At the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century free traders went about their business more or less unimpeded along the shores of the southern counties of England. During wartime little was done to prevent the free passage of enemy spies or the export of gold to finance the enemy’s war effort.
Emperor Napoleon who, in exile on St Helena, revealed that much of the cash he raised to pay for his military campaigns came, albeit unknowingly, from merchants and bankers in the Capital of his foe – the City of London.
His reliance on England’s free traders resulted in special compounds and areas in French towns and ports being made accessible to them and creating exclusive smuggling communities.
Between 1810 and 1814, the Napoleonic state officially sanctioned and supported the smugglers, using them as a weapon of war against Britain and to boost the domestic French industry. This smuggling was sophisticated, part of an international economic environment, not merely limited to the Kent and northern French coasts, but with ties to greater Britain and France, to London and Paris, and encompassing a diverse world of professional smugglers, fishermen, labourers, shipowners, merchants, manufacturers, bankers and ultimately consumers. In establishing ties with English smugglers, the Napoleonic regime tapped into a traditional Anglo-French smuggling community that had existed for centuries along the Channel coast:
“They did great mischief to your Government. During the war all the information I received from England came through smugglers. They are people who have courage and ability to do anything for money. They had at first a part of Dunkirk allotted to them, to which they were restricted, but as they latterly went out of their limited, committed riots, and insulted everybody, I ordered Gravelines to be prepared for their reception where they had a little camp for their accommodation. At one time there were upwards of 500 of them in Dunkirk.
“I had every information I wanted from them. They bought over newspapers and dispatches from the spies that we had in London. They took spies from France, landed and kept them in their houses for some days, dispersed them over the country and bought them back when wanted. They assisted the French prisoners to escape from England. The relations of French prisoners in your country were accustomed to go to Dunkirk and make a bargain with them to bring over a certain prisoner. All they wanted was a name, age and a private token by means of which the prisoners might have confidence in them.
“Generally in a short time afterwards they effected it, as, for men like them, they had a great deal of honour in their dealings. They offered several times to bring over Louis and the rest of the Bourbons for a sum of money, but they wanted to stipulate that if they met with an accident or any interruption to their design, they might be allowed to murder them. This I would not consent to.
For Napoleon the issue of raising funds to pay his army was problematic:
“I did not receive money direct from Spain. I got bills on Vera Cruz which certain agents sent by circuitous routes, by Amsterdam, Hamburg and other places to London, as I had no direct communication” the Emperor boasted. “The bills were discounted by merchants in London to whom ten per cent and sometimes a premium was paid as their reward. Bills were often given by them upon different bankers in Europe for the greatest part of the amount, and the remainder in gold, which last was bought over to France by the smugglers.”
“Even for the equipping of my last expedition, after my return from Elba, a great part of the money was raised in London” he claimed. (For more on this see the posting: ‘Trading in dark pools’.)
Not only did smugglers carry gold to the Emperor, they also ran huge quantities of illicit goods from France at a time when a strict coastal blockade aimed at strangling the enemy’s trade.
So valued were the efforts of the smugglers to the French that no attempt was made to inter them even though they were enemy aliens.
Daly, Gavin. Napoleon and the ‘City of Smugglers’, 1810 – 1814. University of Tasmania. The Historical Journal, 50, 2 (2007), pp. 333–352
Niall Ferguson The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets 1798-1848
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