Smuggling, Quarantine and Wrecking

Mercantilist regulations inevitably encouraged smuggling, but its illegality precludes any accurate assessment of its extent. Undoubtedly, as the statutes show, it was a problem, but it is debatable whether it was as serious as was alleged, or whether it was any worse in Ireland than in the other British possessions. Although the best profits for smugglers lay in the more moneyed economy of the east of Ireland and in particular in the area around Dublin, many parts of the indented Irish coast lent themselves to smuggling.

The three principal commodities in this illicit market were spirits, tobacco and tea, but from time to time there was some variation in demand for specific goods and the quantities of them. Apprehending smugglers was often a difficult and dangerous activity. They were ruthless individuals, frequently with a degree of social acceptability in the neighbourhood where they operated.

Until 1765, when it was acquired by the British government for £70,000, the great smuggling entrepôt in the Irish sea was the Isle of Man. An independent possession of the Duke of Athol, the Isle of Man levied its own extremely low customs duties to encourage this entrepôt trade. In an effort to prevent it, parliament in 1725 (12 Geo. I, c. 2) threatened forfeiture of goods and a fine of treble their value against spirits and tobacco that ‘are secretly imported into this kingdom in small ships and vessels or boats under the burthen of twenty tons from the Isle of Man’.

In 1788 Lord Lieutenant Buckingham commented to the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, on a bill aimed at discouraging tobacco smuggling in which ‘the liberty of importing tobacco into the port of Londonderry is taken away from the first day of March 1789 on account of the enormous smuggling committed by the inhabitants of that district’.

In 1743, the Bordeaux merchant John Black wrote to his brother Robert Black, a merchant in Portugal, about his ‘son Robert your godson; he is now these several years in partnership with a very worthy man Mr David Rosse at Douglas, Isle of Man, where I assure you they are making a little fortune with the brandy, rum, wine and tea trade’. This was a very convenient trade, as the family firm in Bordeaux could consign goods legitimately to the Isle of Man. From there it was a short run to either England or Ireland.

The real nature of Rosse, Black and Christian’s business is indicated by the fact that in 1765, after the British government closed the Isle of Man loophole, Robert hastened to wind up his business. By 1766 his father and brothers were preparing for his return to Belfast. Family connections were important in all aspects of business, and Black’s earlier correspondence with his brother gives many sidelights on methods used to circumvent customs regulations. For instance, in November 1740 he wrote that ‘the sherry adventure is well arrived in Leith and with some difficulty received to an entry and a profitable trade.’

Choosing the right port to present ‘sham certificates’ required skill, and in February 1741 John Black suggested that next season London should be avoided for the entry of Spanish goods sent via Portugal to take advantage of the Anglo-Portuguese trade treaty.

After 1765, when the Isle of Man lost its advantages, direct trade with the continent was resumed. The Isle of Man’s position in the contraband trade was partly inherited by the Channel island of Guernsey. Roscoff in Brittany was another popular source of supplies, but this involved a longer run into Ireland where the small port of Rush in Co. Dublin, with its proximity to the capital, was a prominent haunt of smugglers. The smugglers’ back-cargo was interesting, as it included such unexpected articles as counterfeit money and, as the law of copyright did not exist in Ireland, pirated editions of books.

The variation in the type of smuggler was immense, from the cut-throat brigand to the many generally legitimate traders who engaged in a little smuggling on the side. This mixture of legitimate and illegitimate trading complicated the work of the Revenue officials, many of whom were poorly qualified and worse paid for their often dangerous duties.

The strict enforcement of mercantilist policies presented them with an almost impossible task. For example an entry in the eighteenth-century account book of the O’Connells of the Iveragh Peninsula, Co. Kerry reads: ‘To ---, the boatman who came here seeking a prey 5s 5d’. The O’Connells were partners in a small business trading in Nantes. They were noted smugglers for, as one of them later recorded, ‘their faith, their education and their wine were equally contraband.’ Smuggling was widespread in this area. Many members of the Co. Kerry grand jury were from time to time involved in similar activities.

In 1737 it was reported that at Galway, where the city gates were still locked at night, ‘the smugglers made use of picklocks to open the Gates of the Garrison whenever they pleased in the night time, by bribing the Centrys [sic]; and by that means conveyed in or out, what uncustomed goods they thought proper.’ These had in­cluded 50 tons of wool which was taken from Roundstone to France in a large Dutch-built ship.

Early in the eighteenth century there was a smuggling trade in raw wool. Irish wool was in demand for blending with grades grown in France and elsewhere. However, by the middle of the century rising demand from England had led to a relaxation in restrictions and a secure and elastic market with the English wool merchants. On one occasion early in the century, the Co. Cork Revenue officials had intercepted a cargo near Clonakilty and Speaker Boyle, the local landlord, was offered this untimely seizure as an excuse for rent arrears among his tenants in the town of Clonakilty!

Smugglers often had exchange facilities. For example, in 1784 Arthur Annesley instructed his agent John Moore to arrange to transfer his rents through a bill of exchange that he had given to Jameson, one of his tenants, who, it tran­spired, was a smuggler, as Annesley was informed that ‘there were 321 casks of brandy taken out of a dunghill in his yard by the Revenue officers lately.’ Among European nations smuggling was almost universal in the eighteenth century. Each nation sought to establish an exclusive trade zone and thereby tempted other nations to break into it.

However, a serious consideration (17 Geo. II, c. 12) was the breaking of quarantine regulations that inevitably accompanied smuggling. In 1728 ships coming from Greece and the Greek Islands were placed under a 40-day quarantine as suspected carriers of plague, and there were numerous similar incidents throughout the century. One of the last statutes of the Irish parliament, 40 Geo. III, c. 79, stated that:

It is notorious that notwithstanding the many good laws made to prevent the clandestine importation of customable and prohibited goods and merchandises, a pernicious trade of that kind is still carried on in open boats or vessels of small burden, which privately put into creeks and secret places on the coast … which practice may prove highly detrimental to the safety of this kingdom during a time of in­fection.

Another illegality was the practice of wrecking for profit. The variety of coastal cliffs is shown in Co. Antrim, where within a few miles there are the basalt headlands at Fair Head, the hexagonal columns of the Giant’s Causeway, and the limestone cliffs at Portrush. It was off this coast that the Gerona, commanded by Alonzo da Levya and carrying the sons of the leading Spanish nobility, foundered in the storms that completed the destruction of the Armada in 1588.

Much of the Irish coast is very treacherous and in the eighteenth century the Irish parliament passed repeated statutes against looting and wrecking. For instance, in 1783 (23 & 24 Geo. III, c. 48), ‘an act for the amendment of the law in relation to the danger of perishing at sea’ declared that ‘many wicked enormities have been committed to the … grievous damage of merchants and mariners of our own and other countries’, and reiterating that it was a capital offence to ‘put out any false lights with intention to bring any ship or vessel into danger’.

In the 1730s wrecking was taking place in counties as far apart and as various as Down and Kerry, where, on 7 November 1730, the Danish East India Company’s ship Golden Lyon was stranded near the residence of Thomas Crosbie (0538), MP for Dingle. The ship was insured in Denmark, and while the formalities were being resolved, Crosbie, assisted by the armed forces stationed at Dingle and Tralee, took charge of it and its cargo. On 4 June 1731 Crosbie died, and ‘about twelve or one in the night a number of men broke into the house … where the money chests were kept, wounded three of the Danes and carry’d the Chests off.’

The Danish East India Company advertised a reward of one-tenth of the treasure, estimated at £9,287 6s, for its recovery and the conviction of those involved. About ten of the robbers were eventually caught and brought before the assize court, but not before they had sold a quantity of the silver, part in coin and part in wedges, for £30 to a Limerick goldsmith. In 1739 Robert Ward wrote to Judge Ward that the inclement weather had prevented him from investigating a Co. Down shipwreck, adding ‘but I have made a small progress in relation to the Kilchief wreck’; he goes on to list the goods from it found in the cabins of various tenants.

The prevention of marine crime was very much in the interests of the Irish merchants so that Ireland should be a safe place for ships to call. This was particularly true for the Cork provision merchants. But, in 1722 when the St Peter of Polequin sailed from Cork to Nantes, ‘there sailed in her one Philip Roche, Pierce Cullen, Andrew Cullen and Richard Neall as passengers who made themselves master of the crew not without suspicion of murthering them.’

The success of the authorities against this deep-rooted tradition of marine lawlessness was limited. At the end of the century De Latocnaye describes it as still prevalent in the notoriously lawless district of Eyre Connacht, Co. Galway, and at the beginning of the nineteenth century Lord Downshire’s agent was trying to restrain the inhabitants of Dundrum Bay from plundering ships wrecked off the Co. Down coast.

In wartime the threat of invasion was compounded by the danger from former smugglers turned privateers prowling in the Irish Sea. Invasion was always feared, especially during the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745. This did not occur on either occasion. Nevertheless, Ireland was invaded twice in the course of the century.

In 1760 Thurot captured Carrickfergus, which he found ‘totally unguarded and unprovided … the walls were ruinous and in many places incomplete’. After demanding a ransom from Belfast he put to sea with the Mayor of Carrickfergus and three of the principal inhabitants. Shortly after he was captured by the British navy.

The other occasion was Humbert’s invasion of Mayo in 1798. From their peacetime careers as smugglers, many privateers knew the coast extremely well. Some, in the early wars of the century, were Irishmen exiled after 1692. During the American war John Paul Jones, who had been born in Kirkcudbright and apprenticed to a merchant in Whitehaven, returned to wreck havoc and fear on coasts he knew from childhood.