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.

The smugglers' dogs were much vaunted for their intelligence and their ability to evade the guardsmen.  In Laval the tale was told of Marjolet, a dog belonging to a weaver in the rue Saint-Jean, who would regularly pick up salt in La Gravelle across the Breton border.  On one of his return trips the dog was pursued by three gabelous.  Rather than betray his master, Marjolet diverted into the rue Sainte-Catherine, where he managed to hide under a woman's skirts.  She  was more than happy to send the guards off in the wrong direction,so as to allow the dog to return  to its master at leisure. (Briais, Contrabandiers de sel, p.73) 

As the century progressed, the fight against the canine smugglers continued to escalate. On 8th April 1763 the Farm offered a reward to employees who killed dogs carrying salt or tobacco.  Each animal was worth 30 sols,  plus the value of the merchandise recovered. The dog's paw was to be presented as evidence of its destruction.

 When the Breton peasants complained, the Farm admitted that "although 2,500 dogs were killed each year, the contrabandiers still found ways to acquire more" .  In 1781, according to the director Châteaubrun, , 4, 449 dogs were killed in jurisdiction of the grenier at Laval alone (See Briais, p.74). 

The use of dogs was mainly associated with the Breton Border, but it was not entirely confined to the West. A particularly vivid report  survives from the direction  of St. Quentin in Picardy in the mid-century.  In the  parishes of Montbrehain, Etaves, Grandfresnoy and Seboncourt in the Aisne, longstanding centres of smuggling, the Farm's officials had been surprised to discover over a hundred dogs, each capable of carrying between 30 and 50 livres of salt. In response to the "disorder" the Farm had acquired dogs of its own to hunt down the smugglers;  six employees had been sent from Amiens each with a trained dog and with a remit to train more.   In 1786  an official of the Farm in St. Quentin confirmed to his colleague in Valenciennes, that 600-700 dogs were killed there each year.
"Chiens de douaniers, chiens de contrebandiers", Association pour l’Histoire de l’Administration des Douanes, post of 01.01.2021. Documents from the Municipal Archives of Valenciennes

It would seem that the measures were of little avail.  On 7th May 1782 another set of  Letters-Patent was issued for the Breton frontier.

This time the preamble reads:

"We are informed that notwithstanding our Letters-Patent registered by our Parlement of Brittany, intended to prevent salt smuggling using dogs trained for the purpose; these animals have multiplied to a point so excessive, that they are traded publicly in the markets of Towns subject to the gabelle and  tabac; We have therefore deemed it necessary to renew and extend the provisions of the aforesaid Letters-Patent...."

A fine of 200 livres was imposed for keeping or selling chiens- mâtins in the provinces subject to the gabelle, or anywhere within four leagues of the border, with the sole exception of farm guard dogs. The agents of the Farm were given  the right to search and prosecute market traders and to shoot any dog they found loose.

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 consensus, especially among later commentators, was that the dogs of the Farm were far more vicious than those of the smugglers.  In a letter of 1665   Colbert's brother wrote to the minister from Vitré denouncing the violence of the archers of the gabelle: "I am obliged to inform you that they have dogs trained to track smugglers;  to accustom the dogs, they have them tear at the legs of these wretches, so that they develop gangrene in prison from the bites."

Correspondance administrative sous le règne de Louis XIV,  vol. 1, p.490-1.

  As noted the Farm at St Quentin acquired several tracker dogs.  In May 1762 brigades in Maine  spotted some porte-cols hiding sacks of salt in the landes de Châtenay  close to the Breton border and, with the aid of their dogs, tracked them to a cabaret in Juvigné (Briais, Contrabandiers de sel, p. 129)  [I am sure there must be more records from the 18th century - I will any more that I come across.] 

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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