Sunday 29 May 2022

Salt-smuggling - more snapshots from the Breton border

The division of the gabelle into different regions, with extreme and arbitrary price differentials, inevitably made the smuggling of salt an intractable problem.  Smugglers were most active where the pays francs or pays rédimés shared a frontier with the grandes gabelles, above all along  boundary with Brittany.  Salt which sold for two or three livres-per-minot in Brittany retailed for fifty-six or more livres-per-minot  over the border in Maine or Anjou.

According to Daniel Roche, everywhere in France the majority of those convicted of salt tax violations were men; two-thirds were adults under the age of forty.  Smuggling was normally a supplement to other work:  even the few full-time smugglers would be supported by their communities and often did ordinary chores around the villages. They were not the true marginals of society, but poor country folk - day labourers, smallholders, village artisans, petty traders. Ultimately  they inhabited the same world in which the taxed salt and tobacco were consumed.

As long as individuals operated alone and on foot, the money to be made was  modest - around 50% profit might be expected, but the quantities of salt involved were  small - an "artisanal" level of fraud. In the towns and larger settlement, particularly along the Loire, the involvement of  artisans, innkeepers and petty tradesmen  encouraged some larger scale enterprise.  In the 18th century professionals or semi-professional smugglers worked mainly as individuals or  small groups - but occasionally there were armed troops of several dozen men, quasi -military in operation.  The most dangerous operated by night, under cover of darkness. On the Breton border the landscape - with the woods and hedges of the bocages - acted in their favour, making it easy to evade pursuers and to hide the contraband. The territory round the Loire offered sizable urban outlets;  Angers was only 20 km from the frontier of the gabelle.  

See: Daniel Roche, France in the Enlightenment, trans. Arthur Goldhammer  (Harvard U.P.1998) ,  p.348-53.

Figures published by Necker (1784)

According to Necker, during the first three years of the Lease Salzard (1780) an annual average of 2,342 men, 896 women and 201 children were convicted of salt smuggling in the vicinity of Laval and Angers on the Brittany border.  Many more women and children were arrested (or rearrested) but not prosecuted.  Over a thousand horses, and fifty waggons were also seized, and 4,000 domestic raids carried out. The value of illegal salt seized and horses and wagons confiscated amounted to 280,000 livres  [Quoted G.T. Matthews, The Royal General Farms (New York, 1958) p.109]. 

The grenier à sel at Laval

In 1974  Yves Durand and his students carried out a statistical analysis of 4,788 smugglers  tried between 1759 and 1788 by the grenier à sel  in Laval, a centre of the clandestine trade.  These were overwhelmingly petty smugglers.

Saturday 28 May 2022

Smugglers and their dogs

One particularly inventive ruse of 18th-century smugglers was the use of specially trained dogs to carry contraband salt and tobacco.  On 6th June 1734,  Royal Letters patent  prohibited the inhabitants of the  pays des grandes gabelles on the frontier with Brittany from keeping mastiffs ("chiens mâtins" ), on pain of a penalty of 500 livres.  According to the preamble, these dogs were bred in great numbers.  They would be leashed together like  packs of hounds and taken into Brittany, where collaborators would keep them shut up in barns or stables for a few days until they became hungry.  Twelve to fifteen livres of salt would then be attached to the dogs' necks, wrapped up and rolled into collars of waxed cloth.  When the dogs were released at night they invariably made their way back to their masters by the route they had come.  The routes would be varied so that they were difficult to trace.  Sometimes the dog's food  would be deliberately  impregnated with salt so that the animal became maddened with thirst.

Lettres patentes portant défenses aux habitans des provinces limitrophes de Bretagne d'avoir chez eux des chiens-mâtins, à peine de 500 livres d'amende... Registrées en Parlement [à Rennes] le 12 juillet 1734

The dog referred to as a "chien mâtin" was the Belgian mastiff, a breed which is now defunct but was once widely employed as a working dog, particularly to pull carts. Such dogs were large and powerful beasts.

Friday 27 May 2022

Salt smugglers [cont.] - Policing the gabelle

 [...continuing my notes from Bernard Briais's book, Contrabandiers de sel (1984)]


Gardes des brigades des Fermes du roi, 1788, 
Association pour l'histoire de l'administration des douanes

The  Farm was faced with 1200 lieus (c.4800 kilometres) of internal frontiers to police.  Guardposts were ranged along these borders, where possible following the line of the rivers: the Meuse to the east, the Mayenne to the west, the Vienne and the Creuse between Poitou and Touraine. A second or even a third line of guard posts would  provide reinforcement.  The guards could be stationed at crossing points or act as patrols; on the water itself, flat-bottomed pataches were manned at the entrances to the rivers.   Most brigades comprised two to six men, but a few were larger:  in the Bourbonnais, the brigade of La Roche-Bransat, had a captain, a lieutenant and ten cavalrymen; the brigade La Jolivette at Chemilly also had ten men.  The distance between guardposts varied according to the terrain and the level of smuggling activity.   No less than nine brigades were stationed along the Vienne over the nineteen kilometres between l'Ile-Bouchard and Candes, including one on a patache at the confluence with the Loire.

Wednesday 25 May 2022



Bernard Briais, Contrebandiers du sel la vie des faux sauniers au temps de la gabelle, Paris, Aubier (1984)

It is easy to become overwhelmed by all the statistical analyses and detailed local studies of 18th-century smuggling, especially for localities you don't know that well.  

I was very pleased to get hold this general history by Bernard Briais, an impressive and  sympathetic presentation which syntheses an awful lot of material.  The following translates / summarises chapters from this book.

Origins of salt-smuggling: the miseries of the grandes gabelles (p.5-29)

The detested salt tax was at the root of smuggling activity in huge proportions. The disparity between the price of salt in the pays des grandes gabelles and the bordering provinces was so great  that in 1789 the inhabitants of the sénéchaussée of Angers could contrast the "Paradise" of Brittany, with its cheap salt, to the "Hell" of Anjou.

In the region of the grandes gabelles, salt tax was a form of direct taxation. The amount was fixed by the Farm at one minot per year between fourteen people (c.3.5 kg per person).  At fifty six livres per minot, this was four livres per person. With an average wage of 12 sols a day, this could easily represent a month's income for a family (p.16).  

This sel d'impôt or sel de devoir was restricted to salt for cooking and seasoning, "au pot et à la salière". This caused all sorts of  anomalies. The cahiers of 1789 complained that inhabitants had been subject to punitive fines for using their excess salt to cure meat; or that day-labourers and artisans had been obliged to buy salt even though they received board from their employers and had no occasion to use it (p.16)

For curing and industrial purposes, salt had to be bought from the grenier of jurisdiction.  This was not necessarily the nearest; the parishioners of Langé (Blésois) complained that they had to travel six leagues to the grenier, with a hazardous return journey on dark winter nights. (p.17-18).  

Friday 20 May 2022

La Remontée du Sel

These evocative pictures of old river barges are from the "Remontée du sel",  a event which took place along the River Loire for a number of years between 1997 and 2009.  The original initiative was that of the late Jacques Gilabert, a well-known local performer, writer and champion of regional heritage.

All sorts of traditional river vessels - "toues, futreaux et gabarres" -  made their way along the old salt route between Nantes and the Touraine, in a bid to recreate something of a long-lost way of life on the water.  In 2007 there were twenty stopping-off points, and the event attracted 26,000 visitors. (Sadly, in 2009, the "Mission Val de Loire" withdrew its backing.) 

Alain Vildart, "Gabelous et faux-sauniers la guerre prend l'eau!" La Nouvelle Ré article of 24.08.2017

Sunday 15 May 2022

The Gabelle

Organisation of the gabelle

Salt taxes - the hated gabelle - were a crucial component of royal revenue, involving a whole series of diffierent levies, some on consumption, some on sales, some on circulation.  Their administration involved the General Farm in maintaining a vast organisation aimed at imposing a monopoly of sales and imposing control over the salt trade at every level.

The fundamental organisation of the gabelle was laid down by a series of Ordonnances in 1680.  For the purposes of the salt-tax France was partitioned into six different regions.  The lion's share of revenue was contributed by the  pays des grandes gabelles, which embraced Northern and Central France, including Paris, Orléans and the traffic along the Seine and Loire.   Here the consumer was compelled to buy salt from stores controlled by the Farm, and duty could increase price of salt tenfold. The petites gabelles in the South-East was also subject to duties, though here consumption was less tightly regulated.   The pays rédimés des gabelles in the West and south West was historically free from  salt-tax, although subject to some tariffs. The remaining regions were the salt producting areas: the  pays de salines (Lorraine, Alsace,Trois-Évêchés and Franche-Comte) and the pays de quart bouillon (Normandy, where salt was produced by evaporation from sea water).  Finally there were the  pays francs, the most important of which was Brittany.  

This division made for extreme and arbitrary differences in  prices: salt which sold for two or three livres-per-minot in Brittany might for fifty-six or more livres-per-minot across the border in the grandes gabelles.

Thursday 12 May 2022

The buildings of the General Farm in Paris

Throughout France the General-Farm advertised its presence with imposing offices, factories and warehouses.  In the provinces, it was common to assign to the Farm grand hôtels left vacant by their noble owners; when these were not available for sale, they would be leased.  In Paris the Farmers owned the properties they occupied.  On the eve of Revolution  it is estimated that there were as many as 700 officials and clerks employed in the Farm's central bureaux alone (Dict. des Fermes).   The most important building was the Hôtel des Fermesrue de Grenelle, which had been acquired  in 1687.  It was here that the assemblies of senior Farmers met, and here also that much of the administration was accommodated.  In course of the century half-a-dozen others premises were added, notably the magnificent Hôtel de Bretonvilliers on the Île Saint-Louis.  The Hôtel de Longueville adjacent to the Louvre was occupied from 1746, by the administration and Paris manufacture of the tobacco monopoly. There was also a splendid salt warehouse, the grenier à sel in the rue Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois. 

Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste_Raguenet, The Hôtel de Bretonvilliers, 1757

Wednesday 4 May 2022

The General-Farm of Taxes

The General-Farm (or, strictly speaking, General-Farms) of Taxes was one of the most hated institutions of 18th century France.  It wa  responsible for the collection of the majority of indirect taxes, that is to say it controlled between 40% and 50% of the Crown's total tax revenue. Its operations extended throughout the provinces and  impinged to great or lesser extent on the lives of most ordinary Frenchmen.

An organisation of such a complexity clearly  poses many challenges of research.  According to  the historian of French customs administration, Jean Cliquart, writing in 2004, there is  much work still to be done, especially  at local level.  The major work of synthesis, is still the study by the American George T. Matthews, published as long ago as 1958 (now fortunately available on Open Library). The French scholar Yves Durand published a major thesis in 1971, but his consideration was largely confined to the General Farmers themselves.  

See: Jean Clinquart, "Ce que nous ignorons des fermes générales" In: Histoire institutionnelle, économique et financière : questions de méthode (xviie-xviiie siècles) (2004).  [Open access]  

To fill some of this gap, an online Dictionnaire de la Ferme générale (1640-1794), part of a wider project involving various different academic and cultural institutions, was launched in 2019. This has loads of information, but is a bit overwhelming to the casual visitor.

Dictionnaire de la Ferme générale (1640-1794)  ed. Marie-Laure Legay, for the  Institut de recherches historiques du Septentrion

What follows are my summary notes from a few accessible sources: 

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