- Smuggling: Contraband and Corruption in World History
This book is a welcome addition to the literature on smuggling. The title is a little deceiving, since Karras does not take us for a ride through world history but deals primarily with smuggling in the Caribbean in the second half of the eighteenth century and China in the early nineteenth century. Yet in spite of this narrow evidentiary base, he develops important arguments about the nature and causes of smuggling that are valid for other times and places.
Karras remarks that smuggling was usually a peaceful affair, unlike piracy, which involved the threat or use of violence. The conflation between smugglers and pirates, Karras argues, accounts for the perception of smugglers as violent people. Another difference, he notes, is that the social backgrounds of the two groups did not necessarily coincide. Atlantic pirates were working-class men on the edge of society, while smugglers came from all walks of life. Karras goes on to explain that whereas individuals suffer from piracy, smugglers do not exploit identifiable persons but rather hurt the national state or the empire. Here is a point that Karras belabors. Smuggling is theft (p. 134). It “is a clear violation of trade, tax, and /or revenue laws” (p. 49). Individuals who involved themselves in smuggling activities enfeebled a state that they themselves needed for protection (p. 65). They undermined the ability of the government to do its job adequately (p. 137).
The root cause of smuggling in the Caribbean was the division of the Americas into various markets that were each tied to a European metropole. Colonial produce could be sent only to the imperial center and colonial needs satisfied only by metropolitan goods. Karras makes a strong case that such an exclusive and monopolistic practice could not accommodate colonial settlers. The system “was not in any way set up to facilitate consumerist behavior” (p. 57). Smuggling was therefore widespread— especially, one might add, in a sea where many neighbors had different imperial loyalties—although its perpetrators were rarely caught or prosecuted because they operated far from the watchful eyes of officials or bribed the upholders of the law.
Karras lucidly explains the cause of corruption and bribery. Law enforcement was financed by collecting import and export duties, which ideally brought in more than needed, the balance being used to increase the state’s treasury. To accomplish this, the state often paid low wages to its enforcement officers, who then tried to augment their income in ways that were not always legal. Although this interpretation [End Page 375] makes sense, not all states may have worked this way. It has been argued, for instance, that royal government in the British colonies was not really a tax-gathering agency. Instead of providing revenue for the British exchequer, the colonial customs service was run at the cost of the treasury. Its actual function was to regulate trade.1 Nor did tax collection automatically take the form of levying import and export duties. In seventeenth-century Buenos Aires, the sale of permits and pardons to men involved in illicit oceanic trade created a fiscal framework that enabled the Spanish crown to meet its local strategic goals.2
Enforcing the law against smugglers, Karras asserts, did not only mean prosecuting criminal activity. It also enabled the state to demonstrate its authority. But most of the time, a show of force was deemed counterproductive, since it would jeopardize a good relationship with the colonial residents. Smuggling thus continued unabated, but the lack of prosecution created the semblance of legal compliance. This is a crucial observation, which seems to apply to the entire western hemisphere in the colonial era. Unfortunately, Karras only sporadically refers to the ongoing process of “negotiation” between state and subjects to shed light on the political roots of smuggling. A more robust discussion could have lent support to Karras’s argument by showing the dynamics of colonies in which almost powerless representatives of imperial centers faced local elites that monopolized economic resources...