Smuggling aboard a Packet ship

James Williamson gives this account of ‘smuggling’ from his time on HM Packet Duke of York.

From the earliest establishment of the [Packets], [1] the spirit of mercantile adventure – and evading the [duties] of the [Customs] has prevailed. It would not be unamusing, if one could  procure from authentic sources, the various particulars of the [illicit traffic] carried on in former times – a [traffic] the extent of which is almost incredible. Formerly if the custom of taking out and bringing home [Ventures] was not expressly allowed, it was at least tacitly connived at thro’ the [lenity] of the [Officers] – tho’ now-a-days the rules and regulations respecting the prevention of this are sufficiently strict on their tenor and observance. In truth [the men] used to consider this indulgence, as the natural consequence of their situation, and almost, eventually, claimed it as a right ex more. These were glorious [times] – the [golden] age – the period, when the fanciful theory of the Alchymist respecting the means of making a rapid fortune was almost realised.

I have had several instances related to me of large fortunes having been accumulated in this way by persons holding very inferior stations on [board the packets] and the names of many [Carpenters, Gunners, & Boatswains & Stewards], who a short time ago were, or are now in the enjoyment of affluence by this means. Shipments of every description of goods and provisions used to be made which, in [the time of war] often returned for 500 to 1000 per Cent. – and it was considered by not a few a [very bad voyage indeed], which did not yield a [clear profit] of several hundreds [of pounds]. The [packets] were absolutely [laden] by [the men] with [potatoes, cheese, matches] &c. for the foreign market, and on their return home, [spirits, pines, satins, grapes] yielded in England a most enormous [profit]. The [Men before the mast] considered their pay as merely nominal, and [Hundreds were] eager and willing to be [shipped] without [pay at all]. Merely for the chance of what they could [make] by [smuggling]. As often will happen frequent [seizures] were made even to the extent of several [hundreds] belonging to one individual – but these being the fortune de la guerre, they were little regarded and less felt – since one or two good [voyages would] more than [indemnify] them [for] the [loss] they had sustained. These times of war are now much regretted – and the period of general [peace] is regarded by [packetsmen] as putting a stop to that glorious harvest which they used to reap, when [their wives] could  [sport their [silks], and revel in all the conveniences and many of the luxuries of life.

Various were the ways and means, that were employed to evade the Argus [eyes] of [the Officers], and could [I] relate them as they were told to me, the narrative would be highly amusing. [Spirits], such as [gin, rum, brandy], were wont to be brought [home] in immense quantities, and if they were luck enough to [save them], the [profits] were very great 2 or 3 [hundred] were [hid in each packet in various snug places] and if they did not wish to risk the [seizure] in [the vessel], they used to [sink a quantity of 20 or 30 casks] at a convenient distance, outside [the Harbour] where they left them, after taking the [marks] & [bearings] of the [place], and fixing a small [buoy] in order to be able to recover them – and then they boldly entered their [port]. And watching for a favourable opportunity they [stole] out at night – [picked them up], and conveyed them to a safe place, until they could dispose of them. If again they has [silks], they [either concealed them on their persons], or stowed them away in sundry neuks [sic = nooks] and corners only known to themselves.

The great extent to which the [revenue] was thus [defrauded] led to the adoption of stricter measures and the occasional discovery of their most [secret hiding places & plans] rendered the invention of new ones, a most difficult matter. Hence it happened that the system of [counterband] received a strong check, and the hopes of profit from that source were  proportionably diminished, until at the present time, there are [few pickings] to be [had] that way. I shall presently revert to the present state of matters, as it has come under [my own observation]. I shall relate one or two anecdotes, which were mentioned to me, connected with the subject in hand.

A [Packet] had arrived [from] a [foreign] station and [on her] arrival, [she] was as usual [overhauled]. No [discovery] of any consequence was made & both the [men] and [custom house Officers] were chatting together in the most friendly manner. Among other things; the conversation turned upon [pirates], and [privateers], and one [of the Officers “Kers”] happened to ask, if [they had] seen any. “No,” [said one of the crew], with a laugh – “but if we had, we would have [peppered] them finely.” “[Peppered] them finely did you say.” – and a sudden thought struck an [Officer], who, without saying a word went and examined first one gun, and [then] a [second], and so on [all the twelve] in succession – and sure enough he found them choke [full of pepper], intended [for sale].

Again; In consequence of the strictness [of the Officers], much ill will arose between them and the [men] – and one of the latter, a harum-scarum fellow determined to have them in revenge. So [filling] a tolerable sized [cask] with salt water, he cautiously [lowered into the ships boat], while [the Officers] were [below] – then went in himself, & began to [pull away for the shore], purposely making a noise that they might hear. His plan succeeded admirably. In the [hope of making a seizure, worth their while] (for at this time they used to [receive 2/6[ths] of every & all they captured]) two of them instantly jumped into their [own boat], and [pulling with] the zeal and energy, which the prospective reward inspired, they soon [gained up on] the fugitive. Jack, [however], was fortunate enough to reach [the shore], just as [they got hold] of the [stern] of his boat – so pretending to be only concerned for his [personal safety] alone, he took to his [heels], and left his [pursuers] in possession of his [cask]. The were too much overjoyed to follow after him – but having secured the [main prize], they allowed his to go free. By this time they were a long [way] off [from the vessel], and it was dark – so they resolved to carry their [capture to the custom house], & alternately relieved each other on the way. The road was long and weary – their burden was none of the lightest, but hope and joy lengthened their task. At last panting and puffing they reached their haven of rest. Next day, when a proper opportunity offered, they having called in several [brother Officers], proceeded to free the divine Nectar, which they had no doubt was [contained], in the [cask]. The [cask] was [bored – the glass was filled] – and forth issued out a muddy sort of [liquor], of which they could make nothing. As a matter of civility, and politeness the [glass] was [offered] to one of the guests, who with infinite faith in its excellence quaffed it off – and after making an involuntary wry face, declared it to be the real genuine stuff. A second & a [third glass] was filled and drank with similar commendations, until the last man had partaken of the treat – when they all opened at once their throats, cursing and vowing revenge for the trick that had been played on them. They endeavoured to hush up the affair but in vain, for the story spread like wildfire and they became the laughing stock of the whole town.

Very different indeed, now-a-days is the system of [buying and selling], without the licence of  [Government] from days of yore. I do not mean to assert, that it is not now pursued – but instead [of clearing] £300 or £400 [each voyage], the [packetsman] accounts [himself] happy if he can net a [profit] of £10 or £20 at the utmost, or even if he keeps out of [debt] to his [merchant]. To make a comparison, the dealings of the [packetsman] of the present and of former times are as the dealings of a [petty piddling huckster] compared with the transactions of a large respectable merchant.

With the means of obtaining large returns, the means of employing a large capital have diminished in an equal ratio – for so [strict] are they now that there is no possibility of extensive [smuggling at home], whilst [abroad], those [articles] which in time of war bore a very high [price], being now liberally supplied from all quarters barely yield the [prime cost].

The chief and staple commodities [for exportation] are [potatoes, and cheese] – and some few [leeches, birds] and other trifling things – which they hope will [meet a good market], whither they are going. There are however several drawbacks, even in a trifling [venture] of this kind, which are to be taken into consideration. There is a chance of your [potatoes and cheese spoiling] – of your [cage birds] and [leeches] dying – There is a chance of your being forestalled by [another vessel], bound to the [same port] laden with the [same articles], and thus of your being cut off from the [certainty of profit] – and lastly, our [stay] in [each port] is so limited, that you are frequently obliged [to sell] your [goods] at a great [depreciated] value, or not at all, whilst you are assured that those very people, who you so little, will secure to themselves an [enormous gain] on every [bushel of potatoes, and round of cheese]. With all these drawbacks then it is a mere lottery in speculation, whether you draw a blank, or a prize – but it is pleasing to know that in general a reasonable [profit] is obtained and that on many occasions, extraordinary returns have been made.

Suppose now that the [packetsman has sold his goods] to advantage [abroad], his next and primary object is to [purchase] those things which will suit his purpose best at [home]. And here comes the chief difficulty – for it is, as I have already said – almost impossible to [escape the vigilance of the Customs] – however they try what they can. Of course the peculiar and cheapest [produce] of each [country], if it will [sell] well, is [bought] – but speaking generally the [main articles are spirits] and [cegars], which from the [high duty], do very well in [England]. A small quantity of each is often allowed to [pass open & free] – and as for any extra quantity they must [exert their] ingenuity [to conceal] it – and even that additional quantity must be very small, since all the [large] places [of concealment] are well [known].

I have heard and I [have known] many [ingenious modes of evading discovery] – but it would be [right] perhaps to [tell] all the [secrets] of [our prison-house]. I have [seen] a [log] – of wood, about 3 or 4 feet in length [hollowed] out, but the [bark] still left on – [after] the interior had been [filled], the [covering] was [very] neatly [secured], and the [apparently solid log] was safely [left] to knock about [under the feet of the officers]. A very [general] mode of [concealing] was about [the person], as I believe [no officer can search] you without a [warrant from a civil magistrate] – and in so [far] as respect [as], such a [step] is very seldom taken.

Whenever the [officers] receive information, or entertain a [suspicion] they are [very rigorous], and this [spiktners ?] is not unfrequently [followed] by a [capture] to the [great loss & regret of the men], who when thus [detected tease the finders] by [laughter and jeers]. On one occasion an [officer], stimulated by some previous [discovery] went to the [coal-cellar], on the look out there, when some of [the men] pretended that there was something in the [centre] of [the coals]. The [officer], simple man, thinking that there might be some truth in [their jests] actually proceeded to [break open the large] pieces [of coal], amidst the sarcastic encouragement and bravos of the bystanders.

After all, however, some indulgence ought to be shewn to the [packetsmen] since the [wages they receive] is far less than that of  [common merchantmen or] Men-of-war. Were it not that they were able to make a little addition to it in the way [of trade] it would be impossible for men to [pay their rents] and maintain [their families].

Altho I [myself] have [never been engaged] in [trading] for my [own benefit], either at home or abroad, I was once induced to do a favour [for] a [friend] by [disposing of several dozens of soda boxes] at [Rio]. When I arrived a [mess mate] of mine for the time was kind enough to take [the trouble off] my hands by going to several [ships], and endeavouring to make a [bargain for] the [SODA], being much better fitted for the purpose than myself. At last he met with an advantageous offer and the only difficulty was to get the [things] on shore. One morning when we were going to the city, we [each of us loaded our pockets, hats] with [the boxes] – and [gave some to the boats crew] – but  as we were anxious to get them all [snugg] at [once] we [stowed] away the remainder, in a [basket], which was to be boldly carried by [one of our men]. Having thus as we thought arranged every thing very comfortably, we proceeded on shore, which as soon as we reached, I and my [friend with quaking hearts] first [stepped out and] made away as [fast] as we [could] without looking behind us]. We [had not] gone far, when [one of the boats crew came after us saying], that all [the boxes had] been [seized and that] we must make [haste lest] we [should be taken ourselves. He spoke not to careless or inattentive hearers] – but his words hastened our walk almost to a run – nor did we [stop] till we [arrived] at the shop, [where] we [were] bound; There we remained, until we [learned], that all our [traps] were safe, owing to the presence of mind of the [men], who when [the soldier] advanced to take that [basket from them], threw it back into the boat, and dared [the soldier] to take it out – which he would not. Afterward we got all safe on shore – but I was so thoroughly alarmed, that this has been my first and last [attempt] at [defrauding either our own or the revenue of any foreign country].