Smuggling in W Cornwall in the late C18

The late C18 was a turbulent and confusing time with several competing pressures for those operating at sea in West Cornwall.

Hostilities with the American Colonies, and then Revolutionary France disrupted fishing and trade, and brought the threat of invasion and land raids. The scale of the ships involved was such that the Navy could not, or would not, become involved. In the time-honoured fashion, Letters of Marque were issued to privateers on both sides who equipped their own ships and acted as a privatised Navy, capturing what ships they could and selling them for a profit; or trying to.

Smuggling – or free trading – was rife and it is perhaps no surprise that many of those involved in smuggling also took out Letters of Marque, permitting them legally to arm their vessels. Their position was thus somewhat anomalous: they could work in concert with the Revenue Cutters to ensure that foreign vessels were kept out of British waters, but they preferred that those Cutters did not get too close to their other activities.

The sources are full of interactions between smugglers and the Customs Officers but some of the landmark smuggling-related events of a busy twenty five years seem to have been the following:

In April 1768 the Customs Officer William Odgers was allegedly murdered at Porthleven by the wonderfully-named Melchisidek Kinsman. Kinsman was arrested and charged but eventually acquitted. This is covered in the Troze article Petates and Fish.

In 1779 there was the threat of invasion from a combined Franco-Spanish fleet, coupled with attacks by privateers which together raised fears in and around Mount’s Bay. The idea of establishing a permanent presence of a revenue cutter was rejected by London and may have encouraged the strengthening of coastal batteries with some very mixed objectives (see Hilary Tunstall-Behrens preliminary review).

In January 1782 the assistance of the Phoenix (Davy) and Shaftesbury (Harry Carter), both privateers, was called upon by the Collector of Customs in St Ives who was concerned at the depradations of the Black Prince, a privateer from Dunkirk. Fearing to offend the collector (Harry’s words) they sailed around to St Ives and attacked. The Phoenix was sunk. It may seem strange to us today that known smugglers should have been called into action by the authorities.

In October that year the Dolphin Revenue Cutter was brought into action and appears in many of the later stories of smuggling in and around Mount’s Bay.

In April 1786 a smuggling incident at Prussia’s Cove gave rise to the tradition that the HM ship Fairy was fired on by the battery at Prussia’s Cove, an incident originally covered in Hilary Tunstall-Behrens article in the journal of the Maritime South West – the journal of the SW Maritime History Society and adapted here.

Things became more serious in January 1788 when a smuggling run in the Revenge (Harry Carter) at Cawsand turned into a disaster and there was significant loss of life. Harry Carter was almost killed. He escaped with help from the Dunkin brothers and became a fugitive for the next 7 years.

In August 1791, James Dunkin sailed the Liberty to join the Friendship in the Isles of Scilly. Surprised by a small boat, two Revenue Officers were killed leading to James Dunkin also becoming a fugitive from justice. This is covered in the Troze article Merchants and Smugglers in C18 Penzance: the brothers John and James Dunkin.

The Customs Office seemed now to take the initiative and in June 1792, they conducted the first raid on the battery of guns at Prussia’s Cove. This led to a charge of smuggling against Charles Carter which led to his trial in 1793.

They tried another attack in February 1794 where John Carter was supervising the landing of smuggled goods. He too was charged – although the Officers were reluctant to serve the arrest warrant without the support of armed men – but mysteriously, the case was never fully prosecuted and in 1794 the case was dropped.

These twenty five turbulent years ended with Harry Carter and James Dunkin in hiding, and John Carter having narrowly got off a charge. By 1795 Harry Carter had returned, complete with a devotion to Methodism. After the deaths of his two smuggling brothers, Charles and John, he picked up his pen in 1809 to tell his story, the only known autobiography of a (reformed) smuggler.