It doesn’t take much research to realise that smuggling was an activity that could be both professional (large-scale planned ‘free trade’) and opportunistic. Ironically, and all too often, it was the poverty-driven opportunist who bore the brunt of heavy fines and imprisonment. The professional with access to sponsors and funds treated penalties such as fines and the destruction of vessels as an operational expense. Indeed, a boat could be paid for within a few trades and in one newspaper it was noted that a cutter operated successfully for 24 enterprises (journeys) before being destroyed in a storm – something of a record for Sussex.
The opportunist could be from any class. The farm labourer or local fisherman was often recruited into the gang as a ‘flasker’ (keg-carrier) or to make a run at sea. He or she might be a shop owner or inn keeper, becoming part of the distribution chain, selling to friends and customers. At the other end of the spectrum, the smuggler might be a lady finding an outstanding bargain of silk or lace too irresistible to refuse.
All classes felt the heavy hand of taxation from the government on imports and exports. The rich ‘enterprising’ gentleman (and lady) would frequently take advantage of a special consignment. As the wars progressed, the national debt became the preoccupation of every prime minister. Add a flamboyant monarch who wouldn’t accept the idea of an empty purse, and the effect was one of cynical disregard for much that the state and church stood for. Charles Wesley was to comment that although he had preached repeatedly about the sin and immorality of smuggling, it had no effect.
If we want to look at a national persona for smuggling in Georgian times John Bull provides a useful profile. He is a character that emerges and takes on the political and social attitudes of his day. His personality develops and changes over the years reflecting specific concerns.
John Bull gives a very “British view”. He is first established in 1712 by Dr. John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), friend of Jonathan Swift and satirist Alexander Pope. Originally, he is portrayed in animal form as a bull or bulldog. Then around 1784, he emerges as a hero for the down-trodden, a helpless member of the disfranchised masses, carrying a heavy tax burden. John Bull represents the interests and aspirations of the middle classes. He develops into a national figure, loyal to king and country, offering resistance to French aggression.
Arbuthnot’s character was “an honest plain-dealing fellow, choleric, bold, and of a very inconstant temper”. It is his inconstancy that has probably helped satirists to inject fresh life into the character over the ages and in a quirky way, given him such an enduring life over the years. The website, Historic UK gives a rich portrait of John Bull:
“The John Bull character was that of a drinking man, hard-headed, down-to-earth, averse to intellectualism, fond of dogs, horses, ale, and country sports.”
These attributes were irresistible qualities for a succession of cartoonists.
John Bull was usually portrayed as seeing the world with an ‘island mentality’, standing as the ‘might’ of a great emerging power (an empirical character). The arrogance of John Bull and his base English spirit provided ready-made humour for caricaturists when the mood suited them. With this British view he took on the world, exploding and reacting to events such as the War of Independence with America, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, trading in the Far East and partnering in ventures with whatever allies were useful to British colonial expansion.
Over the years, John Bull would change attitudes and interests. A strong example of this is the initial reaction he had towards the French revolution. From enthusiastic approval he rapidly changes his view as the new power emerges in total opposition to the sovereign values on which Britain had been established.
The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars are the first era where Bull develops into a hostile caricature. In the hands of the satirist he becomes stupid, oppressed and stubborn.
But during the Napoleonic Wars, John Bull also emerges as the no-nonsense national symbol of freedom, loyal to king and country. He is the protector and symbol of resistance to French aggression. He is the ordinary man in the street, willing to fight Napoleon with his bare hands.
John Bull at home with his family
The national characteristics we’ve explored so far show traits that were a reaction to far-reaching events at home and abroad, scandals and politics. But John Bull also expresses individual traits. He is after all, a free-born Briton, established in Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, fighting against high prices, unfair taxation and harsh legislation.
This is the John Bull who will stand against all opposition for his rights to feed the family, protect his home and above all, remain a freeman.
He is also the same John Bull who is enterprising enough to take advantage of what is on offer.
During the French Wars, English smugglers were in high demand. They were regularly used as couriers, carrying government and military documents. In the final years of the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon allowed English smugglers entry into the French ports of Dunkirk and Gravelines, encouraging them to run contraband back and forth across the Channel. Gravelines catered for up to 300 English smugglers, housed in a specially constructed compound known as the ‘city of smugglers’. Napoleon used the smugglers in the war against Britain to good effect. They arrived on the French coast with escaped French prisoners-of-war, gold guineas, and English newspapers; they returned to England laden with French textiles, brandy, and gin. These smugglers often ferried spies (both English and French) across the Channel. The journey could be completed within 4-5 hours.
This two-way trade is one that the Seasalter Company was almost certainly involved in. The records and the wealth that they built up, suggest the Company were repatriating prisoners-of-war and the geography, organisation and scale on which they operated indicates a two-way trade between Seasalter and the French coast.
It may seem strange to us that these Englishmen could work in this way but it was an enterprising opportunity. That is all. They were, first and foremost, ‘John Bulls’, so much so that they rarely used the word, ‘contraband’ which was too French for their taste. They were free traders in every sense making good use of difficult circumstances to keep their home fires burning.