Saturday, May 23, 2015

Smuggling Made Easy in the 1760s

by Allen Woods

As I worked through the initial research and plot ideas for The Sword and Scabbard: Thieves and Thugs and the Bloody Massacre in Boston, I was stunned at how common and easy it was to smuggle goods into the Colonies before the Revolutionary War. Some of the great American fortunes (including that of John Hancock) were founded on the profits from smuggled goods. Later, Customs disputes offered sparks that were fanned into blazing conflicts during the Stamp Act riots, the Bloody Massacre (the name happily used by Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty), and eventually the Revolutionary War itself.

How could a lower-level property crime like smuggling grow into a conflict that became a turning point in world history? My research essentially reinforced a suspicion I have held for decades. Although the technologies, fashions, and culture continue to change so quickly that many of us can't keep up, human nature–in its criminal and bureaucratic aspects–maintains a consistent thread throughout our societies. I found two basic reasons that smuggling played such a central role in colonial history: government officials susceptible to bribes and misguided government strategy in addressing the problem.

Bribing Officials was Business as Usual

John Hancock was just one of the American merchants whose fortune was partially a result of smuggling.

As the colonies became a market for English and international goods through the early 1700s, the English government looked to control imports and make a profit from them. Because they were still such a distance from the mother country and an unsavory place to live for most of the lords that might be appointed to a post, they turned to those already in residence there. Many were friends of the colonial merchant class and were unwilling to enforce duties on molasses and other imported goods.

One of the most notorious was Benjamin Barons, who actually led Boston merchants in opposition to Customs officials in several court actions. It was common knowledge that in Boston (and probably throughout the colonies) that an unwritten agreement allowed merchants to declare one-third of their goods and pay the import duty for that portion while Barons looked the other way.

After a full board of Custom Commissioners arrived in Boston in 1767 to try to fully enforce the laws, firebrand Captain Malcom boldly offered to file his manifest and willingly pay duty using the "customary indulgences." When the Commissioners indignantly refused, he came back a few days later announcing that he had arrived with an empty ship and that Customs was free to search it, since he had offloaded the cargo at a site unknown to Customs.

Although there are no records of it, it is hard to believe that Barons took these illegal actions without some type of payments from the merchants who were his friends and turned a handsome profit from this international trade. Bribing government officials was business as usual throughout the colonies at the time, and almost certainly in England and Europe as well. It is a criminal practice that continues today in ports and entries around the world and allows the flow of everything from illegal drugs to immigrants and slaves to counterfeit goods.

New Rules Promote Competition among Officials, Not Better Enforcement

After the French and Indian War in the colonies ended in 1763, British officials noted how much money they had spent defending the colonies and how little they got back in import duties. Customs revenues were only a fraction of the actual trade and barely enough to pay the salaries of the appointed officials, let alone offset military costs from the war. Prime Minister George Grenville moved to enforce colonial Customs law by sending Royal Navy ships to patrol coastal waters and giving them the power to seize and sell ships involved in smuggling.

Unfortunately, this move promoted competition between the Navy and Customs officials. Instead of watching for smugglers, the two groups spent much of their energy watching their bureaucratic rivals. (Today, there are multiple stories in the U.S. and around the world where competition among law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI and local officials, prevents efficient law enforcement.)

The heart of the dispute, as is so often the case, was money. Customs officials themselves could make a huge profit if they seized a ship and sold it and its illegal cargo. The Commissioner responsible would personally get one third of the proceeds, hundreds of pounds from a single ship, about as much as their yearly salary. Grenville made this the reward for naval captains as well, whose compensation was small enough to motivate them to seek the "prize money" offered for successful battles during a war or seizure of illegal ships and merchandise during peace.

The unfortunate result was that the two groups didn't pool their resources. Customs officials in the colonies had no ships or troops to seize ships outside of a harbor, while naval captains had no access to the network of Customs informers that could have pointed them at likely targets. In some cases, a dispute over which group had rights to a seized ship landed in court. The end result was that the new rules designed to enforce Customs duties after 1763 probably hindered Royal efforts as much as it enhanced them. The Navy kept an eye on Customs agents and Customs agents kept an eye on the Navy–and neither kept a closer watch on American smugglers.

Smuggling: An American Tradition

After Customs seized John
Hancock's sloop Liberty
(similar to the above)
and turned it into a Royal
Navy vessel, colonists
in Rhode Island took
it back and burned it.
By the time John Hancock publicly declared he wouldn't pay the new Customs duties on his ships in 1768 and arranged for Customs officials to be held while a ship filled with Madeira wine was illegally unloaded in Boston Harbor, he was simply following an American tradition that had been established over several decades of trade in the colonies. It was a tradition that was supported by British actions during the period, sometimes intentionally but more often inadvertently. When a British ship of the line seized Hancock's Liberty, the colonists responded with direct attacks on some Customs officials and their property. The occupation of Boston by British troops followed soon afterward, setting the stage for the Boston Massacre and the string of events that ultimately led to the Revolutionary War. It was this economic struggle over taxes in the form of import duties that resulted in the War of Independence and the call for freedom in the colonies.


Allen Woods has been a full-time freelance writer and editor for almost 30 years, writing everything from magazine and newspaper features to sales training for corporate clients. Recently he has specialized in social studies and reading textbooks for all ages. The spark for The Sword and Scabbard came while doing research for an American history text. He lives 100 miles from the site of the Boston Massacre and plans a series which will follow Nicholas and Maggie through the Tea Party, Lexington and Concord, the Revolutionary War, and beyond. He welcomes comments at the Blog or Events pages of the book web site


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