28 January 2009

Professions: Smuggling

By Lisa Marie Wilkinson

Smuggling is one of the few professions embraced by entire communities during centuries past that still exists and flourishes today. Although the nature of the contraband may have changed (from spirits, lace, fabric, tobacco and tea during the eighteenth century to illegal drugs and firearms in the present day), there are few coastal areas (particularly in the United Kingdom) that cannot boast a rich history related to smuggling and the exploits of those who participated in the trade.

Efforts of the British government to finance costly wars through excessive taxation on imported items such as chocolate, tea and spirits gradually expanded to include basic necessities such as leather, salt and soap. This led to resentment and revolt on the part of those unable to afford items then taxed at up to 70% of their original cost, creating an opportunity for those gangs and individuals willing to undergo personal risk to circumvent the process of taxation and deliver tariff-free merchandise to a public more than willing to do commerce with the lawbreakers.

Tea--considered a luxury by the British government and consequently taxed to the point where it become unaffordable for the average consumer--was also light and easy to transport, making it a favorite commodity of smugglers, many of whom were former fishermen who discovered that "running tea" was a far more profitable enterprise than casting their nets into the sea. This led to the involvement of entire coastal communities in the trade, including merchants with concealed areas in the basements of their shops designed to hide bolts of fabric and casks of brandy.

The southwest coast of England, with its countless networks of inlets and coves and underground tunnels leading to the sea, was a smuggler's paradise. Names such as "Brandy Cove," "Smuggler's Leap," and "Pepper Cove" hint at the nature of the smuggled goods and the activities that once took place there. One village boasted a manor house with a chamber large enough to conceal a dozen men hidden beneath the kitchen floor in the event of a sudden visit from Customs men. Smugglers in Penzance, buoyed by the knowledge that they had the support of the entire community, landed and unloaded smuggled cargo in broad daylight, in full view of any Customs men who might be about.

The end of large-scale smuggling began during the Napoleonic era, when safeguards implemented to ward off a French invasion consequently made smuggling more difficult by cutting off access to beach areas and a series of watchtowers called Martello towers were erected along the south-east coast of England. As duties on imported goods were gradually lowered, smuggled goods became more affordable to the masses, eliminating the need for those who profited from the smuggling of the black market commodities of the era.

In my debut novel, FIRE AT MIDNIGHT, heroine Rachael Penrose comes from a community involved in smuggling. Unfortunately, well-known smuggler Sebastién Falconer erroneously believes it was Rachael who informed on him to the Customs authorities. In the following scene, Sebastién is playing a game of cat-and-mouse with Rachael. His goal is to trick Rachael into admitting she is the informant.

Rachael concluded her story and fidgeted in the chair, waiting for some comment from him. The delightful evening of repartee she had anticipated had instead been an awkward, one-sided conversation. She felt foolish for having been so concerned with her appearance. Why had it seemed so important to look nice this evening? Certainly not for him. She hardly knew him.

He had abandoned his interest in his wine and sat staring at her with an intensity Rachael found unnerving. She felt like a small bird under the rapt scrutiny of a cat with a voracious appetite.

"A curious predicament," Sebastién commented finally.

Her imagination has not been idle during my absence. Yet there was the niggling doubt certain details invited, such as the fading abrasions on her limbs that told of iron restraints, the injury Morgan had received, and the destruction of the Morgan estate. Someone had abused her before she fell into his hands, but an informer would incur the wrath of many. It did not necessarily follow that her story was the truth.

Sebastién kept his plan of interrogation uppermost in his mind. No doubt this hoyden made deliberate use of her physical allure. She had taken pains with her appearance. She was a beautiful woman made more so by the gossamer haze of candlelight. He was not about to become a besotted fool and allow her to emerge victorious in their match of wits, no matter how damned attractive he found her.

"You must be disappointed that Tarry has not visited," he said.

"It is safer for us all if he keeps his distance. Victor is likely to have him followed. The longer I remain here, the greater the risk that Victor will find me."

Was she about to broach the subject of her departure? He was just as determined to deflect any discussion on the topic. "My friend Tarry would never forgive me if I allowed you to risk your safety," he said.

"How did you and Tarry become acquainted? I wasn't aware that he had any friends from across the Channel."

"Are you acquainted with all his friends, then?" he asked. He did not allow his faint smile to lessen the challenge in his tone. It was better to keep her on the defensive; it increased the likelihood that she would trip herself up.

"Tarry has friends at court I have never met," Rachael replied. "He may have mentioned you by name, but I would not have expected a Frenchman. Is it John, or Jean?"

"Call me whatever you like," Sebastién responded in a dry tone. "I am actually part English, but schooled in France." That much of the truth suited him. He marveled at her skillful attempt to draw information out of him. "Penrose is a common name in Cornwall, is it not?"

"Yes. I am a Cornish Penrose." She lifted her brow at the question.

"Then why not remain here? You are safer here than you would be in your own village."

"If I remain here, my presence will endanger you, and my brother will not be safe. I am fortunate that Tarry has a gallant, courageous friend who was willing to come to my aid, but I’ve already imposed upon you enough."

"You give me too much credit, mademoiselle," he said with a dismissive wave. "The Cornish coast is no place for a young woman to travel alone without benefit of a guardian."

"I grew up here. This place holds no danger for me."

"Have you no fear of the fairtraders who roam the coast?" He watched her face for a reaction. Surely she knew she was a pariah among her own kinsmen? Her ingenuous manner was disturbing.

"I have no fear of fairtraders. Fairtrading is a way of life on the coast. Why shouldn't a Bodmin shopkeeper be able to afford tea when a Customs official drinks it with every meal simply because his purse is better suited to pay the duty? I don’t view the fairtrade as a criminal enterprise. I know many who participate in the trade."

"Such knowledge would make you popular with Customs." He resisted the urge to frame it as an accusation.

"The fairtraders are my friends and neighbors. I would never inform on them."

"What happens to those who turn informant?"

"I shouldn't like to think about it—a wise informer would never return to the coast."

Her complexion had pinkened; she either felt guilty or passionate about the subject. She frowned at him as if perplexed by the turn their conversation had taken.

"It seems the risk would far outweigh the gain."

Rachael nodded. "You need have no fear on my behalf with regard to fairtraders. It is unlikely I would be mistaken for a Customs agent." She smiled at him as if the thought amused her.

Was the woman composed of stone? She did not seek to avoid his steady gaze. There was no detectable tic or tremor in her face or hands. She breathed easily. No sheen of perspiration marred the fair, smooth skin of her brow. She remained calm, even smiling while he hinted at the truth. He felt his frustration grow with each verbal parry.

Perhaps she already knew who he was and was enjoying watching him stalk the perimeter of his verbal cage. He was tempted to reveal his identity to her, if only to see her reaction. She was wily, infuriating, and intriguing, and Sebastién was actually enjoying their little game of cat and mouse.

How could he prevent her departure without making a prisoner of her? He noted the high color at her cheeks and the limpid blue pools of her eyes. The fact that she did not seem to find him unattractive was an advantage he might put to good use. After all, this was war and he had to use whatever weapons were available to him.