- Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground by Michael Kwass
Michael Kwass’s study skillfully weaves together the microhistory of a petty French smuggler with the macrohistory of eighteenth-century global trade to rethink two research agendas. First, it throws light on a vast, illicit economy undergirding the early modern “consumer revolution,” the global circulation and proliferation of commodities that historians have identified as being central to the emergence of the modern Western world. Second, it revisits the role of politics between rising consumption and revolutionary strife, an important relationship attracting renewed interest from French historians. Together, these contributions provide a critical perspective to the burgeoning research on early modern commodities and consumption, as well as classic debates on the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
Consisting of twelve chapters sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion, Kwass’s study begins by delineating the broad contours of the French economy and its global connections. Chapter 1 looks at the early modern globalization of consumption, with a particular focus on how two commodities—tobacco from North America and calicoes from India—came to be deeply incorporated into everyday French life. Chapter 2 details how Louis XIV and his successors— impelled by mercantilist ideology, financial necessity, and geopolitical rivalry—fiscalized consumption by establishing a tobacco monopoly and protected industries by prohibiting calico imports. Bold economic interventions by the French crown underwrote the French fiscal military- state—but they also inadvertently created a vast underground economy and sparked endless challenges to royal authority.
After laying out the larger political and economic context, the study then zooms in on its eponymous subject, the smuggler Louis Mandrin. [End Page 593]
Chapter 3 recounts Mandrin’s early life, showing how the premature death of his father and a disastrous foray as an army contractor led to his eventual (but not inevitable) descent into the criminal underworld. Chapter 4 explores this underworld, uncovering illicit retail and distribution networks that rivaled their licit counterparts in scale and sophistication. The shadow economy, it turns out, operated very much in the sunlight since many Frenchmen and women from all walks of life—peasants, professionals, and even nobles—partook in the trafficking. Given its breadth, smuggling fueled the consumer revolution by making otherwise expensive or prohibited commodities cheap and plentiful. Chapter 5 shows how smugglers like Mandrin marketed their illicit wares through tactics such as “forced sales” that compelled the monopoly to purchase smuggled tobacco. Coercive as they were, forced sales actually reflected the “moral economy of the gang” with its own sense of legitimate trade and set of grievances against the crown’s monopolistic capitalism (pp. 126–34). Mandrin and his accomplices resisted, threatened, and even killed state agents. Yet they were no mindless mob: they aimed their violence with great precision, refrained from plunder, and scrupulously issued receipts for their forced sales. Here, Kwass demonstrates how the actions of smugglers like Mandrin can only make sense by bringing the methods of cultural history to bear on the questions of economic life—a methodology profitably employed in the new historians of capitalism.
Subsequent chapters chart Mandrin’s meteoric rise and abrupt fall. Chapter 6 recounts his triumphant October 1754 expedition in the “wild east” borderland of Savoy, where Mandrin reaped spectacular profits by force-selling his smuggled tobacco. Chapter 7 looks at the violent state campaign against Mandrin, but it also charts the expanding policing powers French authorities claimed for themselves in the name of fighting illicit trade. Chapters 8 and 9 detail, respectively, the capture and execution of Mandrin in early 1755. More generally, the chapters reveal how the crown throughout the eighteenth century steadily restructured the criminal justice system “by hardening the penal code and creating a new institutional layer of…extraordinary courts to prosecute smugglers on a scale never seen before” (p. 217). Mandrin was but one casualty in this escalating war on contraband. Well before the twentieth century, Kwass implicitly argues, the foundations of what we might recognize as the modern security state...