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Michael Kwass, Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground.

Erik Goldner
p. 105-108
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Michael Kwass, Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2014, 457 pages, ISBN 978-0-674-72683-3

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Crédits : Harvard University Press

1 Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground is a sexy title for what is indeed a very sexy book. Michael Kwass’s new work has something to say—and often important things to say—about everything from early modern globalization, consumption, political economic thought, and mercantilist policy to the fiscal-military state, criminal justice, tax resistance and rebellion, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution. Oh, and did I mention smuggling and banditry? In a book liberally peppered with phrases like “the underground economy” and “the underworld,” what’s not to like? Well, for some readers, Kwass’s panoramic and almost encyclopedic view of Mandrin’s world may come across as a bit forced. The sexiness may in other words be a little too much, with the author trying to connect his subject to too many important seventeenth- and eighteenth-century trends. But as far as the present reader is concerned, Contraband is easily one of the most inspired and engaging books on early modern history to come along in some time.

2 As the title suggests, the central figure here is Louis Mandrin, the smuggler and outlaw who, for a brief period in the 1750s, challenged authorities with daring raids from his base in Savoy that drove deep into the heart of the French kingdom. Accompanied by dozens of armed men, Mandrin rode from town to town openly peddling contraband—principally tobacco and calico—in marketplaces along the way. In doing so, he and his band thumbed their noses at the General Farm. Indeed they went even further, forcing the agents of the tax-farming behemoth to buy large quantities of contraband in exchange for hard cash. These “forced sales,” Kwass contends, were not only lucrative but also political. The Farm after all was tasked by royal authorities, among other things, with running the state tobacco monopoly and enforcing a ban on Indian cotton textiles. By making Farm agents buy contraband—often with the flourish of a receipt from Mandrin himself—the smuggler-bandit was not just taking revenge on an organization he blamed for his family’s financial downfall, he was also defying the Farm’s power to enforce restrictions that not only he despised, but that a wide range of the kingdom’s subjects increasingly sought to outmaneuver or resist. Mandrin’s flouting of the law went too far for royal authorities, and he was arrested and executed in 1755. While his exploits attracted relatively little public attention while he lived, Mandrin took on legendary status very shortly after his death. To historians of eighteenth-century France, all this is at least fairly familiar. For many ordinary Frenchmen from the mid-eighteenth century till the present day, Mandrin’s stand against hated tax farmers has had a certain appeal. But for Kwass—and here is why the book is essentially built around an outlaw’s career—Mandrin means something much more.

3 While an account of his life, exploits, and cultural impact takes up roughly two-thirds of the book, the remaining one-third—partly at the beginning and partly at the end—seeks to contextualize Mandrin in a particularly ambitious way. Kwass wants us to see the smuggler-bandit as part of a much bigger world, a globalizing world in fact, where strengthening European states sought to control or restrict maritime trade for revenue and competitive advantage over other states. Those mercantilist policies—the most pertinent here being the creation of the royal tobacco monopoly in France in 1674 and the kingdom’s ban on the importation of Indian cloth in 1686—unintentionally expanded the rambunctious and sometimes violent “global underground” of the book’s title. Networks of illicit trade in turn penetrated the metropole, and that eventually had unforeseen political consequences for France and the world.

4 Thus Mandrin’s exploits, Kwass argues, can be understood as part of the end stage of the global commodity journeys of tobacco and calico. The production of and trade in those commodities were catalyzed by an early modern consumer revolution that saw the affluent and the not-so-affluent alike altering and boosting their consumption as they absorbed larger and larger quantities of transoceanic wares. But burgeoning consumer desire in Europe in the period, Kwass shows, increasingly collided with mercantilist restrictions. Smuggling and fraud—not to mention coercion and brutality—became commonplace along all points of the commodity supply chain, from the docks of Chesapeake tobbacco plantations, where workers quietly pocketed what they saw as their rightful share of leaf, to the marketplaces of the south of France, where Mandrin peddled tobacco in defiance of the Farm’s monopoly. Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, states did what they could to clamp down on the flow of contraband. In the case of France, the monarchy handed over much of the task to the General Farm, whose guards in their thousands—the largest paramilitary force in early modern Europe, Kwass calls them—spent decades intruding upon, harassing, and often brutalizing wrongdoers and innocent subjects alike for smuggling and tax avoidance. The heavy-handed approach to policing contraband eventually had blowback. From the late 1750s, Mandrin’s legend, Kwass argues, helped to catalyze outrage and resistance to the monarchy’s fisco-economic policies. From the penny press, to pamphlets warring over fiscal policy and tax farming, to learned treatises on Enlightenment political economy, the inequities and oppression of monopolies and tax farming rose to greater prominence in popular and elite minds. Then in the late 1780s a crisis of troubling proportions loomed, and all these trends—globalization, burgeoning consumption, restrictions on trade and consumption imposed by fiscal-military states, the expansion of a global underground to outmaneuver those restrictions, the crackdown by authorities on that underworld and the consumers who desired illicit goods, and a strengthening resentment against monopoly, fiscal farming, and indrect taxation—fed into the political explosion of 1789 and what followed.

5 The discussion above captures, I hope, the lion’s share of what Kwass is up to in this sprawling but lucid book. If all this seems like a lot, that’s because it is. Is it too much, though? By that I mean, among other things, is Kwass’s attempt to shoehorn one outlaw’s career—and a particularly short-lived career at that, lasting only a few years—into a much broader story a little forced? Indeed, does Mandrin need to be here at all? Couldn’t we just have had a general (and much shorter!) account of the wide arc Kwass is drawing here, one connecting economic globalization (particularly in its more gangland, noirish aspects) with political transformation (the French Revolution, etc.)? Kwass at a certain point makes a solid defense of pivoting the book around Mandrin, arguing that a microhistorical approach for part of the book throws light on the macrohistorical perspective of the rest, and vice versa. There’s certainly much to be said for what microhistory can do, and one can only admire the way in which Kwass deftly transitions from the global to the national to the local and back out again over the course of this book. It isn’t often that a book appears that can satisfy both micro- and world historians, and this is potentially one of them.

6 But—to come back to the nagging question—does Kwass hang too much on Mandrin? I think readers will ultimately disagree about what might be the most crucial claim here—crucial at least in terms of holding Kwass’s argument together. I noted above that, for Kwass, Mandrin represents something more than a Robin Hood-like figure bent on flouting the authority of hated tax farmers. Instead he marks the beginning of what Kwass calls a “politicization of fiscal and mercantile policy” that “accelerated through the Revolution” and drove “a national debate on the political and economic identity of France in the nineteenth century” (353). After Mandrin’s execution, the penny press fanned the embers of a smoldering hatred of indirect taxation and economic restriction, a hatred that became in the writings of Enlightenment philosophes something more of a program for fiscal and economic liberalization, and which in turn became one of the tripwires for the outbreak of revolution in 1789. Put simply, in Kwass’s view, Mandrin marks the point at which France pivots towards a more equitable system of taxation and a freer universe of consumption.

7 Whether Mandrin’s exploits and ultimate destruction indeed mark the beginning of some sort of “politicization” is one of the things that, I think, historians may quibble about most here. To be sure, there was a remarkable efflorescence of political-economic and financial polemics and treatises in France in the decades between Mandrin’s demise and the eruption of the Revolution. Kwass reminds us that the single most prominent grievance in the cahiers de doléances drawn up on the eve of the Revolution pertained to indirect taxation, especially the burdensome salt monopoly called the gabelles. And he rightly points out that, not long before the Bastille was stormed, crowds of Parisians had first attacked the hated customs gates around the city that had been recently erected by the General Farm. So looking both low and high in French society, we see, without a doubt, how politicized the issues of royal monopolies, tax farming, and indirect taxes had become by 1789. The question is where to begin that story of politicization. Why not, among other possible starting points, choose the civil unrest of the Fronde, with its eruption of hatred against royal moneymen in the wave of pamphleteering called the mazarinades? But going back that far would weaken the connection Kwass wants to make here between the fiscal and economic resentments of ordinary and elite subjects and the General Farm, which did not exist in the 1650s.

8 This issue aside, Michael Kwass’s Contraband can be enthusiastically recommended to faculty teaching advanced undergraduates and graduate students in courses on early modern world history, the Atlantic World, the history of consumption, the origins of the French Revolution, violence and illicit activities in the period, and so on. And for historians from a range of specializations—in particular those working on political economy, the consumer revolution, and the French Revolution—this should be required reading. Mandrin’s career as an outlaw may have been relatively brief, but this book will hopefully have a longer life.

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Référence papier

Erik Goldner, « Michael Kwass, Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground. », Œconomia, 5-1 | 2015, 105-108.

Référence électronique

Erik Goldner, « Michael Kwass, Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground. », Œconomia [En ligne], 5-1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2015, consulté le 29 avril 2017. URL :

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Erik Goldner

California State University, Northridge,

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