Before I ever started working on The Smuggler’s Gambit, I had done a lot of studying about not only smuggling in the colonial era, but what prompted otherwise law-abiding men to do it. It happened in all sorts of ways and by men you might otherwise not expect.
In May 1764, the month following the passage of the Sugar Act, Samuel Adams said this:
“For if our Trade may be taxed why not our Lands? Why not the Produce of our Lands & every thing we possess or make use of? This we apprehend annihilates our Charter Right to govern & tax ourselves – It strikes our British Privileges, which as we have never forfeited them, we hold in common with our Fellow Subjects who are Natives of Britain: If Taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal Representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the Character of free Subjects to the miserable State of tributary Slaves.”
Make no mistake about it, the fact that American colonists felt their livelihoods were being negatively impacted by trade regulations was a key cause of the Revolution. The fact that there was all of this “taxation without representation” was adding insult to injury.
Why shouldn’t they be able to trade with markets in the Spanish, French or Dutch West Indies without being penalized? Why should the government in Great Britain make decisions that would affect the livelihoods of the hardworking folks in the colonies across the Atlantic? These are questions, among many others, that American colonists couldn’t help but ask.
They knew they were building a country from scratch, after all. Why should politicians a world away be able to impede their progress and economic success with the brush of a pen?
One thing that I had not known about until I started studying that decade between the French and Indian War and the American Revolution was the informal policy known as Salutary Neglect. That basically meant that throughout the early 1700s, England looked the other way at most American colonial trade violations. They didn’t force the colonies to play by the rules because they knew the fledgling economy would grow much more quickly if it were unhampered by oppressive trade regulations.
By the end of the Seven Years’ War, however, King George and Parliament decided it was time for Americans to start doing their part to refill Great Britain’s coffers so the period of Salutary Neglect came to an end—especially, with the the passage of the Sugar Act in 1764. (A conversation about this very thing takes place in The Smuggler’s Gambit on Adam Fletcher’s first day at Rogers Shipping Company between him and senior cooper Boaz Brooks.)
What made good men turn to smuggling?
One has to think outside the box when it comes to smuggling and what drove men to do it.
While many might have a knee-jerk reaction to the concept as one only performed by rogues and reprobates, the truth is smuggling is rampant even to this day.
Here in North Carolina, for instance, many kinds of fireworks are illegal to possess without a license. But does that stop North Carolinians from buying said fireworks? Goodness, no! I know of people who make it a point to travel to the South Carolina border every year before Independence Day to stock up on what they would call patriotic contraband.
And what about folks from California who will purchase items from out of state because California manufacturing and environmental regulations would otherwise ban them?
And then there are those in other countries who smuggle in Bibles or other books or movies that are otherwise banned?
In other words, smuggling isn’t always about things that we would typically label as “bad”, like drug running or modern slave trafficking. It can be about ordinary people who want to buy or sell ordinary things, but their local governments have set up trade restrictions on those particular items—either with crippling taxes, or by banning them outright.
Here are a couple of good resources about smuggling in colonial America:
Americans with Attitudes: Smuggling in Colonial America (A research article)
Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America (Book by Peter Andreas)
As a point of interest related to the setting of the Adam Fletcher Adventure Series, the Colonial Records of North Carolina also have some interesting entries about smuggling and smugglers, at least relating to how various legislators were responding to the issue, as well as particularly interesting items such as this one about the pirate Blackbeard and his dealings with Governor Charles Eden.
This article* by By Dr. Noeleen Mcllvenna from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources talks about why the state was such a haven for pirates.:
“Although pirates’ chief hunting grounds became the Caribbean Sea, North Carolina’s Outer Banks (and their treacherous geography) provided a safe hiding place from the Royal Navy. The people of Albemarle had political and economic motives for their friendly relationships with buccaneers. The region had always stood as a place of shelter for those most oppressed by owners or masters in England or Virginia. Runaways of many backgrounds—including slaves and indentured servants, along with small farmers and traders—pushed through the water-logged wilderness of the Great Dismal Swamp. They wanted to escape the few powerful planters who controlled society in colonial Virginia. One Virginia governor described northern Carolina as “the refuge of our renegades.” Few moral or ethical dilemmas worried these Albemarle settlers when dealing with men and women prepared to steal from rich merchants or the royal bank account. What others called lawlessness, Carolina’s early colonists considered freedom. This included freedom from burdensome taxes set by an oppressive government (in which they had no say) across the ocean. Politically, many sympathized with pirates.”
* – While I think the above excerpt is in line with other research I have done, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the whole article since it propagates the myth that Blackbeard’s head was tied from the bowsprit of Lt. Maynard’s vessel on the way back to Virginia, a ridiculous notion considering it would’ve taken several days to get there from Ocracoke and would draw flies and be rotted entirely upon arrival in Virginia.