Monday, 14 April 2014

Book Review: Memoirs of a Smuggler.

Memoirs of a Smuggler: Compiled from His Diary and JournalMemoirs of a Smuggler: Compiled from His Diary and Journal by John Rattenbury
(J. Harvey, London, 1837).

aMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

The ebook is available for free from Google Books (PDF or epub; the epub has a few scanning errors) or from Smugglers' Britain (html, proofread).

This is Jack Rattenbury's account of his exploits as a smuggler, mainly between France and the Devon coast, in the late 18th and early 19th century.  According to this website, a Unitarian pastor, John Smith (who was also involved in smuggling) helped him write it.

Born in 1778, Rattenbury went to sea as a fisherman at the age of nine, but soon left and took up as a privateer by the age of 15. From that point on, he was constantly pursuing and being pursued by French and Spanish vessels, and made many daring escapes - or so he tells us.

Returning home from privateering at the age of 16, Rattenbury says he
...remained at home about six months, part of which was occupied in fishing, but I found the employment very dull and tiresome after the roving life I had led; and as the smuggling trade was then plied very briskly in the neighbourhood, I determined to try my fortune in it" (pg. 11).
Rattenbury spent the next thirty years alternately smuggling, fishing, piloting, and running a public house which ultimately failed. His account is mostly a fairly dry recitation of the trips he made, places he went, and ships and cargoes he lost, but there are dramatic bits when he's chased by the preventive services and has to toss his tubs of spirits or tea overboard and hope to haul them up later, before the king's cutters or local inhabitants do and before they spoil.

Some of his anecdotes seem exaggerated for effect, as when he tells how he deserted from the Royal Navy and, in between smuggling trips, a militia sergeant found him in a pub and tried to capture him. answer to his charge, I replied, “Sergeant, you are surely labouring under an error; I have done nothing that can authorize you in taking me up, or detaining me; you must certainly have mistaken me for some other person.” In this manner, I contrived to draw him into a parley; and, while it was going on, I jumped into the cellar. I then threw off my jacket and shirt, to prevent any one from holding me; and, having armed myself with a reaphook, and a knife which I had in my pocket, I threw myself into an attitude of defence at the entrance, which was a half-hatch door, the lower part of which I shut, and then declared that I would kill the first man who came near me, and that I would not be taken from the spot alive. At this, the sergeant was evidently terrified, but he said to his men, “Soldiers, do your duty, advance and seize him;” to which they replied, “Sergeant, you proposed it: take the lead, and set us an example, and we will follow.” No one, however, offered to advance, and I remained in the position which I have described, for four hours, holding them at bay (pg. 52).

A group of women then came into the pub and claimed that a boy was drowning, and Rattenbury claims that he charged through the militiamen, and because he had taken off his shirt, they couldn't catch him and he was able to jump into a boat and escape. A tall tale if I ever heard one.

At least once, Rattenbury smuggles people, in this case, four French officers who escaped from custody in England:
They came to Beer, and I concealed them in the best manner I was able, in a house near the beach, where I supplied them with such provisions as they wanted. But a vigilant inquiry was commenced; their steps were traced, and the place of their retreat discovered. The next morning, there was a special warrant out against myself and five others, who were connected with the affair, and the constables came to my house, while I was up-stairs considering how I had best act. Finding that my companions had absconded, and being captain of the boat, I immediately surrendered myself up to them. I was then taken before the magistrates, where I found the French gentlemen in custody. They were examined through the medium of an interpreter, but their replies were cautious, and they said very little that could tend to implicate me in the transaction. My turn then came; and, in reply to the questions from the bench, I briefly stated that I was engaged to take the gentlemen to Jersey, of which island I understood that they were natives. A lieutenant of the sea-fencibles being in the room, asked me if I did not know a native of Jersey from a Frenchman; to which I was going to have replied, but my attorney, who was present, said that this was a question which he had no right to prefer, and which I was not bound to answer. The magistrates then conversed together; and, after a little consultation, dismissed me, with a gentle admonition to go home, and not engage in any similar transaction for the future (pg. 51).
Rattenbury and his sons and gang of smugglers (he doesn't go into any detail in the narrative, but you can read about them here) are frequently on the wrong side of the law. Rattenbury repeatedly escapes the preventives and press-gangs and service in the Royal Navy, but he is in and out of court, is fined numerous times, and does a few stretches in prison. But no sooner is he released than he returns to smuggling and recoups his losses. Despite the frequent ups and downs of his career, it's clear that Rattenbury is a resilient and optimistic man:
I have also experienced, as may be seen in the foregoing narrative, the greatest vicissitudes, my spirits having been alternately elated by success, or depressed by misfortune; but in the midst of the whole I never yielded to despair, for hope was the pole-star which shed its cheering rays, and illuminated my path in the darkest storms of adversity (pg. 106).
When the book closes in 1836, Rattenburg is retired from smuggling, receiving a pension of a shilling a week for life from his patron Lord Rolle, and in court again.  His son, also a smuggler, is up on charges of assaulting customs officers, and Rattenburg is making jokes on the stand:
On this occasion I was cross-examined by Mr. Sergeant Bompas; and as it caused a great deal of amusement at the time, I have extracted the following passages from a newspaper, which contained an account of the trial. “I keep school at sea—fish for sole, turbot and brill; any kind of fish that comes to hook.” “Which do you catch oftenest, soles or tubs? “—” Oh, the devil a tub, (great laughter ;) there are too many picaroons going now-a-day.” You have caught a good many in your time? “—” Ah, plenty of it! I wish you and I had as much of it as we could drink.” (laughter.) “You have kept school at home, and trained up your son?”—” I have always trained him up in a regular honourable way, larnt him the creed, the Lord’s prayer, and the ten commandments.” “You don’t find there, Thou shalt not smuggle? “—” No, but I find there, Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” “Nobody smuggles now-a-day?” — “Don’t they, though!” (laughter) “So these horses at Beer cannot go above three or four miles an hour? “—” If you had not better horses, you would never get to London. I seldom ride a horse-back. If I do, I generally falls off seven or eight times in a journey.” (great laughter.)
Jack Rattenbury died in 1844 at the age of 65.

There is very little description of the methods of smuggling or political situation in this book; to understand fully what was going on, I recommend reading it along with Smugglers' Britain, which details how smuggling and the preventive services worked, and how they developed.

I found King's Cutters and Smugglers: 1700-1855 (E.K. Chatterton, London, 1912) helpful as well.  It's written in a more engaging style than Memoirs of a Smuggler and explains the background to it.  For example, King's Cutters states that it was policy for the Preventives to press-gang smugglers into the Royal Navy, due to their high level of seamanship:
Nor must we forget that those rough, rude men who ran backwards and forwards across the English Channel in cutters, yawls, luggers, and sometimes open boats, stiffened with a rich ballast of tea, tobacco, and brandy, were some of the finest seamen in the world, and certainly the most skilful fore-and-aft sailors and efficient pilots to be found anywhere on the seas which wash the coasts of the United Kingdom. They were sturdy and strong of body, courageous and enterprising of nature, who had "used" the sea all their lives. Consequently the English Government wisely determined that in all cases of an encounter with smugglers the first aim of the Preventive officers should be to capture the smugglers themselves, for they could be promptly impressed into the service of the Navy and be put to the good of the nation instead of being to the latter's disadvantage.
(Although, I'm puzzling over who constitutes the "nation."  Have smugglers been excluded from it?  Their efforts were to their own benefit and the benefit of probably the majority of the inhabitants of the British Isles in some fashion, while not being without detriment.  All sorts of people of all classes were involved in smuggling and bought smuggled products).

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