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.

This research confirms that smuggling was entrenched in certain parishes and occupations. Of those who gave a profession, the majority were textile workers (40.8%) or agricultural labourers (31.7%).  A third group (26.8%) was made up of widows, orphans, beggars or "persons without work". Over half, 2845, were women. The vast majority were illiterate - only the occasional soldier or voiturier was able to sign his name.  By comparison with the previous century, fewer were armed, probably because of the threat of savage penalties.  Many excused their crime on grounds of poverty.  One woman said she had gone to seek salt in Brittany in order to help support her brother and sister who were confined to their beds.  Others pleaded ignorance; or maintained that the salt was for herring or butter.

Yves Durand, "Le contrebande de sel au XVIIIe siècle aux frontières de Bretagne, du Maine et de l'Anjou", Histoire sociale vol.7(14) 1974


The Commission of the Cours des Aides at Saumur

The Commission of Saumur was set up in 1742 to heard more serious cases of faux-saunage,  involving organised bands, arms or violence against employees of the Farm.  The Commission was reconstituted by Royal letters patent on 23rd August 1763, and was then presided over by three magistrates from the Cour des Aides in Paris. Its jurisdiction was vast and extended over the generalities of Tours, Poitiers, Bourges and Moulins, as well as the salt depots of Brittany. ( A new court building was constructed for the Commission in 1769,  later to house the Revolutionary tribunal which tried  so many of the Vendéens.  It is now a municipal nursery school, 11 rue du Prêche.  The prisoners awaiting trial languished in Saumur's notorious Tour Grenetière.)

The Commission was most active between 1770 and 1780.  Its verdicts were frequently printed by the local bookseller Degouy.  In total  fifty death sentences were pronounced - and  probably carried out immediately since the Commission's  judgments were without appeal.  Between 1777 and 1789,  1,046  men were also condemned to the galleys, though this sentence could be commuted to a fine or military service.  

Despite these figures, the Commission was not quite the chambre ardente its reputation suggested. 566 accused were acquitted.   The magistrates themselves, who included  Robert-François-Joseph Quesnay de Saint-Germain, the grandson of the Physiocrat, were doubtful as to its effectiveness. 

"La repression du faux-saunage", on Saumur-Jadis, [website presenting work of local historian Joseph-Henri Denécheau]

Micheline Huvet-Martinet has analysed an archive of 4,300 judgments from the 1770s and 1780s involving  6,878 accused.  Most of those tried came from the Breton frontier and the area of Montreuil-Bellay to the south of Saumur.  70% were young men aged between eighteen and thirty, with contacts north of the Loire.  The majority gave their profession as agricultural or textile workers. Merchants, innkeepers and other "contact professions"  from the towns were also represented.  Characteristically they operated in small bands of four or five, rarely more than twenty.  They were frequently individuals from the same or neighbouring parishes, the vast majority arrested within 10 kilometres of their homes. 
Micheline Huvet-Martinet, "Faux-saunage et faux-sauniers dans la France de l'Ouest et du Centre à la fin de l'Ancien Régime (1764-1789)", Annales de Bretagne et des pays de l'Ouest , 1978  85-3  p. 377-400; 85-4, p.573-594.

The Parlement of Rennes 

The faux-saunier had right of appeal against the decision of the greniers to the parlement of his province.  An article by by Alain Racineaux, published in 1989, analyses  a series of records for the commissions d'appel of the Parlement de Rennes between 1750 and 1789 concerning cases from from Châteaubriant and Ancenis.  The judgments were confined to "extraordinary" cases, mainly repeat offences, and   numbers were  small - only roughly one case a year (as opposed to 568 heard at Saumur).  However, they are of particular interest as they provide a source of information about the activities of professional smugglers.  

The typical smuggler on the Breton border with Anjou operated "at night or very early in the morning".  The salt would be taken from the areas of production to an agreed location within two leagues of the border.  In 1754 a native of the Guérande was arrested in Châteaubriant with his salt loaded onto mules.  His destination was a mill at Saint-Aubin-des-Châteaux about 20 kilometres from the frontier.  Collection was to take place at night.  The judge denounced the location as a longstanding drop-off point for smuggled salt. Other records speak of "diverse hiding places" in houses, or out in the country in the ditches, marches and woods, the majority  of locations within  communes adjoining the boundary with Anjou.  The salt would be stored in sacks, saddle bags and cases.  The smugglers would then transport it across the border and hide it again, mostly in the forest, where the buyers or a new set of intermediaries could find it.  The crossing might be made either on foot or with horses.  In 1763 a band of faux-sauniers  was arrested at Martigné-Ferchaud with six horses carrying  a total of 1400 livres of salt (that is 114 kilos per horse). 

Professional smugglers were almost exclusively male. Their age range was wider than for occasional petty smugglers, who were mainly young single men.  The smuggling bands included older, married men, aged up to fifty; and they sometimes had with them boys as young as fifteen. They  were recruited from the poorest  levels of society: casual agricultural labourers, petty artisans and traders, unemployed vagabonds.  They frequently affirmed that they had taken up smuggling "pour gagner leurs vies".

Although there was still the occasional smuggler chieftain, like the famous "Catinat", even professional smugglers at this time typically operated only in small bands. Three-quarters worked in groups of only two to five. Their weapon of choice was the "frette", a vicious stick which  which was capable of knocking someone out or even killing them.  They sometimes carried guns or pistols, but, in this region at least, this was mainly for effect.

Alain Racineaux, 'Du faux-saunage à la chouannerie, au sud-est de la Bretagne', Mémoires de la Société d'histoire et d'archéologie de Bretagne, 56 (1989), pp. 192–206; p.198-200. 

Smuggling along the Loire

 The principal entry point to the grandes gabelles on the Loire was the customs office at Ingrandes-sur-Loire.  The grenier at Ingrandes supported a brigade of sixteen men, with a captain, which patrolled the river night and day.  This may seems a modest force for such a strategic location,  but it did outnumber the local maréchaussée

The fishermen of the Loire featured frequently among the professional or semi-professional smugglers.  They disposed of rapid transportation and knew the river well.  Sometimes groups of barges operated,  powered by twenty oarsmen.   They could get to know the movements of the gabelous and evade them easily.  If the need arose, the contraband  was easily to dispose of:  in 1777 the court at Saumur were forced to abandon the case against a certain Jean Bréheret at Montjean, through lack of material evidence, since he and his shipmates had thrown their salt overboard.

Ingrandes still has the remains of its grenier à  sel, prison and customs barracks.
 From local tourist guide:  
parcours-découverte.pdf (

From the middle of the century  local opinion in Anjou grew increasingly vocal in its opposition to the operations of the Farm. Syndics, curés and members of the provincial assembly regularly protested against the depredations of the gabelous.   In 1764 François Prévost,  professor of law at the University of Angers, drew up a collection of eye-witness accounts to show how the Angevin population had fallen victim to the aggression of the agents of the gabelle. According to the provincial assembly, the Loire had become  a war zone, "a perpetual source of murder and carnage".

In  December 1787 a particularly violent incident drew attention to the "guerre du sel".  A barge with twenty-three contrebandiers was fired on and several of the smugglers  grieviously injured.  The gabelous then attempted unsuccessfully to ransom their captives who were subsequently imprisoned and judged.  One series of commissions set up by Turgot in 1787 was subsequently tasked with an inquiry and found in favour of the smugglers - yet further testimony to the will of the government on the eve of Revolution to modernise and bring administration in line with the will of its subjects.  

Anne Rolland-Boulestreau. "Fraudes et frontières. Anjou et Loire au tournant de la Révolution française", Fraudes, frontières et territoires XIIIe-XXIe siècle, ed. Béatrice Touchelay (2020),p.173-87.

Convicts in Brest

Records of trials for petty smugglers give little information beyond name, age, profession and domicile. This study seeks to flesh out the lives of a few individuals  from a range of different sources, taking as a  starting point the registers of the bagne de Brest -  where the majority of repeat offenders were sent in the second half of the century. 61 individuals were identified, but only ten of those appeared in more than two sources. The biographies of two are given in detail: 

André Rousseau was twice incarcerated at Brest.  He was first arrested in May 1764, at Ballot, fifteen kilometres outside Craon, his horse laden with salt.  He was fined 200 livres, a penalty which translated into three years in the bagne. He was again arrested in May 1769, this time for smuggling salt à col, and fined 500 livres.  Since he gave a false name, he was not recognised as a repeat offender until August, when he was retried and condemned to six years in the galleys.  Contrary to what one might suppose, Rousseau did not come from an indigent family;  his father was a prosperous weaver/merchant from the commune of Méral, and his eight siblings all had trades or were respectably married.  André, the youngest, was apprenticed to a rouettier, manufacturer of spinning wheels. At the time of his father's death in April 1758, he was still  a minor but presently came into his share of the property.  From the judicial records in Méral, it seems André was a restless young man, who moved from lodging to lodging, entered into disputes with his the tenant of his land,  and ran up debts to his brother.  After his condemnation in July 1764, he was imprisoned for almost a year in Laval, awaiting the arrival of the chain-gang from Paris. During this period  he was able to raise the money for the fine by selling his property to one of his brothers.  But it seems he was too late,  for his arrival at Brest is duly recorded in July 1765.  André's condemnation was probably a source of shame to his family.  He never returned to Méral and in 1769 described himself as a "journalier de profession", suggesting a more marginal status.

Louis Nicolas van Blarenberghe, View of the Arsenal at Brest (1774) . A group of convicts can be seen working at the bottom right. 

André Rousseau is an example of a smuggler from a relatively stable stratum of peasant society. At this level individuals were vulnerable to economic setbacks, financial problems, social difficulties. . In his case, the situation was exacerbated by a  family antagonisms. Smuggling would clearly represented a tempting way out of such problems.

Pierre Boisramé  was born in 1734 and came from a family of poor weavers from the commune of Cossé-le-Vivien, about twenty kilometres from Laval.  He had two much older brothers and lost his father at the age of twelve.  He was apprenticed to a master weaver in the town at the age of thirteen.  Like André Rousseau he seems never to have learned to read or write.  He first enters the judicial records at the age twenty-four, when he was arrested as a member of a mounted band of twenty-five contrabandiers, armed with sticks and cudgels. The Commission of Saumur demonstrated its clemency on this occasion by charging him only with smuggling "avec équipage";  however, since he could not pay the 300 livres fine, he still ended up in the bagne.

When he was freed in April 1762 , Boisramé  immediately returned home to claim his inheritance. He  married in 1764, and over the next fourteen years, fathered 10 children. He rented a house in neighbouring Bapaume, where he  paid the taille.  All of which might lead one to believe he had broken with the smugglers... but this was probably not entirely the case.  Records show him temporarily cultivating land belonging to neighbours, at least one of whom had been arrested as a faux-saunier.  His situation therefore suggests the solidarity of smugglers and villagers in this local community. 

Melaine Lefeuvre, "À la recherche de faux saunier aux limites du Maine, de l’Anjou et de la Bretagne, à la fin du XVIIIe siècle" , Annales de Bretagne et des Pays de l’Ouest, 109-3 2002, p.19-31.

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