Shameless, Lucifer and Pug-Nose

David A. Bell

  • Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground by Michael Kwass
    Harvard, 457 pp, £35.00, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 674 72683 3

The 18th century was a great age for criminals. Western European countries were awash with more private wealth than ever before, but their police forces remained weak, at least by modern standards. Communications were slow and unreliable, and only the most rudimentary means existed for tracking individual malefactors. Especially in remote towns, a determined band might carry out a brazen robbery, and it would be days before the constabulary responded, by which point the perpetrators had long since disappeared. If any of them did later fall into the hands of the authorities, it might well be impossible to identify them with any certainty. To be sure, Continental police forces in particular could call on a fearsome range of punishments and means of interrogation (torture remained a widely accepted part of criminal procedure), and few Europeans possessed the sort of legal protection from over-zealous policemen enjoyed by their descendants. Even so, under the right circumstances, criminality could flourish.

The circumstances were certainly right in mid-18th-century France, when the most famous criminal in the country’s history, Louis Mandrin, established his reputation. As Michael Kwass explains in his excellent book, flourishing global trade and domestic economic expansion had combined to create a vast new consumer market for imported goods: sugar, chocolate, coffee, tea, tobacco, porcelain, fabrics, spices and much else. By the end of the century, the continent as a whole was consuming about 500 million pounds of sugar a year (mostly produced by African-born slaves under horrific conditions), along with 125 million pounds of tobacco and 40 million pounds of tea. But the French state imposed heavy-handed restrictions on the market. Notably, until 1759 it banned imports of cheap, brightly coloured Indian calico cloth so as to protect domestic producers, and granted a monopoly over tobacco sales to the huge, semi-private ‘tax farming’ company known as the General Farm, which collected the bulk of excise and sales duties in return for commissions that made its directors some of the wealthiest men in the country (the beautiful hôtels particuliers that still surround the place Vendôme testify to their great avarice and equally great good taste). As tobacco use increased, this single monopoly would come to provide as much as 7 per cent of the total revenue of the French state. But the restrictions provided an irresistible incentive to smuggle contraband calico and tobacco over France’s 1700 miles of land borders, many of them mountainous and poorly patrolled. By the late 18th century, the French were consuming three pounds of tobacco a year per person, both in the form of pipe weed and snuff (in Paris, the figure was closer to six pounds). Kwass estimates that smugglers satisfied as much as a third of this demand.

Enter Louis Mandrin. Nothing in his background as the son of a merchant and horse dealer in the south-eastern hamlet of Saint-Etienne de Saint-Geoirs foreshadowed his career as a bandit king. But his father’s early death pushed the family towards increasingly risky business ventures. In 1748, the 23-year-old Louis signed a large contract to supply French army camps in the Italian Alps with food, and together with two partners organised a supply train of 97 pack mules. But by a stroke of bad luck, negotiators had just reached an agreement to end the War of the Austrian Succession, so that when Mandrin arrived, the army refused to accept most of the supplies, and failed to pay for most of what they did accept, while many of the mules fell sick and died. The family was ruined, and over the next few years Mandrin and his brothers turned to crime, to robbery and counterfeiting in particular. In March 1753, after a village quarrel turned deadly, they added murder to their CV. Louis was sentenced to death in absentia, while his younger brother Pierre was caught and executed.

Fleeing from the law, Mandrin crossed the border into what Kwass calls the ‘wild east’ of Savoy, then a province of the Italian kingdom of Sardinia whose rugged terrain and large population of poor itinerant workers made it an outlaw’s paradise. He joined a gang, and began smuggling tobacco and calico back into France. Like pirate crews, the Savoyard gangs – whose members sported nicknames like Ready-to-Drink, Shameless, Lucifer and Pug-Nose – operated in a relatively egalitarian manner, choosing new leaders for every expedition. But within a year, Mandrin had imposed himself as de facto chieftain. Literate, articulate and stylish, rarely seen without a gold-trimmed hat taken from an agent of the General Farm, he also quickly established a reputation for unusual daring.

Smuggling was an old occupation in France, where the numerous customs borders ran not only along international frontiers, but through the heart of the country, creating distinct tax and tariff zones. The city of Paris, with its fast-growing population of pipe smokers and snuff snorters, was surrounded by imposing walls and customs gates that drove smugglers to display unusual levels of ingenuity. In one incident recounted by Kwass, guards noticed that a Paris-bound carriage belonging to a man called Philippe François had suspiciously thick sides. On investigation, they found secret compartments containing 320 pounds of snuff, carefully wrapped into 347 separate packages.

Mandrin fitted into this tradition, but, like any good entrepreneur, he soon began trying out new business models, with a view to maximising sales volumes. In June 1754, he crossed the border into France with more than thirty followers, each of them armed with a double-barrelled musket, four double-barrelled pistols and sixty rounds of ammunition. They brought with them some 3000 pounds of calicos and tobacco, the latter mostly wrapped tightly into long sticks, nicknamed ‘carrots’, that customers could grate as needed for their pipes. On 22 June the gang marched into the town of Millau, calmly occupied the market square and began to hawk their merchandise. Their tobacco, a Euro-American blend called Saint-Vincent, could not in theory compare to the Chesapeake leaf offered by the General Farm – although, as Kwass points out, Farm agents themselves often adulterated their product with wood shavings, ashes, pulverised brick or even plain dirt. But Mandrin was selling his tobacco at a steep discount, and it went quickly. The gang carried out a military review of sorts in the square before leaving town.

Mandrin was on his way to becoming a folk hero. His principal target, the Farm, was widely hated in France. Among other objectionable activities, it collected the exorbitant tax on salt called the gabelle, a burden the government exacerbated by requiring every subject in much of the kingdom to purchase fifty pounds of salt a year, whether they needed it or not. By 1774, the Farm would have 28,839 employees, 21,188 of them armed guards. Anyone who challenged its monopolies and insulted its agents could count on a large degree of popular support.

Soon after his triumph in Millau, Mandrin stumbled on an even more profitable means of shifting his wares. When his gang arrived in Rodez, the Farm official there, fearful that the smugglers would drive down the price of his own tobacco, offered to purchase Mandrin’s supply himself, wholesale. He later tried to renege on the promise, but when Mandrin’s men threatened to burn his house down, with him inside, he soon paid up: some 3000 livres tournois. For Mandrin, the deal was unusually attractive. It spared him the trouble of setting up a drawn-out retail operation, with the attendant risks of police interference. By selling to the Farm rather than the public he could charge a higher price, since 18th-century France, like most early modern countries, was a cash-poor society whose residents relied on credit for a wide range of transactions. No matter how attractive the price of Mandrin’s tobacco, the amount of cash in any town was limited, and the largest ready supply most often belonged to the Farm officials themselves. So when Mandrin’s gang moved on from Rodez to Brioude, they immediately ordered the woman in charge of the Farm warehouse there, Angélique de la Guerre, to buy up their tobacco supply. She protested that she did not have sufficient cash to hand, to which Mandrin replied that she would simply have to borrow some from her neighbours. The story didn’t end well for Mme de la Guerre, who received a blow to the chest from a rifle butt during the negotiations, and died of the injury a week later.

As Kwass shrewdly notes, Mandrin’s unusual sales tactics, in addition to generating profits rapidly and efficiently, made for excellent public relations. Ordinary French people of the period, like their cousins across the Channel, observed what E.P. Thompson called the ‘moral economy of the crowd’. When they judged tradesmen to be selling staple goods at unfair and exorbitant prices, they could impose immediate deflation by force, in acts of ‘popular taxation’. Kwass argues that Mandrin’s sales of tobacco to the Farm followed the same principle. The smuggler didn’t exactly rob the Farm, which received merchandise in return for its money, but he set what he considered to be a fair price. As a result, his legend grew, and the foreign French-language gazettes that French readers relied on for uncensored news began reporting in detail on his exploits. Even a great nobleman like the duc de Luynes marvelled at the gang’s conduct: ‘They did not kill at all, and even had a kind of order; they extorted the revenues and gave receipts for the money that had been remitted to them.’ Mandrin further embellished his legend by freeing prisoners in the towns he took over – but only the smugglers, counterfeiters and army deserters, not the common thieves. It is no wonder that he is often called the French Robin Hood.

Mandrin’s story, however, did not end like Robin Hood’s. The France of Louis XV, despite its relatively weak police force, still had far more coercive power at its disposal than the England of John Lackland, and by the autumn of 1754 Mandrin’s exploits were making the government distinctly nervous. His gang looked less like a collection of brigands, and more like a small guerrilla army. Fears arose that in the event of a new foreign war against Britain, he might join with southern French Protestants in a rebellion. To help the General Farm stop Mandrin, the government sent a 600-man regiment under Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Chrétien Fischer to hunt him down. Local officials reinforced the Savoyard frontier, and ordered commoners in the region to hand in all firearms. In December, Fischer’s men nearly captured Mandrin in a pitched battle. Early the next year, a daring government spy spent several weeks under cover as a member of the gang, and returned with crucial information about one of Mandrin’s bases: the Savoyard château of Rochefort. In April, after the gang killed a Farm official, the French government decided to send soldiers into Savoy to kidnap Mandrin, despite the possible diplomatic ramifications. On the evening of 10 May 1755, a French officer ordered his men to take off their uniforms and blacken their faces, then led them across the Guiers river into Savoy. They found Mandrin peacefully asleep in the château de Rochefort, threw him, still in a nightdress, into a cart, and brought him back to France.

Just 16 days later, on 26 May, a special judicial commission in the town of Valence found Mandrin guilty of numerous crimes, and sentenced him to death. The execution followed almost immediately. Mandrin did have time to make a public confession and beg for forgiveness, and at the end he showed exemplary courage. ‘What, mon père, are you crying?’ he said to his Jesuit confessor. ‘I’m not crying. So cry for both of us. It is not death that makes me sad, nor the sentence that will be executed, which will last only a moment; but I have to undergo the judgment of God, who will decide my lot for eternity.’ The executioner then tied him to a cartwheel, and with a heavy iron bar delivered two crushing blows to each of Mandrin’s limbs, and one to the torso. This was the punishment the French crown reserved for the worst offences (for the worst offence of all, regicide, it added horrific refinements, as Foucault detailed in Discipline and Punish). Kwass quotes a description that compared one victim of ‘breaking on the wheel’ to ‘a sort of huge screaming puppet writhing in rivulets of blood … with four tentacles, like a sea monster of raw, slimy and shapeless flesh mixed with splinters of smashed bones’. But executioners had the discretion to end the agony, and after eight terrible minutes, Mandrin was mercifully strangled. His career as a crime lord had lasted scarcely a year, but his legend would continue to grow for decades, as ballads, poems, plays and novels about the charismatic smuggler proliferated. The philosophers of the Enlightenment would discuss his case, and some of them would seize on it to condemn the regime’s fiscal structures and call for free trade.

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Thanks to the strength of the legend, and the intrinsic excitement of this real-life crime story, Mandrin remains well known in France. As Kwass notes, the most recent film about him dates from 2011, and in ‘Mandrin country’, the outlaw’s name adorns restaurant signs, craft beers, and even a brand of organic chicken. Kwass does add new details to the story, and tells it well, but the greatest strength of Contraband lies in its convincing use of Mandrin to explain how France’s Ancien Régime fell apart. As Kwass argues, the mismatch between the country’s rigid and antiquated fiscal structures, and its expanding role in global trade networks, along with the accompanying consumer revolution, generated enormous tensions. As smuggling grew hugely in order to feed consumer demand, so did the repressive apparatus of the state. Kwass notes that the Ancien Régime pursued smugglers more fiercely than other criminals, all in the name of maintaining the unwieldy fiscal privileges of the state and the Farm. In the course of the 18th century, it sent 40,000 smugglers to row in the galleys of the Mediterranean fleet under brutal conditions. Galleys had a long pedigree, of course, but their increasing use in the Age of Enlightenment marked a transition from an older system of corporal punishment to a modern one of long-term imprisonment.

In addition, the steady stream of protests, and even small-scale rebellions against the Farm, kept alive a tradition of violent contestation in what was otherwise a relatively peaceful and prosperous century. If one wants to know where the crowds of the French Revolution got their appetite for protests and riots, Kwass suggests, it was in the kinds of popular action that Mandrin raised almost to the level of a small war. He points out that in July 1789 the first target of the Parisian crowds who took up arms when King Louis XVI dismissed a popular minister was not the Bastille but the gates of the city’s newest customs wall – ten feet high and 14 miles long – which the crown had constructed in the 1780s. It was called ‘the Wall of the Farmers General’.

Over the past twenty years, as historians have come to recognise the importance of early globalisation, they have struggled to link it to the political upheavals of the 18th century. In Contraband, Michael Kwass has provided one of the strongest and most satisfying models of how the connection worked. To be sure, as he himself cautions, ‘it would be rash to conclude that globalisation caused the French Revolution in any simple or direct way.’ The tensions he describes led towards revolution only because the French were simultaneously inventing a new way of understanding them: not as simple excesses or abuses, but as symptoms of a system that was rotten to the core and needed to be thoroughly ‘regenerated’, to use the terminology of the day. In general, when revolutionaries have tried to tear down a political order, and have had no clear and inspiring idea of what might replace it, they have ended up all too often with that old order returning in all but name. The conditions Kwass describes helped trigger a revolution because they developed in the midst of an unprecedented cultural and intellectual shift that owed relatively little to globalisation, and was centred for the most part on Paris. But as Kwass shows, globalisation, and the accompanying economic and social changes, mattered enormously.

One incident from the Revolution itself illustrates the point. In June 1791, Louis XVI, accompanied by Marie-Antoinette and their children, attempted to flee the country in a desperate effort to join up with a foreign army and bring the Revolution to an end. The carriage they fled in was heavy, unmanoeuvrable and slow, and failed to reach the frontier before the alarm was sounded (the carriage served as a good metaphor for the Ancien Régime). Revolutionary officials caught up with the royal family in the small eastern town of Varennes, and confined them in the home and shop of a local official and grocer by the unlikely name of Jean-Baptiste Sauce. They then took Louis back to Paris, and 18 months later, after further revolutionary turmoil, he went to his death in what is now the place de la Concorde. The king did not suffer the agonising punishment his state had inflicted on Mandrin (although thanks to the thickness of Louis’s neck, it took more than one blow of the guillotine to decapitate him). But the French monarchy had died already, in Varennes. And, fittingly, it died in a grocer’s shop, surrounded by consumer products – many, certainly, imported from foreign shores – of the sort that had done so much to erode the social foundations on which the king’s regime had stood.