A commodity is introduced, global demand grows, legal access is restricted, a lawless black market thrives. This familiar cycle, a darker side of capitalism, is the subject of Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground, in which historian Michael Kwass locates the rise of the modern fiscal state and penal apparatus in 18th-century France. It’s a tale of smugglers, hedonism, and violence during an early stage of globalization but, as Kwass shows below, plus ça change…
A high-ranking customs agent stationed in a remote border town agrees to meet a trafficker from across the border. The smuggler, who runs an illegal psychoactive substance from his impoverished country into one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world, seems ready to cut a deal: in exchange for a new life and clean conscience, he will betray his boss, a notorious gang leader the police have been tracking for months. The agent sets up an evening rendezvous on the banks of a river tracing the border between the two countries. But, as he walks toward the stream, gang members ruthlessly gun him down. Rumor has it that the man behind the assassination was the smuggler’s boss, kingpin Louis Mandrin, later captured in a pre-dawn military raid and executed by a draconian penal system.
This is a disturbingly familiar story. A global drug ring feeds a wealthy nation of consumers. Police battle armed traffickers in a conflict that onlookers do not hesitate to call a “war.” Although intellectuals deplore the violence and demand decriminalization, courts continue to dispatch petty dealers to an ever-expanding prison system. All the while, the flow of illicit substances continues unabated, driven by intense consumer demand.
This killing did not take place in twenty-first century Juárez but in the middle of the eighteenth century on the outskirts of a small French border town. Indeed, when we consider the peculiar historical circumstances that conspired to produce the cold-blooded assassination, much of what seemed familiar becomes strange. The customs agent was not a public official but an employee of “the Farm,” a private financial company that collected Louis XV’s taxes. The river was not the Rio Grande but the Guyers, which divided the mighty kingdom of France from the foreign province of Savoy, a mountainous haven for traffickers. The smuggler who set up the rendezvous was one of the scores of border-hopping Savoyards who served in Mandrin’s gang. Strangest of all, the substance that Mandrin and his band smuggled—and over which the customs agent was killed—was not marijuana, cocaine, or heroin, but tobacco, a new drug from America.