Smuggling: Seven Centuries of Contraband

Smuggling: Seven Centuries of Contraband
Simon Harvey
Reaktion Books  336pp  £25

This pacy book is a whistle-stop tour of what the dust jacket calls our ‘dark history’, namely the ruthless pursuit of profit at the expense of the law through the traffic of people, goods and ideas. It is a story that stretches across time and space. Harvey ranges from the age of European expansionism after Christopher Columbus fetched up on the Caribbean islands off the coast of what became known, to Europeans at least, as the ‘New World’, to contemporary Africa, with the ongoing ‘war of contraband’ in Sierra Leonean blood diamonds in West Africa and the equally violent ‘contraband of war’ of the Somalian arms trade in the Horn of Africa. 

Harvey’s larger argument is that the microhistories of smuggling and contraband are all implicated in, and respond to, geopolitical events as they are used by individuals, groups and nations to gain and maintain political and economic capital and reach. Conflict and war, poverty and desperation are at the centre of many of these histories. By analysing these globally and historically dispersed accounts relationally, the book provides a history and geography of the smuggling world. Indeed, somewhat bleakly, but nevertheless tellingly, Harvey concludes that contraband, the ‘dark cousin to free trade’, produces and perpetuates warfare and, since warfare is, in one place or another, always occurring, then we now live in a perpetually smuggling world.

Smuggling is a compelling and insightful book. The importance of botanical thievery as an agent of English empire in the mid-19th century is just one highlight as Harvey recounts in turn how tea, cinchona (the plant’s bark was used to treat malaria) and rubber were all secretly transplanted from their native habitats by adventurer-scientists to sites of cultivation within English control. For instance, cinchona seeds were stolen from Ecuador by the retired naval officer and India Office employee Clements Markham (later President of both the Royal Geographical Society and the Hakluyt Society) in an expedition sponsored by the storehouse of empire, the ‘Museum of Economic Botany’ based at Kew Gardens. Justified as an expedition to save an endangered species, the mission was intended to provide a way of controlling malaria among the workforce in the colonies in order to increase productivity in the cultivation there of raw materials for manufacturing.

Occasionally, there are minor quibbles with detail: Francis Drake was not from ‘minor aristocracy’ but of yeoman stock and spectacularly rose up the social scale. In a book of such scope and range, this somewhat broad-brush approach is unsurprising. Written in an accessible and lively fashion, with 30 maps and photographs, Smuggling is an energetic, entertaining and stimulating read. It is highly recommended to all those interested in the connections between smuggling and exploration, contraband and empire and the ways smuggler networks contribute to the global foreign policy of nation states.

Claire Jowitt is Professor of History and English at the University of East Anglia. Her areas of expertise include early modern maritime and colonial history.

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