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).  

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- )

The smugglers followed roundabout and unfrequented paths, often through difficult terrain. They covered long distances on foot - one smuggler in the area around Chinon had the nickname "Marche Marche". In the bocage of Western France or to the north of the Massif Central, hedges and banks facilitated their movement. They were "coureurs de nuit" who operated under cover of darkness.

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.

Bernard Briais is  a retired teacher from Loches. He is a highly  respected local historian and author - though it seems his studies of wartime Loches have sometimes touched sensitive nerves.

See  La Nouvelle République,  article of  02.06.2017

Forests (p.42-45)

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)

Rivers (p.45-50)

 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. 

Smugglers on foot were the most numerous. Often those involved were women or "beggars" who sold small quantities of contraband salt from door to door.  Anyone who bought the  illicit salt was also considered a porte-col.  A first offence, tried by the grenier, carried a fine of 200 livres, the equivalent of a year's wages for a day-labourer.  After a month the penalty was converted to a flogging.  The condemned man would be branded with a letter "G" (ie. "gabelle").  The fine for a repeat offence  was six years in the galleys and a fine of 300 livres.  Women were charged lesser fines, and flogged on a second offence.  Penalties for smuggling "avec équipage" were even more draconian: the offender risked a fine of 300 livres or three years in the galleys, nine years with a fine of 400 livres for a subsequent conviction.  However, arrests of smugglers on horseback were rare;  the gabelous, who were usually on foot themselves, would be forced to content themselves with recovering abandoned sacks of contraband salt.  This was the case, for example, in two separate instances reported by brigades along the River Creuse in the south of the Touraine.

A smuggler's weapons (p.64-66)

Smugglers characteristically carried long sticks, known in the West as "frettes" - surgeons regularly reported wounds to the head as a result of confrontations.  All manner of tools also served as opportunistic weapons.  In March 1767, on the main road out of Laval, a band of a dozen smugglers armed with "spades, pikes and iron bars" attacked three guardsmen from a local brigade. Two of the gabelous were obliged to flee, leaving the third knocked unconscious and unable to rise.

Strategies for concealment (p.72-79)

All sort of ruses were dreamed up by petty smugglers to hide their contraband.  The gabelous were vigilant to signs of salt hidden in  clothing and would readily subject travellers to searches.  In December 1787 guards in a parish near la Gravelle stopped a train of twenty-one horses, and found salt concealed in the packs with double lining, and in sacks of coal.  Salt might be concealed in crocks of butter or loaves of bread.  The import of bacon and salted meats into the pays de grandes gabelles was forbidden. The trade in salted fish was carefully regulated: the law of 1680 specified  that only a specified amount of salt was to be added to barrels of herring or mackerel , and none placed between or inside the fishes.  The gabelous were particular on their guard against salted cod which was shipped up the Loire from Nantes. There were frequent complaints that the cargo was ruined because excess salt was shaken or beaten out  or the salt-impregnated lining between the fish removed.  Any remaining salt had to be thrown away, on pain of punitive fines.  In 1789 the cahiers  frequently complained, that individuals were prohibited in this way from using the salt from their cod, or salt-water from herrings and other fish. 

Fraud on the waterways (p.79-83)

The Farm deployed brigades equipped with pataches at the entry points of the major rivers, for example at Candes at the confluence of the Vienne and the Loire. Along the rivers policing was difficult, since, should the need arise,smugglers could easily dispose of their cargo by throwing it overboard. 

In the mid-17th century  the inhabitants of Orléans, Blois, Tours and Angers had organised a mass armed flotilla in order to seize salt from the depot at Nantes. By the 18th century such defiance was a thing of the past.   In the Spring of 1776 on the Loire several boats crewed by twenty or so oarsmen took advantage of the high waters caused by the melting snow to row cargoes of salt upriver.  More generally smuggling took place clandestinely by night.  More often the fraud was perpetrated by the voituriers employed by the Farm.  Despite the harsh penalties, in 1695 the Intendant of Tours affirmed that salt-smuggling had become "infinite" on the Loire due to the "malice" of the voituriers.  There were all sorts of tricks.  Certain voituriers would take advantage of islands in the middle of the river to soak the sacks of salt in warm water and recover the salt without opening them.  Others would manufacture fake accidents.

Women and children (p.83-93)

Smuggling was not only an affair of men. 

In times of economic hardship the number of women engaged in occasional smuggling greatly increased:  According to the inhabitants of Couffy, near Blois:
One cannot conceive the inhumanity shown to poor widows  along the borders of the pays rédimés who, to succour their ailing children, carry baskets of salt, often in the hardest of weather, in the frost, through marshes, scrubland and woods, in the middle of the night... (quoted p.86).

Such women carried only small amounts of salt concealed in their clothing or in baskets of produce.

Bernard Briais cites a typical and touching example:
In January 1774 two women were arrested near Villeplatte on the Vienne.  One, Marie Destouches, a thirty-four years old widow, had a bag containing five livres of salt which she had bought in nearby Leugny.  She explained that a neighbour had given her the money and that she had three small children at home:  "it was poverty ..which had driven her to go and fetch the aforementioned salt".  The second woman, Marguerite Barrault had only a half-livre of salt and testified, "It was the pressing need that she had to make soup for her two small children which had tempted her to make the purchase". (p.86)

 Women were also involved in more organised smuggling, sometimes on behalf of their menfolk, encouraged by the lesser penalties their activities attracted.   Certain smugglers, for instance,  would  use women to lead their horses past the guard posts.  In 1708 at Château-Gontier sixty women were arrested, including girls aged ten to thirteen. According to a letter addressed by the Controller-General to Turgot, the Intendant of Tours, they had been engaged by "professional smugglers" and were to be sent to prison in Saumur as an example.   The woman known as "la Mauviet" had already been arrested four times for smuggling.  In the same year twenty-eight women were imprisoned in Langres, and one killed during arrest.

Occasionally there were real women smugglers: Louise Montet from Sauvigny in Poitou, who was arrested along with her sister-in-law, leading a horse and two donkeys laden with salt.  Or Anna Foucher from Sacey in Normandy, who evaded her pursuers on numerous occasions and was finally rescued from the gabelous by a band of smugglers armed with sticks.

This feminine smuggling was intractable. In 1723 a "maison de force" was created by Royal Letters-Patent in Sainte-Maure in Touraine to hold women who failed to pay the fines they incurred. The numbers proved so overwhelming that  December 1726 the establishment was simply abolished, and the government renounced any further attempt to control women smugglers.  Even the punishment of flogging, judged too cruel by many, gradually fell into disuse.  When the Provincial director, Châteaubrun tried to revive the practice in Laval in the second half of the century, he met with popular resistance; when the hangman tore the garments from the condemned women to bear their shoulders, there were howls of protest from the crowd.

In certain regions, particularly in the West, by the second half of the century smuggling by women escalated to the point when more women were arrested than men.  According to Yves Durant, of 4788 arrests at Laval between 1759 and 1788 half were women. The prisons of the greniers were often full of women; it was complained that they took advantage of the free board and lodging, whilst continuing to work full time at their spinning; in 1784 Châteaubrun tried to prevent this, and even abolished the practice of liberating pregnant women.

Children too, were active smugglers, though they were seldom pursued by the gabelous.  In 1777 a band of several dozen children were recorded at Ingrandes en route for Brittany.  In a letter of June 1785 to the intendant at Tours, officials of the Farm claimed that six thousand children, both boys and girls, operated on the boundaries of Maine and Anjou; they constituted a plethora of little troupes which became more menacing as they advanced in age (p.93). 

Villages of smugglers (p.94-97)

In some villages, the whole population was involved in smuggling, and whole dynasties of smugglers grew up.  In the West these existed both in Brittany (Belligné, La Chapelle Saint-Saveur, Saint-Christophe-des-Bois....) and across the frontier in Anjou (Chazé-sur-Argos, Vern, La Membrolle...).  In Louroux-Béconnais, a substantial village of 1,500 inhabiltants, no less than 194 appeared  before the commission of Saumur in twenty-five years between 1764 and 1789.

In other border areas smuggling was equally endemic, for instance  in the south of the Auvergne.  Here villagers would buy salt in one of the major markets, at Clermont, Pontaumur or Pongibaud, then take it to hidden barns in the countryside, whence it would be transported across the border in carts.  In 1705 the Intendant remarked that poor peasants were only too willing to take the risk for the profits involved.   The situation was similarly in the East on the border with the Spanish Netherlands, where as late as 1779 a report complained that agriculture was abandoned, since everyone was "either a customs official or a fraudster".


Evidently the gains from smuggling were highly variable:.  

A smuggler on the border between Touraine and Poitou, working on foot, would would make a profit of about 10 livres a run..   However,  members of a a band with horses might  realise a profit of 30 livres each, the equivalent of two-month's salary for a day-labourer.  On the boundary with Brittany profits were higher - a report of 1764 explained the resale price increased the further into the pays de grande gabelle the smugglers ventured.


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