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).
To avoid smuggling the parishes situated on the border of the grandes gabelles were subject to additional restrictions. Whereas elsewhere the inhabitants could fulfil their "devoir de gabelle" whenever they wished, here a timetable was imposed; each parish was collectively responsible for levying the tax and dividing the salt allocation between its inhabitants. Every year, before October, when the tax year began, the community gathered together to chose two to six "collectors", who were responsible for drawing up the register and administering the distribution. It was stipulated that these individuals should be "bons et solvables". It was a time-consuming and onerous task; collections were normally carried out quarterly, and the luckless collectors faced imprisonment or seizure of property if they failed to return the required sum. From October 1753 to October 1754, 195 terms of imprisonment and ten confiscations were meted out by the grenier à sel in Chinon, which covered a mere thirty-five parishes; two men were imprisoned no less than four times. As Turgot noted, "The duty of collector causes despair and ruin to those who are charged with it". (p.20-21).There was also the resistance of their neighbours to contend with. In 1753 a collector in the parish of Anché in the Tourraine, was set upon and beaten; in 1774 another, in the neighbouring parish of Civray, was threatened with "a hallebard or pike" (p.21) In a particularly sorry case in 1780, two collectors, from the parish of Bercé were imprisoned when they resorted to mixing sand with their salt after their mare had bolted, spilling the allocation that they were bringing home from the grenier.
Sel and faux-sel
The source of supply for each grenier was carefully regulated, so that in theory it was often possible to tell the legitimate product by texture and colour. The employees of the greniers would add shredded straw, in theory to trace their salt, but more probably to cheat on quantities. In 1704 the Intendant at Moulins complained that the salt sold by the Farm was useless to preserve meat since it was half-sand. In reality it was very difficult to distinguish authorised salt from contraband.
Salt-Smugglers' routes (p.29- )
Smugglers had to acquire their salt from the pays francs or pays rédimés. The Ordonnance of 1680 laid down stringent precautions to prevent the movement of salt in those areas of Brittany which shared a boundary with Normandy, Maine or Anjou. Within two leagues from the border, no family was allowed to store more than six-month's worth of salt. Sales were restricted to a handful of authorised markets, at Dol, Fougères, Vitré, Châteaubriant, Ancenis and Clisson; here prospective purchasers had to produce a "passavant" to verify their identity and were obliged to return "straight home" in daylight. Visitors to Brittany from the provinces of the grandes gabelles had to satisfy rigorous formalities. Elsewhere in France, still wider cordons were established along the boundaries of the grandes gabelles, three leagues in Artois, Cambrésis, Hainaut and the Boulonnais; and five leagues in the case of Poitou and the Auvergne.
Nonetheless, with the collusion of the local population, the smugglers, found ways round the regulations. Necker in 1784 estimated that one parish in Brittany alone furnished more than three hundred minots of contraband salt in a single month: "Every shack belonging to this corrupt little population is an inexhaustible mine of salt. " (Quoted Matthews, p.108)
Many means were used to deceive the Farm. Sometimes local people successively visited different markets; alternatively they found pretexts to present themselves several times at the same market. Everywhere in Brittany a "long chain of complicity" established itself. It extended from the voituriers who transported the sacks of salt to the depots, right through to the magistrates of the Parlement of Rennes who turned a blind eye to offenders.
The Cherbourg peninsular, the region of the "Quart-Bouillon", was another major source of contraband salt. Here an extensive salt industry, based on the boiling of sea water in lead troughs, centred on Avranches. Quotas on amounts purchased were imposed but these were easily evaded by registering imaginary consumers. At Caen in 1708 the Intendant Foucault de Magny discovered that the population had been inflated by 9,000 souls in just nineteen parishes. Other checks in Vire, Condé, Avranches and Domfront yielded estimates of 72,000 spurious inhabitants.
In the north-east of the grandes gabelles in the regions bordering the frontiers of France, salt could be acquired from abroad. Villages like Montfaucon, Cuisy, Septsarges, Neuvilly and Varennes were full of smugglers who would depart in convoys with wagons and horses to stock up completely freely at Saint Jean or Han in the duchy of Luxembourg. The contraband salt would then be sold on for distribution in Champagne or Burgundy. In 1706 the intendant in Metz, M. de Saint-Contest, reported that sizeable armed bands had imported salt into Champagne "from the Spanish territories".
The Auvergne, which was part of the pays redimés, was again a centre - smuggling was almost as extensive here as in Brittany. Many villages in the Auvergne fell outside the restrictions of the 1680 Ordinance and developed flourishing salt markets. In the early years of the century the canton of Viadène in the south Massif-Central was a particular haven for smugglers. In 1743 the Farmer General Georges Montcloux identified several parishes in the pays libres where the smugglers obtained their salt; Queille, Miremont, Comps, above all Montel-de-Gelat, where loaded convoys could be seen almost night and day. In 1733 the Intendant of the Auvergne, Trudaine had placed the whole parish Montel-de-Gelat, on trial for failing to sound the tocsin when bands of armed smugglers passed through. The records preserve in detail the sorry tale of Gilbert Bargignat, a man in his fifties, with five children, who was condemned to be whipped , branded, placed in the stocks, then condemned to the galleys. But this move still failed to stamp out illegal dealing in Montel.
In the forest, "every tree became the smuggler's accomplice, every bush his ally" (p.21). The forests on the borders of the grandes gabelles were the haunts of smugglers - in Mayenne on the Breton boundary; in Chinon, on the edge of the Touraine and Poitou; to the north of the Massif Central, near the border with the Auvergne; in the forest of Drouille near Montel-de-Gelat ... In the opening years of the century, the areas most often cited in official reports were the woodlands of the Colettes and the Nade in the Bourbonnais, near Gannat, where there was veritable "Republic" of semi-itinerant woodcutters and clog-makers, capable of mustering six or seven hundred men. This population readily gave refuge to outlaws of all kinds, but especially smugglers; according to the Intendant at Moulins, d'Ableiges, the woods concealed a depot of more than 40 tonnes of salt. In 1705 an attempt was made to impose controls on settlement and movement. The sabotiers were finally allowed to keep their horses, provided they were branded so that they could be easily identified. The move was of no avail; Turgot, d'Albeiges's successor at Moulins, readily admitted that all the arrêts and ordonnances had produced little result (p.43-44)
The heavily guarded crossing points of major rivers were the most dangerous stages in the smugglers' itinerary. In June 1733, for example, five smugglers drowned when they tried to evade their pursuers crossing the Cher in a storm. The bridges were heavily guarded. Those intercepted by the gabelous were often pitifully small fry: in February 1776, the brigade stationed on the bridge at La Haye (Descartes) arrested a beggar-woman with a bag of salt under her skirt. The next month it was a day labourer with eight livres of salt inside his jacket. In June, several sacks of salt were discovered on a beggar woman, accompanied by her four-year-old daughter, who was driving an ass. The unfortunate woman found herself faced with a impossible fine of 300 livres for smuggling "avec équipage".
The employees of the gabelle paid particular attention to anyone who possessed a boat. The Ordonnance of 1680 prohibited the transport of smugglers by water on pain of confiscation of the vessel and 300 livres in fines. Ferrymen were required to chain their boats overnight on the shore nearest the grenier. Many smugglers still probably slipped across the rivers by night; in 1775 a certain Louis Bouet, a labourer and beggar, was unlucky enough to be arrested at seven in the morning as he tried to cross the river Creuse with salt concealed in his vest and breeches. In 1789 the cahier from this area complained that the gabelous hindered commerce by preventing all movement on the river between sunset and sunrise.
One day in January 1760 two teenage girls from Panzoult successfully charmed the galant gabelous into taking them across the Vienne in their boat, but sadly they failed to conceal from their admiring eyes the salt cached in their corsets...
Inns and cabarets (p.51-55):
As the Farm was well aware, all along their routes the smugglers had safe-houses, often inns or drinking establishments. The 1680 Ordonnance specifically forbade "hôteliers, cabaretiers ou autres" from harbouring smugglers. In 1705 the Intendant of the Auvergne billeted extra soldiers in establishments that he suspected, whilst at Caen in 1709 Foucault de Magny threatened anyone caught giving hospitality to smugglers with the galleys. There were violent confrontations. In 1709 guards armed with guns, pistols and bayonets attacked a band of eighteen smugglers in a cabaret in the forêt des Colettes in the Auvergne; one smuggler was killed, one gravely injured and three others arrested. At Château-Gontier on the Mayenne, several brigades united to attack a band of twenty mounted smugglers who took refuge in a nearby cabaret. When two gabelous imprudently entered, the owner locked the door behind them; their colleagues eventually found them beaten to death. On this occasion all but two of the smugglers managed to escape.
The cabarets in Saint-Ouen-des-Toits, the parish of Jean Chouan, on the Breton border were a gathering point for many faux-sauniers in the region. In April 1788 the gabelous paid a visit to the innkeeper Chevallier in a bid to recover prisoners who had escaped from Laval. They were met at the door by determined adversaries, including the master of the house and his sister. The latter managed to grab a sabre from one of the guards, wounding his hand in the process. On this occasion the raiders had no choice but to retreat empty-handed.
The Life of a smuggler
Smuggling operations varied according to time, place and circumstance.
Large organised bands aroused the alarm of the provincial Intendants and Farmers-General. They were particularly prevalent in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. However, alongside them existed huge numbers of petty smugglers, most of whom were involved only occasionally, when driven by need. The majority would return to their ordinary lives, although a few individuals became true contrabandiers. Such men would declare themselves, not without a certain pride, to be smugglers "by profession".
A certain romantic aura surrounded these men. They lived with constant risk and, in popular imagination at least, relished danger, secrecy and violence. It was said that they did not act against the King, but only against the hated agents of the fisc; at the last God Himself would forgive them. Some fully embraced their role in the theatre of the scaffold. Faced with the noose in 1739 - the year of Dick Turpin's execution - Maurice Le Mignon, faux-saunier from Avranches, was concerned only with the salvation of his soul and whether he might be buried in consecrated ground.....
A porte-col or avec équipage (p.61-64)
The law distinguished two categories of smugglers, those who transported salt on their backs (les porte-à-col, porteacol or porte-col), and those "avec équipage" who used horses, mules and vehicles.
It was reckoned that a man on foot could carry a sack of 50-80 livres (25-40 kilograms) on his back; he could transport 200 livres if mounted, and 300 livres plus if leading a horse or mule.
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