Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Smugglers' Britain

One of our favorite websites, Smugglers' Britain, provides an overview of the traditional British smuggler.

Despite our enthusiasm for Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn or Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, the typical smuggler was not a Cornishman. Yes, Cornwall did have its smugglers. Yes, indeed. But smugglers covered the entire coast of England. And most of them were in the South and East, near London. For it was one thing to smuggle the booty onshore. Then you had to sell it. And London was the market. Another famous smuggling area was the Isle of Man, a tax free haven from whence smugglers would dash goods over to the area around Liverpool.

England's first smugglers, moreover, were not attempting to smuggle goods into England; rather they were attempting to smuggle wool out of England. Woolen in the medieval economy played much the same role that oil plays today. And England was then the Saudi Arabia of oil. The crown, to raise revenue, taxed its export, so smugglers sneaked it out.

Only later, following the Glorious Revolution, did the crown begin to tax luxury imports, giving rise to smuggling these items. Many smugglers opposed not just the taxes but the government itself; they were Jacobites. During the early 18th century large, well organized smugging gangs emerged that challenged the government much as Mexico's drug cartels now are.

The Smugglers Britain website covers all of this and more. Learn where they were, what they did. Find out about famous smugglers and dramatic incidents. And learn that many things resembling today's headlines have happened before.

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