World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Alan L. Karras, Smuggling: Contraband and Corruption in World History. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2010. 224 pp. $34.95 (hardcover and e-book).


     This book is part of a broader Exploring World History series edited by John McNeill and the late Jerry Bentley that seeks to provide supplemental texts to internationalize the undergraduate classroom through either thematic world history syntheses or books that adopt a transnational approach to understanding a particular region of the world. Smuggling does a bit of both. Karras focuses specifically on smuggling in the Caribbean and China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but does so by placing these regional treatments of smuggling into a global perspective. He does so through five concise chapters and a conclusion.

     Karras begins his exploration with an examination of the ways in which laws are socially constructed and the roles that smugglers and smuggling played in both nation (and empire) building and the limits of states (and empires) in the modern world. Governments, through the passing and enforcement of laws, create the legal and illegal. The enforcement of laws results in black markets (read: opportunities) for outlawed goods and services. Repeated interactions between the governments and citizens (or subjects) served to reconstitute and reconfigure it. Given that the time under study was one in which states were (successfully) using a mercantilist policy to capture more revenues, Karras cautions us not to view increases in the reported cases of smuggling as a clear indicator that smuggling was increasing. It could just as easily mean that governments were paying more attention. Nonetheless, the Caribbean provided some unique features that increased the opportunities for smuggling; namely, the overlapping and competing sets of legal regimes implemented by the different European empires attempting to dominate the region.

     Karras also brings up an important methodological point in the preface and early in the book. Given that, unlike pirates, smugglers were attempting to avoid detection by government authorities and that they often worked in cahoots with corrupt government officials, "it was only in rare circumstances that smuggler were actually identified, reprimanded, and/or prosecuted" (7); it was equally as rare that they left "meticulous records" of their exploits (vii). This observation, and the ensuing discussion, can provide teachers with an opportunity to further explore with their students the ways in which sources impact our understanding of history and how we might need to read some official government sources "across the grain" in order to draw lessons from them.

     In Karras's exploration of the political economy of smuggling, he notes that while the individual names may change from place to place, the strategies adopted by smugglers are pretty consistent both across space and time. Their main goal is to move goods from one legal jurisdiction to another without paying the legally required taxes. Doing so not only undermines states by limiting their resources but also often undermines states through working with state agents who view advancing their private interests as more important than they public charge of upholding the law. Importantly, he also argues that smuggling also called into question a state's sovereignty. The willingness of smugglers to run contraband goods, which might also include themselves (today's illegal immigrants, for example), across borders casts doubt not only on the effectiveness of governments, but also on their legitimacy.

     Karras then moves on to provide a series of examples of the ways that "populations found spaces to negotiate with their governments" through smuggling (73). He introduces the obvious, but often overlooked, truth that contraband need not be illegal for it to be smuggled. Instead, contraband becomes illegal through the act of smuggling. Hence, a good can be legal in one jurisdiction but illegal in another, legal in both jurisdictions, or illegal in both jurisdictions. States tended to focus on the smuggling of human beings – slaves, migrants, etc. – over that of everyday products or illicit substances, probably because it was financially counterproductive to combat most smuggling. One of Karras's most fascinating findings is that most government officials charged with combatting smuggling fit one of two standard descriptions: rule-bound officials and those who knew the rules but did not care to enforce them. As one my suspect, rule-bound officials were a distinct minority.

     In addition to the bad cost/benefit ratios, Karras finds that governments refuse to vigorously enforce their own tax and tariff laws because doing so undermines their legitimacy. Karras asks us to consider the conundrum of states that theoretically acquire their legitimacy from the consent of the governed who repeatedly pass laws to demonstrate state authority and sovereignty that would (if enforced) "curtail the population's own consumer behavior" (110) while refusing to enforce those laws except for the occasional demonstration case (usually aimed at non-citizens) meant more to show the state's possible efficacy than to actually change citizen behavior. Karras uses this conundrum (as well as students' fascination with pirates and smugglers), and the ways in which his own students (often unknowingly) negotiate with the state through petty smuggling, untaxed purchases, or general law breaking, as a means of introducing these subjects to the classroom; [see Alan L. Karras, "Teaching the Political Economy of Smuggling in a (Modern World History Course," World History Bulletin, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Fall 2011)].

     In the end, Karras argues that smuggling is fraud that does harm to the state and that paying taxes is patriotic, lessons that are no less true today than they were in the past.

Andrae Marak is a professor of history and political science and the chair of the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences at Governors State University in the Chicago area. He received his Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico and teaches courses on world, Latin American, United States, and Chinese history and politics. He can be reached at


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2013 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use