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.

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