Book Review: Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground

Published by EH.Net (October 2015)

Michael Kwass, Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. ix + 457 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-674-72683-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jeff Horn, Department of History, Manhattan College.

Michael Kwass of Johns Hopkins University has written an ambitious book that melds global, national and local perspectives to provide insight into eighteenth-century political and economic culture. It focuses on the life, career, trial, execution and legacy of the infamous Dauphinois smuggler Louis Mandrin, who was executed in 1755. Consequently, Kwass adds human interest and drama to this wide-ranging study centered on the middle decades of the eighteenth century, though parts of the narrative begin in the seventeenth century and another section sketches the tale into the early nineteenth century. His central argument is that “the convergence of three formidable historical forces — globalization, consumption, and state formation — destabilized the old regime and contributed to the outbreak of revolution” (p. 6). As a corollary to that thesis, Kwass stresses that the extent and troublesome nature of the “global underground” was an “unintended consequence” of the state’s efforts to increase revenue and regulate the economy (p. 16).

Through the careful study of calicoes and tobacco, Kwass establishes a model of “The Globalization of European Consumption.” He continues by exploring the policies and practices of the Bourbon government’s approach to commercial regulation — setting up a monopoly for the latter and outlawing the former combined to galvanize the black market. A chapter on the “shadow economy” describes the routes, actions, and backgrounds of the smugglers. These subjects are interspersed with and provide context and meaning for six chapters exploring Mandrin’s life and activities. He smuggled these goods in three daring and violent raids into France, using Savoy as a base. The General Tax Farm that oversaw the tobacco monopoly and enforced the ban on calicoes as subcontractor to the crown was the chief object of Mandrin’s ire and the political economy he expressed both in word and deed. Kwass then details how Mandrin’s story became publicized and politicized through the medium of print from newspaper accounts to a putative first-person “political testament” written by a budding political economist from Grub Street (p. 288). A thoughtful chapter on “Smuggling in the Enlightenment” considers the political economy of smuggling and is followed by a chapter on the Revolution. The conclusion competently summarizes the main arguments. Kwass also explores the Farm’s police powers and ability to implement summary justice especially the Commission of Valence, the Enlightened push for reform of the criminal justice system, the overweening place of hatred of the system of indirect taxes and the role of the Farm in collecting them in the cahiers de doléances written in the spring of 1789, as well as the significance of anti-tax sentiment in Revolutionary violence. The “consumer revolution” of 1650-1800 (his next project) lurks behind many points in Kwass’ account.

Kwass has done extensive research in both the archives and in the relevant secondary literatures. There are, however, a number of notable lacunae, mostly, but not exclusively relating to the economic effects of the subjects under discussion. That said, his research is generally impressive. He has also included twenty-four well-chosen images as well as sufficient maps to illustrate his points.

Contraband has already won several major prizes (see for details). Kwass excels at institutional and political history as well as the history of ideas. In terms of economics, however, a more critical stance may be warranted. While he is proficient at examining the economic culture of contraband, he pays scant attention to its domestic economic effects. For example, Kwass ably demonstrates the global nature of tobacco production and provides a few statistics about tobacco consumption and the number of retail outlets for tobacco (pp. 21-31), but he makes no effort to calculate or even estimate the effects of smuggling on that market. Nor does he discuss the effects on focusing on these two atypical goods rather than emphasizing salt, the most commonly smuggled good. Although Kwass claims to have examined the importance of production in his depiction of the underground economy (p. 359), this reviewer could find little evidence to support that assertion. Kwass focuses on commerce, the state’s regulation of it, and efforts of smugglers and consumers to avoid paying taxes on goods. Even with a product like calicoes that was made in France both before and after the ban, Kwass says little about the impact of smuggling on sales, the workforce, or even on France’s international competitiveness. In fact, Kwass ignores those modern scholars who do not fit his contention that historians have not looked at “the violence, coercion, and turmoil that accompanied trade in the metropole” (pp. 2-3). Among those historians who have examined these issues are Alessandro Stanziani in Rules of Exchange: French Capitalism in Comparative Perspective, Eighteenth to Early Twentieth Centuries (2012), Natacha Coquery, Tenir boutique à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (2011), Philippe Minard, La fortune du colbertisme : État et industrie dans la France des Lumières (1998), and my own The Path Not Taken: French Industrialization in the Age of Revolution (2006) which considers the impact of smuggling in the context of the Anglo-French Commercial Treaty of 1786 and during the Continental Blockade.

The effects of the command economy associated with the Maximum in the Year II (1793-94) represent another important and somewhat perplexing gap in Kwass’ consideration of contraband and the underground economy. As I demonstrated in The Path Not Taken, the Maximum represented a vitally important state effort to regulate the economy that engendered massive smuggling efforts, not only at the borders, but between departments (which had different price levels set by the state) and often at the district and municipal levels. Calicoes and especially tobacco were among the goods that were traded clandestinely. Many of the themes of Kwass’ examination of the underground economy and state formation culminated in 1793-94, an historical moment that he skips over in this chapter on the Revolution (see p. 350). Of course, authors cannot be expected to do everything, but by extending his story after the fall of the old regime in such a cursory fashion, Kwass has missed an opportunity to consider the impact of the Revolution on the underground economy. At least some comparative consideration of how France stacked up against other countries in terms of the role of contraband and repression of smuggling would also have been welcome in this study of the global underground. Examining the cultural impact of Mandrin’s legacy in the manner pioneered by Cynthia A. Bouton in Interpreting Social Violence in French Culture: Buzançais, 1847-2008 (2011) would also have contributed meaningfully to the importance of Kwass’ project.

A plea for more attention to the economic effects of state policies and the efforts of consumers and smugglers to circumvent those policies and the institutions charged with implementing them should not be mistaken as undervaluing or dismissing Kwass’ achievement. Far from it. Still, a major component of “economic culture” ought to be economic impact. Despite these (and similar) gaps, those interested in the subject or the period will learn a great deal from Kwass’ stimulating book.

Jeff Horn is professor of history at Manhattan College. He is the author of Economic Development in Early Modern France: The Privilege of Liberty, 1650-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Contact him at jeff.horn @

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