Shipwrecks and Smuggling

Here you can explore tales of adventures, escapades, disasters and international trade. This collection focuses on two nautical themes that have fascinated the British public for hundreds of years: shipwrecks and smuggling.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain saw a huge expansion in trade. As a result, each year hundreds of ships, packed with goods, travelled between Asia and Europe. Shipping traffic in the English Channel was dense, and shipwrecks led to the loss both of human lives and valuable cargo.

The East India Company

Shipping traffic included the vessels of the East India Company with their huge cargo holds. By 1779, when the captain of the Company ship the Halsewell was writing the first of the log book entries included here, the East India Company was the single largest player in a global market. Documents from the British Library's India Office collection reveal a newly affluent class, with an enthusiasm for imported goods such as cottons, silks, porcelain, tea and spices.

The logbook of the Halsewell provides a vivid illustration of life on the Company's ships.

Treacherous voyages

The ten-month voyage to Calcutta, Bombay or Madras, and then onward to Canton for tea and porcelain, was potentially lucrative for the Company. It was also dangerous. As well as crew and passengers, the ship carried soldiers and cannons to defend itself against foreign enemies or pirates. There were also the treacherous tides, winds and winter weather of the English Channel which brought about the shocking and widely reported wreck of the Halsewell off the Dorset coast in 1786. An account by two officers who survived the shipwreck, a poem about the tragic loss of the captain and his daughters, and descriptions of a dramatic reconstruction of a shipwreck that caused a sensation in London, give a flavour of the public's appetite for information and sensation.

Smuggled goods

For centuries smuggled goods have provided a cheap alternative to expensive imports. Not much has changed in that respect since the18th and 19th centuries. Then as now, taxes on imported goods made many luxury goods very expensive. But illegal, smuggled goods provided a solution to the problem. Brandy, tobacco and tea proved to be popular goods on an increasingly popular black market. Both the Government and the East India Company were hugely worried about the loss of money caused by smuggling. They calculated that three million pounds of tea a year had been smuggled during the first half of the 18th century, three times the amount of legal sales. Later, in 1779, in response to estimates of £7 million lost each year, Parliament passed another Act against smuggling. Advice to the Unwary reminds its readers of the Act, and provides copious evidence of the damage to employment and the economy – but especially to the profits of the East India Company – brought about by widespread smuggling and the adulteration of tea. The police procedure and legal jargon of Facts opposed to Falsehood provides another perspective on the attempts to enforce the law.

You will also find illustrations of a more romantic attitude to smuggling, in late 19th century reminiscences, anecdotes and songs. Tales tell of jewellery hidden in fishermens' shoes, and of silk stockings sewn into the lining of petticoats. Smuggling in these extracts is colourful, with a cast of popular heroes using their wit and imagination to outdo excisemen and other law-enforcers.