‘BOUNTIFUL BORDERLANDS’ EXTRACT #5: CHAPTER FIVE ‘UNDER COVER OF DARKNESS: THE SMUGGLER’

‘Within travel literature, the smuggler is typically presented as both rakish and rustic, unafraid to stand out in town but also possessed of deadly force and an intimate knowledge of his area; in a word, swashbuckling. It might be assumed that much of the affectations described were romantic inventions of the author, as it would be in their interest to retain a low visibility. However, enjoying the support and even protection of the local population, it is entirely conceivable that the Pyrenean smuggler had few qualms about standing out, and even living up to the image of an ‘outsider’. The following passage describes this characteristic in a tone that, as was so often the case, expresses no little affection for the smuggler and his air of a ‘loveable rogue’:

When he is seen in Pau,[1] he appears in a velveteen jacket, inexpressibles [sic] girt round his waist with a gay crimson sash, a conical felt hat with rakish rosettes, and a loose collar thrown back from his swelling sunburnt neck. He strides along with a bent knee, and the springy, free, elastic step of the hill-climber; and there are not wanting scandalous rumours that he makes use of the knowledge with which he tracks the izzard or the bear to their haunts, to convey a venture of tobacco bales across the frontiers, by paths and precipices, where even the carbineers[2] of the customs hardly care to follow him. He is seen in great perfection when escorting a troop of kicking, biting, devilish mules; or indulging in a siesta on some half-shaded bank, with a cigarrito between his lips, and a faint odour of “eau de vie” about him. People see in him a figure which recalls sundry dramatic reminiscences of carriages upset, long carbines and Fra Diavolo;[3] but we have only found him a merry, courteous fellow, always ready with a song or a joke, and with quite as little, or less, of the rogue about him, as his compatriots in the towns.[4]

Another feature we can note here is the characteristic of being unthreatening and even kind to those who either had nothing to steal or were uninvolved in smuggling, and smugglers were often credited with helping lost travellers (in some cases acting as guides):

The assassin has been my guide in the defiles of the boundaries of Italy; the smuggler of the Pyrenees has received me with a welcome in his secret paths. Armed, I should have been the enemy of both; unarmed, they have alike respected me.[5]

In the next century, this knowledge of secret paths and evading the authorities would help refugees across the escape routes that ran through the Pyrenees, but prior to this, two other qualities (possibly exaggerated) would emerge in the literature which further cemented the smuggler in folk legend as a benevolent influence. One was the purported extension of hospitality to travellers and the poor; the offering of bread, wine and whatever else the smuggler had to share with the lost and the hungry. The other quality which was often reported was the brotherhood which existed between the smugglers, one which bound Basque, Béarnese, Aragonese, Catalan, Gascon etc. together in cooperation; the movement of merchandise was of greater importance than one’s village of birth, particularly when pulling together against the authorities:

Picturesque fellows they are; clad in rough garments of leather, besashed, gay kerchiefs about their heads, decked with geegaws and armed to the teeth. A bit dirty and unkempt, perhaps, unshaven, their weather-beaten faces the colour of tan, their features as rough and gnarled and seamed as their beloved mountains. Desperate dare-devils, they are too, fearless, sure footed as goats, expert marksmen and proud and independent as grandees. Hard drinking, loud boasting chaps, yet most courteous and hospitable to those they trust; as ready to aid a distressed stranger as to slit his throat if they suspect him of being an enemy; willing to share their last crust of black bread or their last drop of wine with the poor wayfarer or to hold a well-to-do traveler for ransom; united into a blood brotherhood never violated or betrayed; living a wild, rough life; the idols of the peasants, the heroes of countless tales; carrying on their trade as much for the love of adventure and the devilment of the authorities as for profit, and ready at any moment to give battle to the carbineros or the guardias, whether French or Spanish. Few of them are true Spanish blood. The majority are Basques – members of that strange, ancient, proud race which has never really been conquered and whose tongue is perhaps the oldest of Europe, – Navarese, Catalans, with a few of Gipsy blood, but all forgetting their differences of race or station in the common bond of being Contrabandistas.

Among the interminable, intricate passes and defiles of the Pyrenees, among the towering peaks and vast bulwarks of the mountains, they dwell and hold their own, frequenting the wine shops, the wayside inns of mountains towns; threading their way along narrow zig-zag trails, mere shelves of rock with dizzying heights above and dim blue abysses below; winding through clefts between stupendous precipices; bending to the sweeping blasts of the cloud-hidden summits; wrapped in their sheep-skin cloaks as they face the driving icy gales above the timber line; bivouacking beside their fires in sheltered nooks; holding high revel in smoke-grimed, massively timbered mountains taverns, they laboriously traverse the way from Spain to France or France to Spain, driving their heavily laden mules and donkeys, cracking their whips, shouting picturesque Basque oaths, and earning a few pesos, a precarious living at risk of death and prison, at cost of hardships, endurance, terrific labor and the roughest of lives.[6]

No doubt another aspect which helped the feeling of community amidst contrabandistas were the harsh conditions in which they worked. Contrary to the shepherds and hunters who also frequented mountain passes and pastures, poor weather was a help rather than a hindrance to their activity, as was the difficulty of the route chosen. Such a combination of hazardous paths and precipitation would make the likelihood of encountering patrols of gendarmes a minimal one. This did however mean that the smuggler had to be dressed and equipped accordingly; their use of rough, thick sheepskin coats as well as gripping and climbing aids, which bore something of the mountaineer about them, was common:

Scarcely had we entered it [a valley], when I beheld upon the heights above us, a very stout fellow armed with a gun, and descending with an air of agility and boldness, which I could not enough admire. This was an Arragonese [sic] smuggler. As soon as he perceived us, he stopt [sic], and put himself on his guard; but seeing me approach him with confidence, and that I was not armed, he continued to descend, preserving however the advantage of the heights, until he had well observed us. He informed us that the snows of the pass were good, and that he had descended from the Breche de Roland with ease: but after all, a smuggler does not travel as a philosopher, and when I remarked his cramp-irons hanging from his sack, and the small hatchet which he carried at his side for hewing out his way in the ice, I could easily guess, that if he had not occasion for them, I might.

In the countenance of this man I could perceive a mixture of boldness and confidence; his thick and frizzled beard was continued up into his black and curling hair; his broad breast was open, his strong and nervous legs naked; all his clothing consisted of a simple vest; the covering of his feet, after the manner of the Romans and Goths, of a piece of cow’s skin applied to the sole of the foot, and bound round it like a purse, by means of two straps, which were afterwards crossed and fastened above the ancles [sic].[7]

The description of footwear comprising of cow hide bound around the foot corresponds to the abarca or albarca (Basque: abarka), a traditional Pyrenean and Cantabrian shoe, which was fashioned from a single piece of calf leather tied around the ankles and lower calves with braided woollen laces. Some versions of this shoe have wooden soles, much like a clog, however for the purposes of gripping slippery rocks and other unstable surfaces commonly encountered by smugglers, shepherds and hunters alike, the use of cow’s hide was preferable.

Footwear preference was not the only aspect shared by smugglers and shepherds. As mentioned above, many of the routes that straddled the post 1659 border made use of grazing lands and transhumance paths. What made these pathways so useful, aside from their passing far from the eyes of the law, was largely in connecting upper pastures and lower settlements in a manner which harked back to the pre-existing (and ancient) land rights which often did not correspond to the newer Spanish/Franco border. This allowed goods to be moved across from Spain to France, and visa-versa, by routes that not only allowed surreptitious and efficient contraband transport, but also between villages or towns which may not have felt sufficiently French or Spanish enough to be on good terms with the customs officials. Some of these crossings held particular significance for pastoralists, such as the Port d’Azun and its tradition of settling land right debates between rival herdsmen:[8]

At the Pierre St. Martin, which you pass on your left, the Spanish and French used to meet annually to settle disputes about cattle-liftings; and all who pass this way, in honour of St. Martin, contribute one stone to the pile. This port is very much frequented by contrabandists, and I suspect there is no pass in the Pyrenees through which so much smuggling is carried on, chiefly of silk and tobacco.[9]

The mountains offered many of the methods employed for transporting goods, however smugglers also made use of waterways, especially those which ran along the Franco-Spanish border, namely the Bidassoa: ‘Smuggling by water is a pastime practised upon the border river, the Bidassoa. It, also, is done chiefly at night, and the trade is, more times than not, in wines or strong spirits.’[10] Human smuggling also took place along this river during the Carlist wars,[11] with prices varying according to rank:

A Carlist is passed just like a bale of goods. There is a certain tariff, so much for a colonel, so much for an inferior officer. As soon as the bargain is struck, the contrabandist makes his appearance, carries off his man, passes him over the frontier, and smuggles him to his destination, as he would a dozen handkerchiefs or a hundred cigars.[12]

Smuggling along this river was popularly immortalised in the late 19th century novel Ramuntcho, a tale of love and adventure among the contrabandistas of the French Basque region, which went a long way to popularising the romantic and swashbuckling characterisation of the smuggler in various Parisian salons.[13]

Despite this literary propaganda, not everyone was so well disposed towards smugglers and their ways, particularly the men who were tasked with stopping their lucrative practices. One 19th century traveller in the Val de Carol (Ariège) happened upon the local gendarmes, the captain of which offered up some very blunt character judgements upon their prisoners:

‘What do you think of this company?’ said the gendarme; and without giving me time to reply, added, ‘you must certainly have some very particular business to bring you here; as for me, I would not stay a day in it, if I were not obliged by my office. I have guarded all the coasts of France, all the defiles of the Alps; I have even served in Italy during the blockade; but I assure you that I have never yet seen such smugglers as those of the valley of Carol. See, said he (pointing to the company) these are people who know the smallest crevice in the mountains, and who pass where neither you nor I would even dare to venture ourselves. And what kind of contraband do you think they carry on? – In the Jura, near Geneva, the mountaineers carry jewellery and watches, which are such small articles that it is natural they should not be seen. But these merely smuggle – what do you think? – wool! And we can hardly ever catch them. In fact they climb the mountains on the south side, and when they have reached the summit they throw down the bales, which roll down the north side, when others receive and carry them through the defiles into the plain. It is in vain that we watch them, they always escape us. It is a very different thing with sugar and coffee; as for those goods, they introduce them as the ladies in the sea-ports do Vanilla, in their bags. They are an untractable and wicked people, whom we have the greatest difficulty to keep under restraint, who are neither French nor Spanish, and who only look for one thing, which is a rise in the price of commodities. Would you believe it, they are almost all Bonapartists, though they had no more connection with the government of Bonaparte than with that of the king? But I will tell you the reason; sugar and coffee were dearer then, and smuggling was more profitable.’ [14]

The folklore surrounding smugglers mainly revolves around the characters themselves; whilst it is likely that there was (and still is) lore among the contrabandistas in terms of luck-bringing acts, this area remains very much a ‘closed book in terms of the literary record. However, there are some figures whose exploits reveal some of the supernatural aspects ascribed to smugglers by locals and the law alike.

To begin with the profane, the figure of ‘Don Q.’ is quintessentially folkloric, marrying the sacred and the profane as a smuggler cleric. He comes across as a fairly ruthless and cunning man, not above exploiting both his flock and his colleagues, the latter in terms of ransom:

There was Don Q., who, legend has it, was a renegade priest, and, like many another robber and lawless character, ever looked upon the clergy as his special prey and enjoyed nothing more than forcing some stout and easy-loving padre to toil weary miles through the mountains, to dwell in a bare and rocky cave and subsist on the coarsest food exposed to jeers and insults of the smuggler-brigands while awaiting a ransom worthy of a king. And, also, according to story, Don Q found his earlier experience in the Church of utmost value in his profession. Garbed as a friar, he could quite safely enter the towns, hear the carbineros’ plan for his capture, acquaint himself with the doings of the citizens, the market for goods, and even make secret arrangements with his agents and customers, with never a suspicion that the shaven-headed, cassocked priest was the outlaw for whose apprehension the guardias would have figuratively given their heads.[15]

It is worth noting that this local legend may be the inspiration behind the ‘Don Q.’ who featured in several story collections by author and explorer Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard.[16] In these stories, Don Q. is recast as a Robin Hood figure, frequently dressed as a padre and stealing from dastardly rich lords so that he might give openly to the poor. Hesketh-Prichard claimed that the ‘Q’ was short for ‘Quebra Huesos’, the Spanish term for the bone-breaker vulture, the lammergeier, because of his protagonists’ severe appearance, which may see the conflation either in Hesketh-Prichard’s mind or, perhaps, that of the locals, between the ‘historical’ Don Q. and the figure of ‘Don Sebastian’, to whom we shall turn to next.

The enigmatic ‘Don Sebastian’ appears to have entrenched himself firmly in Pyrenean smuggling lore, primarily due to his success and perceived supernatural abilities. We also see once again the link between smugglers and Carlists, in this case ascribing Don Sebastian an aristocratic background from that house which along with his command of witchcraft paints him as a great mythical folk-hero. The lengthy quote below provides a wealth of detail:

Even more fascinating and picturesque was that other famed and partly fabulous smuggler chief of the Pyrenees, one, Don Sebastian, who, like Don Q, was as much bandit as smuggler. Of him the peasants still speak with much of awe in their tones and with crossed fingers, for the superstitious folk credit him with having possessed the evil-eye, with delving into sorcery and witchcraft, and with being under the personal protection of the devil himself.

Who he was no one knew, and Don Sebastian never divulged. Indeed, it is said certain over-curious persons who enquired too closely into the ancestry and antecedents of the bandit-smuggler, vanished most effectually and mysteriously, utterly destroyed by witchcraft, whisked away amid blue flames and a smell of brimstone, or dropped over a convenient cliff, according to the individual fancy of the story teller. But whether made away with by occult or corporeal methods, their fate served as a deterrent for others, and the natives satisfied their imagination and their love of the romantic by weaving a tale wherein Don Sebastian was the scion of a great and noble family, one of the Carlistas who had been robbed of home, family and estates by the Spanish government. […] Seldom, however, was he known as Don Sebastian. Instead, he was nicknamed “Quebra Huesos” [sic][17] (bone-breaker), not that he was given to fracturing the bones of his enemies, but because of his striking resemblance to the huge mountain vultures, the “Quebra Huesos” of the Spaniards. […] He was loved, respected, admired by the peasantry as greatly as he was feared, hated and sought by the officials, despite the people’s dread of occult things. Never did he molest the humble or the poor. He might appear like a wraith at a tiny, poverty-stricken cottage and help himself to food and shelter, but when he had gone, had vanished into the night or the morning mists, a bag of silver or a handful of gold pieces would be left in return for what he had taken. Men, women or children, if ordinary mortals, could wander as freely and as safely through the mountains where Quebra Huesos had his lairs as about their own doorways. They could even seek and receive shelter and food from his men, and if mounted and their sorry ponies or donkeys gave out, a new mount would always be forthcoming from the famed smuggler’s stables. Once, an aged mountaineer lost his foothold, and falling, broke his leg. Upon the shoulders of two of Don Sebastian’s men he was borne to his hut, and within a few hours, a bound and terrified surgeon, kidnapped from the nearest town, was brought to the injured man’s bedside. Under the gleaming eyes and levelled pistols of Quebra Huesos himself, he set the fractured limb, after which he was rewarded by a bag of gold – ten times the fee he would have charged a patient – and was carried in safety to his home.[18]

It is in this figure that we find the archetypal Pyrenean smuggler; a far cry from the reality of a lucrative but arduous profession which while dangerous, also held its fair share of monotony, waiting in comfortless perches and lugging goods in driving rain, ever watchful for the gendarmes’ lanterns. The smuggler captain is transformed into a rough diamond, capable of great and noble acts to the unfortunate and holding the powers of nature at his command. The question as to why is a harder one to answer, but much like the figure of the witch, a great deal lies in the act of being marginal, living outside of society, holding an intimate knowledge of the wild Pyrenean landscapes, engaging in hazardous work that brings great reward and in rarely being seen (at least, by those whom the smuggler wished to avoid; the authorities). Coupled with the economic benefits that smuggling brought to various rural communities, it is not surprising that the smuggler attained an aura of magic and adventure. It should also be noted that the descriptions by visitors hold, to varying degrees, an element of wistful envy; many of these travellers were middle-class and likely led reasonably regulated lives, and thus many projected their own romantic desires of an adventurous life onto their encounters and reports of the contrabandistas.[19]

It is worth touching on an aspect which is unexpectedly present in many descriptions and actions of the smugglers; their political sympathies. While undoubtedly payment features in the motivation to become involved in protecting or escorting a political or royal dissident across the border, the risks entailed would be enormous, and this suggests that some level of affinity and sympathy for the cause itself would feature in the decision to accept such an undertaking. The mention of a mythical Carlist background of Don Sebastian, for example, gives a clue towards these sympathies, as does the point raised by the customs officer quoted above, where he mentions that Bonapartism finds a particular root within many smugglers. However, it should be clarified here that many smugglers enjoyed the perpetuity of Napoleon’s campaigns not due to any great love of Imperial France, but rather due to the pressure and shortages placed on various goods markets, which made the demand for smuggled items soar and thus provided them with a lucrative trade across the frontier.’


[1] Pau is a small city and capital of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, and also of the historic Béarn region. It takes its name from the Béarnese term pau meaning ‘stockade’, which surrounded the city’s castle built in the 11th century.

[2] This is an Anglicised version of carbineros or carabiniers, terms used for companies of light infantry regiments and also a specific unit of gendarmes and customs officers whose duties included fighting smugglers.

[3] Fra Diavolo (‘Brother Devil’) was the nickname given to Michel Pezza (1771 – 1806), a popular Napolese guerrilla fighter and leader of the resistance movement against the French occupation of Naples. His inspirational exploits earned him an enduring place in local folklore and even in the works of Alexandre Dumas, so quickly did his posthumous legend grow. Thus, by the 19th century, his name had become a byword for romantic buccaneering anti-establishmentism.

[4] Johnson, Frederick, A Winter’s Sketches in the South of France and the Pyrenees (London: Chapman & Hall, 1857), pp. 141 – 142.

[5] Ramond, Louis-François, Travels in the Pyrenees; Containing a Description of the Principal Summits, F. Gold (trans.) (London: Longman & Co., 1813), pp. 116 – 117.

[6] Verrill, Alpheus, Smugglers and Smuggling (New York, NY: Duffield and Co., 1924), pp. 152 – 153. Available here: https://archive.org/details/smugglerssmuggli00verr

[7] Ramond, 1813, pp. 102 – 103.

[8] The particular ritual associated with the age-old practice is discussed in Chapter One.

[9] Packe, Charles, A Guide to the Pyrenees: Specially Intended for the Use of Mountaineers (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1867), p. 24.

[10] Ewing Oakley, Amy, Hill-Towns of the Pyrenees (New York, NY: Century Company Publishing, 1923), p. 403.

[11] For a detailed analysis of the First Carlist War, see: Lawrence, Mark, Spain’s First Carlist War, 1833 – 40 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[12] Gautier, Théophile, Wanderings in Spain (London: Ingram, Cooke and Co., 1853), p. 13.

[13] The book also features some excellent ethnographic observations on local Franc-Basque culture: Loti, Pierre, Ramuntcho (Paris: C. Lévy, 1897).

[14] Thiers, Louis Adolphe, The Pyrenees and the South of France During the Months of November and December 1822 (London: Treuttel and Würtz, 1823), pp. 140 – 142.

[15] Verrill, 1924, pp. 156 – 157.

[16] Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard (17th November, 1876 – 14th June, 1922) was an English soldier, writer, explorer, cricketer and hunter who travelled extensively in both military and private capacities, frequently using his experiences and local lore to weave his stories. These are classic of the period, primarily concerned with adventure, romance and daring-do.

[17] This should be ‘Quiebra Huesos’.

[18] Verrill, 1924, pp. 158 – 163.

[19] Another famous example of smuggler literature can be found in Joseph Conrad’s The Arrow of Gold, a tale set in Marseilles during the 1870s amidst the Third Carlist War, in which a love triangle revolves around the female leader of a band of ammunition smugglers, with the usual array of betrayals, adventures and mishaps typical of the period. The smugglers are supporters of the Carlist cause, which is unsurprising given the fact that Conrad himself helped smuggle guns for the Carlists during the late 1870s. See: Conrad, Joseph, The Arrow of Gold (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1919).

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