Highwaymen of the High Seas: The Romance of the Smuggler by Julia Justiss

Many thanks to the Riskies, hostesses of one of my favorite destinations in the blogosphere, for inviting me as a guest during Elena’s leave of absence. And my best wishes to Elena and her family for her husband’s speedy recovery!

From the time I began reading Georgette Heyer, who made frequent reference to the serving of brandy on which no duty had been paid, I’ve had an interest in smugglers. Even more so than the highwayman, the free trader was a romantic figure who received a great deal of popular support from coastal residents, both the customers who bought at a cheaper price the goods they wanted and the workers who augmented their meager incomes as farmers, fishermen and laborers by assisting the smugglers in transporting their cargo.

Though Samuel Johnson described a smuggler as “A wretch who, in defiance of the law, imports or exports goods either contraband or without payment of the customs,” many would prefer the definition of Adam Smith—himself a Customs commissioner: “A person who, though no doubt highly blamable for violating the laws of his country, is frequently incapable of violating these of natural justice and who would have been in every respect an excellent citizen had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so.”

Since the reign of Edward I in the mid-1200’s, when English wool was bought by French weavers who then made cloth that sold for lower prices than the English goods, the English government has tried to restrict trade. From the “owlers” of Kent and Sussex who smuggled English wool out of the country by “owl light,” to the “gentlemen” of the Regency, who dealt in tea, tobacco, spirits and luxury goods, traders sought to buy goods at origin and resell for a fair price, eliminating the taxes imposed by the government middleman.

Understandably not wishing to lose out on its share of the sale of sought-after goods, as early as 1698, the government established the Landguard of riding officers of the Customs, whose job it was to try to halt the illegal trade. Originally, each riding officer was assigned about 10 miles of coastline to patrol. He was also responsible for checking ships landing cargo in his district, searching inland places he suspected might be harboring contraband goods and gathering intelligence.

However, the profits to be made were high enough—and collusion with local officials so frequent—that it soon became evident that riding officers alone were not adequate to stem the flow of illegal goods. In 1723, the government began posting units of dragoons at points around the coast, who could be called out by the riding officers to assist in rounding up smugglers or their cargos.

Despite a spate of anti-smuggling laws throughout the 1700s that imposed ever more severe penalties on smuggling, the practice continued. In fact, by 1780 it was estimated that two-thirds of the tea consumed in England had not passed through Customs.

For moving their cargo, free traders used luggers, ships that were broad of beam, shallow of keel with a flat bottom that allowed the vessel to put in close to shore, and rigged with a lugsail that allowed them to sail close to the wind. Later, cutters that could make higher speed were preferred, and galleys, which combined sails and rowing seats for navigating in shallow water or narrow spaces.

Once the daring captain sailed his cargo across from France or Ireland, where did he land it? As you can see from the photos, Cornwall’s many coves and inlets and its limestone cliffs riddled with caves made the area an ideal spot for smugglers. In addition to its natural advantages, supportive locals expanded the concealment possibilities of the caves by offering barns and granaries as short-term storehouses for smuggled goods. There are reports of tunnels dug from the coastline up into inns, private homes–and even churches! In some instances, church towers were elevated to a height sufficient to allow them to serve as navigation aids for smugglers trying to locate a particular landing spot for their cargo.

A successful operation began with the “venturer,” who through his agent, the “bagman,” collected the sum necessary to purchase the goods to be smuggled. The bagman, whose accounts were kept by the “quill-driver,” often the parish clerk or schoolmaster, would collect the sums pledged, then meet the captain of the smuggling vessel to sail for the Continent. After exchanging his coins for the items requested by the shareholders, he would load the cargo and bring it back to England.

Once he’d determined by lantern-flash that it was safe to make for shore, the captain would turn his cargo over to a “lander,” whose responsibility was to summon, organize and pay the beach party that transferred the cargo from the ship to the waiting ponies and wagons to convey it inland.

Colorful stories and tales about smuggling and the smugglers abound. On one end of the spectrum, Isaac Gulliver, the “gentle smuggler” of Dorset who claimed never to have harmed a revenue officer during the course of his business, amassed a vast fortune smuggling tea, brandy and gin, bought property all over England and was highly revered by his fellow citizens. At the other end, the notorious Hawkhurst Gang in Kent was not above using murder, beatings and coercion to induce the cooperation of the local populace.

Already by the Regency, better enforcement and harsh penalties had begun to hamper the trade. But the practice was to continue unabated into the mid-1800s, not dying out entirely until tariffs were reduced to the point that the potential profits no longer outweighed the risks.
And so the era ended…but the romance, the legends, the stories and the lore continue to this day, when a visitor to Cornwall can still take a “Smuggler’s Tour.”

Okay, question: Do you think of smugglers as “romantic” figures, the Robin Hoods of the seas bringing fairly-priced goods to customers who want or need them? Or as mere law-breaking brigands? Should they be portrayed as heroes, villains…or both?

–See The Smuggling War: The Government’s Fight against Smuggling in the 18th and 19th Centuries by Geoffrey Morley.

First: “Hidden among the bracket at Carn Brea, a smuggler’s cave.”
Second: “Zawn Trevilley near Land’s End: a narrow inlet perfect for leading to a smuggler’s trail.”
Third: “Sketch of Luggar”
Fourth: “St. Ives Parish Church—a smuggler’s storehouse?”
Fifth: “White Sands Bay near Sennen, Cornwall—with a smuggler’s hut in the left foreground?”

Julia is researching smugglers for a book to come out in 2010. For a glimpse of high seas revelry before then, check out Risky hostess Amanda McCabe’s High Seas Stowaway, a January Harlequin Historical release. For comments on the progress of Julia’s book, to view other research tidbits and oddities, or to enter Julia’s contest, visit her newly redesigned website, www.juliajustiss.com.

About diane

Diane Gaston is the RITA award-winning author of Historical Romance for Harlequin Historical and Mills and Boon, with books that feature the darker side of the Regency. Formerly a mental health social worker, she is happiest now when deep in the psyches of soldiers, rakes and women who don’t always act like ladies.
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Diane Gaston
13 years ago

I’m ambivalent about smugglers as romantic figures. Bottom line is, they are breaking the law for monetary profit. So the smuggler would have to be well-motivated to work for me. I’m sure there’s a story out there about a smuggler that I could love, though.

13 years ago

I do not think smugglers are romantic. I wouldn’t like a hero to be a smuggler, though one or two authors have managed to do so satisfactorily.

Deb Marlowe
13 years ago

Hmm, I think a smuggler is a hard sell, especially in a time of war. But I’m not saying it couldn’t be done. It’s just an added complication.

I would however, love to go on a Smuggler’s Tour in Cornwall!

Great Blog, Julia. Very interesting stuff. And now I’m pondering….

13 years ago

The only smuggler heroes I’ve read are ones that are doing so in order to catch REAL smugglers. I think there has to be a level of disrespect in order to be a smuggler, and respect is a major issue with me. There’s plenty of smuggling today, and we don’t wonder if it’s romantic. I think it’s more about being able to fantasize, coloring a story as we wish, escaping from reality, being able to pretend to be someone completely different and everything being all right in the end no matter what. There is a certain excitement in the idea, but I can also remember, not so long ago, when the hero forcing his heroine to submit to him was considered high romance. I’m very grateful that’s no longer considered the norm. I must admit though that a Smugglers’ Tour does sound fun.

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Of course we don’t find pirates very romantic today, either.

I think a smuggler as a secondary character works well. The brother of the heroine, for example. Or maybe the hero’s brother! It makes for good conflict, I think.

I hope we aren’t scaring Julia! We have no idea how smuggling works in to her plot!

13 years ago

Interesting article! I have read some books that effectively featured “reformed” smugglers/pirates as heroes.

13 years ago

A smuggler with a personal code of ethics higher than the law (which runs in favor of a certain set of people and against others) and a reason to be smuggling in line with his personal code could be a very romantic figure indeed!

Give the hero a greedy ruthless villain in the form of the local lord and throw in a past history of bad blood between the families.

I love me a good anti-authority hero. The Boston Tea Party was romantic!

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

“I love me a good anti-authority hero”

Me, too, Jane! I love rebellious characters in general (though maybe it’s just because I have a literally rebellious Irish heroine in my WIP), though they have to be well-motivated.

Fascinating post, Julia! Thanks so much for visiting today.

13 years ago

Yes, janegeorge’s idea works! In fact, it reminded of a story I read, long ago, where the smuggling benefited the whole village, and the smuggler also helped people escape from France, while hoodwinking the local corrupt officials.

Keira Soleore
13 years ago

Julia, what a fascinating blog. To me the allure of a smuggler is that he has a great many number of people colluding with him, whether for profit or survival. It speaks to the charisma and leadership chutzpah of the smuggler. To me, there’s not much difference between the pirate and the smuggler or the Robin-Hood-highwayman. Given the circumstances, they can be cruel villains, lauded heroes, and everything in between. Bring ’em on, I say. 🙂

13 years ago

I have to say that I think smugglers make for wonderful romantic heroes. I particularly like stories wherein the smuggler in question is really a government agent using this exchange in order to get information or refugees out of enemy territory.

13 years ago

Count me as someone who finds them romantic. I nearly set my next series around a family involved in the smuggling trade before I went another direction. I think it can be done … it just has to be done carefully. I guess I have a little bit of anti-authority in me, too. But then I also like pirates. 🙂

Louisa Cornell
13 years ago

Great information, Julia! And I think the question as to whether smugglers can be romantic or not is in the motivation and the methods. If a man has a powerful motive for going into the smuggling business and conducts his business with a code of honor it is possible to portray him as a romantic figure.

andrea pickens
andrea pickens
13 years ago

Great post Julia! Thanks for sharing all the interesting info.

Somehow, a smuggler always sounds so dashing—even if he wasn’t. That said, for me there has to be a reason other than pure greed for hero to be a smuggler. Helping people to safety from France . . .raising money because of a local famine . . . something high-minded.

Cara King
13 years ago

I don’t naturally incline towards smugglers, highwayman, or pirates, but I’ve enjoyed them all in the right books! I think for me, it works best either if (a) they’re not actually criminals, but someone in disguise for good reason, or (b) as in Ladyhawk’s scenario, they’re doing good and fighting against a corrupt system, or (c) the book is basically saying “we’re having fun with this, and not taking this as serious history” the way a lot of comedies do…

I suspect the popularity of outlaws of various sorts rises and falls inversely with the public respect for law, order, government, etc… And I think right now we’re in a “respect the system and those who represent it” phase…whereas if you look at, say, old Charlie Chaplin movies, clearly there was a time when everyone loved to see Chaplin make fun of rich people, police officers, judges, etc… 🙂 And I think it’s no coincidence that at these same periods, there were lots of gangster heroes or Robin Hood heroes or the like…


Julia Justiss
13 years ago

Sounds like the opinions on whether the smuggler can be hero or villain run all across the waterfront!

Most of the contemp accounts I’ve been reading in my research books suggest that to the people who lived in smuggling areas, the captain in particular was a dashing figure. One has a clergyman reminiscing about watching, in his boyhood school located on a high bluff, the free traders bringing in cargo. The boys were definitely in awe of the lugger captain’s daring and considered his ship the most beautful, exciting craft ever seen.

Smugglers provided the struggling locals with a source of revenue that augmented their often desperately low wages. Many also saw it as a question of “fairness:” why should the government make artificially expensive items which actually cost much less, like tea? The residents felt the smuggler was doing them a service, offering goods they wanted for a much more reasonable price.

Of course, there were smugglers who were simply out-and-out criminals, definitely villain material.

I’m encouraged by Ladyhawk, Cheri, Jane, Keira, Sabrina, Santa, and Louisa who all believe that, under the right circumstances, the smuggler could be the Robin Hood hero–since it is the hero in my book who is the smuggler! Of course he’s doing it for the right reasons, temporarily, as a favor to the army friend who saved his life. And the disgraced and banished heroine, who initially disdains him, begins to find he posseses much more honor and integrity than those in London society who set up her ruin. We’ll see if I can convince the skeptical that Gabe is hero material!

Cara, interesting philosophical note about the rise and fall of the anti-establishment hero. I’ve just been reading with my French III class one of the very popular farces of the Middle Ages–in which the hero is always a common person who gets the better of the rich and powerful. Don’t we all still love it when the wealthy and self-important get their comeuppance?

Thanks again to everyone for the warm welcme!

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Now I’m thinking of a smuggler who is really getting people out of France. I like that idea!

I loved reading everyone’s ideas about smugglers.

13 years ago

I really enjoyed your post, Julia–it was very interesting! It feels like a majority of the comments come down against the smugglers, and from what I’ve read a lot of them (in spite of their reputation) were basically hardened criminals. And I think that when a large part of the population colludes in violating the law, it often breeds worse kinds of crime. Many people disagreed with Prohibition in this country, and saw no harm in having a drink from time to time. Bootleggers were often seen as romantic figures. But that illegal revenue went to fund ruthless gangsters like Al Capone.

That said, I think a smuggler hero is an easier sell than, say, a pirate, since their profession at least isn’t primarily about stealing or killing. But even a pirate can be made to work with enough effort, I think…for instance, there was often a fine line between pirates and privateers. Hey, I’m willing to be convinced!