Life of a Smuggler: Fact and Fiction

Written by Helen Hollick
Review by Edward James

Smugglers along with pirates have a romantic image which Helen Hollick sets out to debunk, even though she has contributed to the smuggler/pirate legend several times over with her Sea Witch Voyages series.

Hollick divides her book into When, Why, Who, How, What and Where. Although there is a photo of a sniffer dog in the Introduction, she is not concerned with modern-day drug or people smuggling, but in the ‘golden age’ of smuggling in Britain from the 16th to mid-19th centuries.

At the time the British state relied largely on import duties to finance itself but lacked the means to suppress illegal trade.  Even with the world’s largest navy it was impossible in the days of sail to police Britain’s long coastline.  Perhaps the larger part of the trade in many commodities was illicit, obliging the government to raise import duties still further and so further increase the smugglers’ profits and make most of the population complicit.  The smugglers probably kept the economy going.

Since smuggling was a secret activity most of the records relate to the minority of smugglers who were caught.  However this still gives Hollick plenty of stirring tales to tell, especially about the organised gangs who openly defied the excisemen. In her Where section she takes us on a tour of the British coast, gathering up smugglers’ tales.  She ends with a section on the literary legacy of smuggling.  An interesting and entertaining companion to the genre.