Cornish Smugglers I

Works of fiction by the likes of Daphne du Maurier – one-time resident of our hometown of Fowey – alongside the actual history of the region have forged a link between smuggling and Cornwall in the popular imagination. Smugglers themselves, and many Cornishmen, preferred the term ‘Free Trader’ to ‘Smuggler’. Traditionally they considered the forceful imposition of duty on imported goods, which significantly raised their price for locals, as unjust.

The apostle of the free market, economic philosopher Adam Smith, defined a smuggler as: “A person who, though no doubt highly blameable for violating the laws of his country, is frequently incapable of violating those 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.”

The Continental wars that Britain waged during the 18th century cost the nation a great deal of money which had to be raised by taxation, particularly on imported goods. High duties were imposed on luxury items such as wine, spirits and tobacco.

During this long period of wars, the shortage of able-bodied men for home service, coupled with official corruption, allowed smugglers to do very much as they liked. Owners of small, fast boats with good local knowledge could evade custom s officials enforcing their collection, and so many carried on their work with impunity.

One precaution they did take however was to make villagers face the wall when they passed by loaded with their contraband. Thus if an individual smuggler was arrested later, the villagers could truthfully swear that they had seen nothing. As Rudyard Kipling put it in The Smuggler’s Song:

Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie,
Watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by

One of the most famous of Cornish smuggling gangs/free traders was the Killigrew family. So successful was their smuggling and piracy that they paid for the development of the harbour and town of Falmouth, still thought of as one of the finest harbours in the world. They even had the cheek to provide the funding for the Falmouth Customs House, thus controlling the flow of ‘free trade’ and minimising any unwelcome attention from the Crown.

In part 2 I will take a look at the career of one of the boldest of Cornish rogues, John Carter aka ‘The King of Prussia’ (hardly coincidentally the name of one of Fowey’s fine hostelries)…

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