American Rum 16: Smuggling
'Smuggling’ makes us think of vessels slipping into little, hidden coves in the dark of the night, of dodgy men who unload precious goods furtively, while others, well-armed, keep watch lest soldiers and customs officials should arrive. Very romantic and exciting. And, in fact, the World of Rum is full of labels and haunts whose names recall this romantic vision of smuggling. I regret to disappoint my readers, but the truth is that, in the decades following the Molasses Act, in the North American colonies, smuggling was mostly paperwork, a lot of it. By forging certificates, French molasses was “naturalized” as British; many ships arrived at colonial ports loaded with foreign molasses and other foreign goods, but officially only “to receive orders” from their owners; other merchants did pay the regular duty, but only on the thin layer of goods covering the huge remaining cargo which friendly customs officers pretended not to see; and so on. Finally, after a seizure, customs officers often chose to avoid going to trial and to “compound” with the merchant that was restored in full possession of his property after the payment of a little part of the value of the seized goods.
The Molasses Act gave the American colonists a reputation for smuggling and customs officials in America a reputation for venality and it proved impossible to enforce. It was not only bare bribery. Customs officers knew the importance of the trade with the French Islands for many northern ports and there were good reasons to believe that without French molasses and French markets they would have stagnated. And at the end of the day, a port without commerce benefits no one.
Now, let us put aside molasses and rum for a while, and say a few words about Navigation Acts. The world we live in has been shaped to a large degree by the rush to conquer the oceans, which Western Europe started in the XV Century. We tend to forget that, in that race, England started last, after Portugal, Spain, France and the Netherlands. But then England managed to overcome all its competitors and in mid-XVIII Century it became the greatest sea-going power in the world and much of this success is due to Navigation Acts. This name refers to a series of laws, pieces of legislation, customs duties, etc… which were issued from 1660 on and which, to put it in simple terms, reserved the bulk of the maritime commerce of England, later Great Britain, and its colonies for English, later British, merchant ships.
Of course, the ships of the increasingly strong American merchant Navy were British, therefore they enjoyed this semi-monopoly system within the Empire. To be sure, trade with the outside world was subject to many prohibitions, limitations, duties, etc… but you could always resort to smuggling.
I would like to conclude by quoting the words written by the historian Neil R. Stout in his The Royal Navy in America: “The American colonists supported British regulations that they found beneficial and ignored, whenever possible, those that they believed armful. After resisting the attempt to force their trade into an imperial pattern for half a century after 1660, the colonists appear to have reached an accommodation that suited both them and the rest of the British Empire, although it was based on only selective obedience to imperial regulations. New England, after all, built a magnificent merchant fleet under the protection from foreign competition granted by the navigation acts, and the ‘staple colonies’, producers of tobacco, rice, indigo and naval stores, enjoyed a monopoly of the British market for their products. On the other hand the flagrant violation of the Molasses Act of 1733 indicates that colonial merchants would not observe, nor would British officials enforce, a law that would seriously disrupt colonial trade.”
-Article written by Marco Pierini-
My name is Marco Pierini, I was born in 1954 in a little town in Tuscany (Italy) where a still live. I got a degree in Philosophy in Florence and I studied Political Science in Madrid, but my real passion has always been History. And through History I have always tried to know the world, and men. Life brought me to work in tour ism, event organization and vocational training. Then I discovered rum. With Francesco Rufini, I founded La Casa del Rum (The House of Rum),that runs a beach bar and selects and distributes Premium Rums in Italy, www.lacasadelrum.it.
And finally I have returned back to my initial passion: History. But now it is the History of Rum. Because Rum is not only a great distillate, it’s a world. Produced in scores of countries, by thousands of companies, with an extraordinary variety of aromas and flavors; it has a terrible and fascinating history, made of slaves and pirates, imperial fleets and revolutions.
All this I try to cover in this column, in my FB profile, www.facebook/marco.pierini.3 and in my articles on the Italian webpage www.bartender.it