Smuggling: Contraband and Corruption in World History.
Historical inquiries into smuggling tend to be transnational, but not global. Joshua Smith's Borderland Smuggling (University Press of Florida, 2006) focuses on clandestine commerce between British subjects in New Brunswick and U.S. citizens in Maine at the turn of the nineteenth century. Thomas Truxes' Defying Empire (Yale University Press, 2008) examines the transatlantic movement of contraband between British colonists in New York and Dutch, Spanish, French, Danish, and British subjects in the Caribbean during the French and Indian War. Alan L. Karras breaks new ground in his recent attempt to compare and contrast incidents of smuggling around the world.
Smuggling: Contraband and Corruption in World History boldly studies illicit trade from the Caribbean to China, from the early modern era to the present day. In each chapter, Karras presents a series of case studies, or snapshots, spread over vast stretches of space and time in order to illustrate "larger patterns and processes." (viii) He begins by examining smuggling in the Caribbean in 1789, China in 1827, and Indochina (Vietnam) in 1940. In these disparate places and eras, smugglers threw a British customs officer overboard into the Caribbean waters. They stoned a Chinese customs vessel. And smugglers physically abused two Vietnamese customs officers. Taken together, these cases demonstrate "the state's weakness in its ability to turn off the open spigots of contraband commerce," and that smugglers only resorted to violence as "an action of last resort." (14, 18) Karras then diverts his readers' attention to the differences between smugglers and pirates, because, in his words, "students, friends, even colleagues," conflated the two subjects in classes and private conversations regarding his research. (19) Here, Karras covers eighteenth-century Caribbean pirates, nineteenth-century Malaysian pirates, and twenty-first century Somalian pirates. He reminds the uninitiated that pirates were more violent than smugglers and that governments have historically been more effective in stamping out piracy. The heart of the book covers the political economy of smuggling. Here, Karras ably situates smuggling in the context of the writing of famous political economists and theorists John Locke, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Jeremy Bentham, the Mills (James and John Stuart), Jurgen Habermas, and Max Weber. These writers discussed the purpose of governments and the relationship that exists between those governments and the governed. In the case of smuggling, governments established political borders and mercantilist commercial regulations. Such state actions led to clandestine trade and illicit consumption. According to Karras, smuggling represents "the ultimate form of free trade," and smugglers continually challenge governments' authority and power. (64) One of the book's key insights is that "the costs to government [from smuggling] can not only be considered in terms of economics and calculations, but also in terms of authority and legitimacy." (69) Smuggling is ubiquitous, covert, and ultimately unstoppable. In order to maintain any sort of legitimacy, then, governments have had to tolerate a certain level of illicit behavior. This is why, Karras argues, Jeb Bush's wife was only given a monetary slap on the wrist for smuggling French clothing into the United States in 1999. And this fundamental fact enabled an ambitious East India Company representative to contemplate replacing imported African slave laborers in the Caribbean with smuggled Chinese workers in 1805. Karras then describes various items that were smuggled in Caribbean ports such as Monte Christi. These items included everything from consumables to people. Karras concludes from this examination "areas that restricted access to goods through imposing taxes ... often found their residents circumventing those laws in order to acquire and accumulate goods at a better price and under better circumstances than their own governments permitted them to do." (78) In the final chapter, the author explores forms of collusion between public officials and private individuals that frequently occurred with smuggling. Here, Karras ranges from Trinidad in 1764 to St. Vincent's in 1794 to Dominica in 1763, New England in 1762, to Vietnam in 1885. Everywhere, officials such as governors, judges, and customs officers looked the other way and accepted bribes, which decreased prosecutions and enabled governments to claim that "smuggling was nonexistent." (111) Such collusion, and such claims, enhanced governments' legitimacy and enriched consumers.
Comparative analysis is one of the sharpest tools in the global historian's tool belt, and Karras wields it well. Few historians would dare to juxtapose Columba Bush and an East India Company representative. Karras pulls off just this juxtaposition, however. He has given much thought to the ways disparate peoples were comparable, and why. He even manages to find legitimate similarities between smugglers' opposition to legal enforcement mechanisms across space and time. Such comparative analysis helps us get at quintessential and continuous characteristics associated with smuggling. Those interested in social, political, legal, and economic histories will find this book stimulating.
Unfortunately, this book suffers from some of the limitations of global studies. It ranges over hundreds of years, several continents, and billions of people. Yet, the actual narrative is less than 140 pages in length. This fact alone exacerbates the tendency among some world histories to paint with a broad brush over intricacies that belie generalizations. For example, Karras unequivocally states "both governments and consumers generally and widely understood that statutory law in practice could do little to modify or otherwise transform consumer behavior." (110) In fact, laws did significantly alter consumer behavior in colonial America. Mid-eighteenth century British navigation acts fostered local homespun production and consumption, and such acts stimulated the formation of various non-importation bans and a variety of non-importation enforcement mechanisms including the Sons of Liberty. Carole Shammas' Pre-Industrial Consumer in England and America (Oxford University Press, 1990) demonstrates that this was the case elsewhere, as well. In addition to being a short book, Smuggling is also thinly researched. Karras wants us to see patterns among case studies. Yet, he only provides enough snapshots to indicate that patterns might exist. Such indications could encourage future research, but they are not conclusive. For example, in the first chapter, a single incident from the Caribbean in 1789, one from China in 1827, and one from Vietnam in 1940 do not substantiate assertions such as smuggling being "deeply buried across the historical record of many societies after 1700;" (2) and "smuggling was certainly practiced on a large historical scale." (3) Finally, despite appearing in a world history series with "World History" in the title, large sections of the planet such as Africa, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Russia, South America, and Central America are completely absent. This is primarily an account of incidents of smuggling in the Caribbean with some of the rest of the world included on occasion. These caveats aside, Smuggling demonstrates the potential in global history in general, and transnational comparative studies in particular.
Christopher P. Magra
California State University at Northridge
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|Author:||Magra, Christopher P.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
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