 million guineas, worth 42 million Francs, onto the continent in 1813; even more (1.9 million) had come in 1811.

With the end of the war, smuggling would once again fall, the coast guard and the Royal Navy ultimately stopping a rise in smuggling produced by the return of some 250,000 now unemployed soldiers and sailors who produced a temporary return. But for many people in the years prior, smuggling had been a vital livelihood, and a representation of shared links across the Channel that had defined it as a shared space, rather than simply one of conflict.

French northern textile production would benefit from the greater difficulty that the British had smuggling into Northern France.
French northern textile production would benefit from the greater difficulty that the British had smuggling into Northern France. | Source

Fighting the Continental Blockade

British smuggling against the Napoleonic blockade has attracted much more interest than French smuggling in reverse, probably due to it ultimately being a much more successful endeavor, undermining the Continental System and the French European alliance system. British textiles are an export much focused upon, as cheaper British textiles were smuggled into Europe past the continental system.

The British accrued advantages from their command of the seas, which meant that smuggling could take place across the coastline of the continental blockade. The British captured or used numerous islands to base their fleets and to support merchants smuggling goods into Napoleonic Europe, stretching from the Mediterranean at Malta (at one point 8.8% of British exports into Europe went via Malta), Gibraltar, Sicily, and Sardinia, to the Adriatic with Lissa and other Adriatic Islands, where French and British forces spared at sea, in a campaign that the British had won by the end of the war (although continued building of warships had continued in French Italy, and would constitute the heart of the post-war Austrian Navy) to the North Sea with Heligoland. Heligoland would be an important smuggling port due to its proximity to the continent, the ability for small fishing vessels to smuggle goods into inlets and alcoves on the North Sea Coast at night, and unlike the Baltic, which the presence of the Danish fleet necessitated conveys to access, it could be reached more freely. So too participated Hanö and Anholt in the Baltic Sea. British textiles flowing from bases in Lissa would reach across Europe, as far as Breslau, Crocow, Leizpig, and Warsaw. So too, in the interior smuggling would constitute a major problem, with some 5,000 smugglers estimated to be active between Mainz and Antwerp, and with smuggling in the interior being even more problematic than at sea - smuggling from Spain into France was often done by army deserters, who were well armed and clashed often with authorities. Access to France from the south was actually easier than from the north, and thus during the war trade re-oriented along a south-north, rather than north-south, axis - with benefits to northern French textile producers, who would be protected from British imports more than their southern counterparts, helping to encourage their growth. Smuggling in this became extremely advanced, with insurance networks, and credit and distribution covering much of Europe, and deprived the Napoleonic treasury of much income while simultaneously undermining respect for the Napoleonic state.

This smuggling - or at the least, the attempts to stamp it out - had negative effects upon Napoleonic authority. In the Rhineland for example, businessmen had either supported or tolerated French rule, but increasingly strong attempts to end smuggling, with pyres of confiscated goods burned by customs agents, meant that business opinion began to move against French control. So too, the authority of the state was undermined, as its prestige was challenged.

Beyond smuggling, there were also open economic links between Britain and European countries formally in the Continental System. Both Britain and France had mutual benefits gained from trade with each other, an excellent example being in 1809 when poor harvests struck the UK. The British were in need of grain imports to prevent famine, a need that France could fulfill. Both countries entered into recessions in 1810, and this meant that both represented potential markets for the other's products, with French importations of various colonial and raw material products that were inaccessible to her, and British importations of wines, brandy, and silk. Thus, despite France and the UK still being involved in a bitter war between the two, both engaged in limited trade and commerce through a system of licensed trade., with licenses being sold for substantial sums to permit trade. In economic terms this benefitted both, although it led to political costs, especially on the French side. French granting of licensing permits for trade with the UK placed French interests first, leading to resentment by other nations which France had imposed the Continental System on, while the French would annex much of the North German coast and the Netherlands to prevent smuggling, at the same time as expanding trade themselves with the UK. French soldiers would march to Moscow over disputes arising from Russia leaving the Continental System, and in doing so many marched on English boots.

An End to War

On the 22nd of June, 1815, Napoleon abdicated in favor of his son. The 4-year old Prince Imperial, distant in Austria, would never in practice rule France, even if in title he was briefly the Emperor of the French. Soon thereafter, the Bourbons were once again restored, and Napoleon would be sent into exile once more - this time not to return from distant St. Helena in the South Atlantic. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars which had shaken Europe to its foundations for nearly three decades had come to an end. With it, so too ended much of the smuggling industry that had flowered on the basis of attempts to stop trade, and which had defined many coastal and maritime communities for generations.

Recommended reading:

France, Prussia, or Germany? The Napoleonic Wars and Shifting Allegiances in the Rhineland by Michael Rowe

English Smugglers, the Channel, and the Napoleonic Wars, 1800–1814, by Gavin Daly

Trade and Development: Evidence from the Napoleonic Blockade, by Réka Juhász

Napoleon and the 'City of Smugglers' 1810-1814, by Gavin Daly


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