Did Contraband Smuggling Lead to the French Revolution?

By Patrick HydeAugust 5, 2015

Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground by Michael Kwass

USING TOBACCO could be a deadly habit in the 17th century depending on where you lived. The long-term health risks were the same everywhere, but if you were caught with a snuff box or pipe in Romanov Russia or Imperial Mongolia you were liable to lose your head; both countries ruled that the consumption of tobacco was punishable by death. Things were a bit more lenient in France, where you could light up so long as you had a physician’s note. And once the French king Louis XIII discovered that he, too, had a taste for nicotine, he lifted all tobacco restrictions in the country. It didn’t take long for the plant to boom in popularity. Men and women of every class appreciated the psychoactive substance, and by the 18th century it had become a commonplace in both the aristocratic salons and longshoremen’s taverns of Old Regime France. Tobacconists had set up shop in even the most remote villages of the Kingdom of France, so that peasants would never have to travel too far to buy an ounce or two of the dry, stringy plant. This impressive logistical feat was accomplished, of course, by Big Tobacco.

No, Phillip Morris and R.J. Reynolds did not yet exist, but an even larger yet equally nefarious organization had earned the title: the Ferme générale, or General Farm, a sprawling, and largely private company contracted by the French king Louis XIV to administer a state tobacco monopoly in 1681. With tens of millions of livres on the line, or the equivalent of seven percent of France’s total state revenue, the Farm employed a legion of armed guards to jealously protect their market and product. Farm agents were the only ones legally permitted to sell the intensely popular plant within the country. Many entrepreneurial spirits within France found it impossible, however, to sit idly by while the Farm raked in obscene profits, and these men and women, members of the new global underground, concocted extralegal schemes to get in on the action.

A highly addictive substance, huge profit margins, and repressive government controls: sounds familiar, n’est-ce pas? And like now, these elements made for a volatile mix nearly three centuries ago. A massive underground economy resulted in violent confrontations between criminal organizations and law enforcement officials. In his engrossing and ambitious second book, Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground, historian Michael Kwass vividly recreates the thrilling campaigns of Louis Mandrin, a “Gallic Robin Hood” and leader of one such criminal band. The smuggler captured the popular imagination of France with his daring and politically subversive raids into the country, sparring with Farm guards and peddling his illicit wares in broad daylight. While Mandrin and his gang of smugglers sit squarely at the center of Kwass’s narrative, the scope of his analysis extends far beyond their Alpine hideouts. Kwass sees the illicit sale of tobacco as part of a much larger process in the early stages of globalization, which he defines as the integration of global markets. The bloody clashes between smugglers and state-sanctioned organizations such as the Farm demonstrated that this transition did not occur smoothly, and in France, smuggling rebellions sapped the legitimacy of the state and helped prepare the ground for the mother of all rebellions, the Revolution of 1789.


Contraband is a sparkling micro-history nestled within a sprawling macro-history. The book reads as if Kwass has his finger on the zoom wheel of a mouse, here scrolling in to examine most intimate details of his protagonist’s childhood, there zooming out so that the vast mercantile connections linking Europe, the Americas, and the East Indies all appear in frame. Kwass transitions between the two deftly, at times imperceptibly, so that the picture is both expansive and highly detailed.

Contraband traces the evolution of European consumption patterns over the 17th and 18th centuries. The common assumption had once been that the gritty factories of the Industrial Revolution created the necessary conditions for ordinary people to purchase products other than subsistence-level staples. But long before Ford’s assembly lines, western Europeans had already begun to accumulate goods at an ever-increasing rate. Houses, once sparse and bleak things, began to fill with wooden furniture and bookshelves. People took to wearing clothing fashioned out of materials that were actually comfortable to wear, and the daily diet gained much needed variety.

And everywhere people were smoking — or snorting, the preferred method of ingestion at the time — New World tobacco. Some historians have called this proliferation of material goods the “Consumer Revolution,” a period lasting from roughly 1650 to 1800, during which, according to Kwass, “the material world had certainly become full enough to give many people the impression that they were living in a new age.” Brought about by a combination of changes in social custom and by globalized economic expansion, a distinctly modern attitude toward consumer culture began to develop among the middling sorts and upper crust.

Like most efforts by historians to identify one revolution or another, the term “Consumer Revolution” excites controversy among academic specialists. Kwass acknowledges but largely sidesteps this historiographic debate (and many other terminological quagmires), a move that most readers will be sure to appreciate but may leave specialists a bit miffed. Instead, he focuses on the undeniable reality that the consumption of material goods was increasing during this time, and that this had profound social and political consequences. Kwass makes the important point that “the historiography of the French consumer revolution does not sufficiently engage eighteenth-century politics,” and his analysis takes a welcome step to correct this deficiency.

As new goods flooded into Western Europe from foreign lands, governments saw an opportunity to profit from new revenue streams. At a time when war was both common and costly, new taxable goods presented a lucrative opportunity to assuage the pain of ever-increasing yearly expenditures. The British created an extremely effective fiscal-military bureaucracy that drew most of its revenue through an excise tax. While this didn’t completely stamp out smuggling in the British Isles, it did integrate the tax into the price of a product, obscuring it from the consumer’s view and reducing resentment. Kwass considers this a savvy move on the part of the British, both making possible and justifying the building of their formidable navy.

Meanwhile in France, Louis XIV made two fateful interventions in the global economy that led to the growth of an expansive criminal underground. Intricate webs of privilege and the financial exemptions granted powerful and ancient guilds (which monopolized whatever industry they lorded over) both supported and suffocated Ancien Régime France. When Dutch and Iberian merchants brought Indian calico clothing to European markets, consumers could not get enough of the intricate dyed patterns. The domestic textile producers lamented this new competition, and vested interests lobbied the king to ban the importation of the brightly colored clothing, which he did. The calico ban targeted not only producers and importers of calico, but extended to anyone caught wearing the garment. Predictably, this repressive incursion raised the ire of anyone capable of buying and wearing the clothing.

The Sun King’s second intervention targeted the burgeoning tobacco market, which he gifted in the form of a state monopoly to the General Farm. This move was part of a larger drive toward fiscalism, an economic policy that privileged increasing state revenue over empire-building. Always one to place his continental ambitions over the development of overseas colonies, Louis XIV agreed to import tobacco exclusively from the Chesapeake Bay so long as it allowed him total control over its distribution and taxation within France. By granting the Farm a complete monopoly over the tobacco market in France, Louis XIV gained an immense source of short-term revenue from the indirect taxes collected. Since another war with the Dutch or British was always right around the corner, this intervention appeared a logical choice to king and council.


The Law of Unintended Consequences wrought havoc on the King’s plans. The repressive interventions created a supply vacuum that industrious and cash-strapped schemers rushed to fill. Here, Kwass zooms in to examine the intricacies of the underground economy through a biographical examination of one its most colorful figures, Louis Mandrin. Vivid and thrilling, Kwass’s depiction of Mandrin and his infamous associates also leads to a compelling reconsideration of the larger political and economic shifts occurring in pre-Revolutionary France.

Murder, counterfeiting, larceny of religious property: Mandrin’s life is exciting enough to capture the attention of any reader, even before he becomes a smuggling kingpin and scourge of Royal officials. The down-and-out son of a merchant, Mandrin staked the meager family fortune on a legitimate enterprise and lost. And, at a time when “just about everyone must have known an illegal smuggler, dealer, or consumer,” Mandrin found little trouble joining the sprawling shadow economy that worked around the king’s protectionist and monopolistic financial policies. From Savoyard peasants to worldly noblemen, Kwass engagingly recreates the spider-web of illicit commerce and the motivations of those who stood to gain from it.

Contraband’s undeniable strength comes from Kwass’s superb, at times cinematic, attention to detail. In recreating Mandrin’s smuggling raids in 1754 and 1755, Kwass develops a fascinating array of characters and settings. Kwass’s Mandrin is a sharply dressed and sophisticated protagonist with a flair for political theater, a shrewd leader, outmaneuvering the numerous intrigues thickening around him, albeit ultimately and tragically undone by circumstances. His capable antagonist, Pierre de La Motte, is an ambitious customs agent hell-bent on bringing down Mandrin in a reckless bid for professional glory. The supporting cast includes a mercenary captain who leads a special-ops task force through the Alps in pursuit of Mandrin, weak-willed Farm agents who find themselves at Mandrin’s mercy, and daring gangsters with picaresque names such as “the Piedmontese” and “Lucifer.” The story is filled with assassinations, betrayals, sieges, elegant dinner parties, riveting chase sequences, and more. One expects to find on the back cover: “Coming to your local movie theatre in 2017.”

Kwass’s dramatic narrative bent, however, does not always comport with his analysis of smuggling in Old Regime France. He is at times too apologetic for Mandrin and his gang, whose actions he always interprets through a forgiving lens. More importantly, Kwass chooses to hang his argument on two commodities, tobacco and calico, since these were the two products that Mandrin smuggled. Were these two really the most important? Or does Kwass choose calico over, say, sugar, for narrative convenience, since he can tie it to the Mandrin narrative? It is hard to tell if his argument would change much if he broadened his selection of consumer goods, but one wonders, even as he does a thorough and satisfying job of discussing the two he chose. Particularly strong is his depiction of the General Farm. An enigmatic institution that is usually referred to by historians in passing, Kwass takes the time to really bring the organization and its operation to life.

The most important question is whether the smuggling rebellions of Mandrin and others contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution. Kwass argues that the Bourbon government changed the judicial system and significantly increased its policing capabilities in response to the challenge presented by smugglers. The repressive state interventions, he argues, fanned the flames of a population already outraged by the burdens of indirect taxation. Public opinion regarded the smugglers as heroes and the Farm as scoundrels. Kwass has sufficient evidence to support all of these claims. Boldly, he ties all of this to 1789: “The high incidence of contraband revolt reflected the increasingly global parameters of the underground economy, a significant historical development in its own right, but such unrest also contributed heavily to a general rise in popular rebellion.” The popular rebellion begot incidents such as the storming of a customs gate on the eve of the sexier storming of the Bastille. Kwass does well to remind us of the fiscal grievances many had in the early revolutionary days, but there is not enough in this final chapter to reroute decades of historiographical interpretation. Even here, though, as throughout this remarkable story, there is drama and insight enough to galvanize the attention of both scholars and lay readers.


Patrick Hyde is a graduate student in the University of Houston’s History program.

LARB Contributor

Patrick Hyde is a graduate student in the University of Houston’s History program.


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