When I’m doing research for my novels, I often find interesting and unexpected historical nuggets that prove the adage “truth is stranger than fiction.” One of the surprising facts that I unearthed during my research was the existence of a “smugglers’ city” in Gravelines, France. Because England and France were at war, trade between them was forbidden—enforced by a blockade in the English Channel. Nevertheless, between 1810 and 1814, France officially sanctioned and supported an extensive smuggling operation. Napoleon regarded smugglers as a weapon of war and a means to boost the domestic French industry.
Scholar Gavin Daly writes, “In the final years of the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon allowed English smugglers entry into the French ports of Dunkirk and Gravelines, encouraging them to run contraband back and forth across the Channel. Gravelines catered for up to 300 English smugglers, housed in a specially constructed compound known as the ‘city of smugglers’. Napoleon used the smugglers in the war against Britain. The smugglers arrived on the French coast with escaped French prisoners of war, gold guineas, and English newspapers; and returned to England laden with French textiles, brandy, and gin.”
The Smugglers’ City was an enclosed encampment, built and guarded by the French army and supervised by the French government. English smugglers could visit the camp and trade with preapproved French merchants (who had to provide appropriate papers for admittance), but they could not travel to other parts of France.
Why did Napoleon go to so much trouble to violate his own laws? The primary reason was that he needed money to finance the war. His government received a cut of the ill-gotten gains, and he believed that he could substantially weaken the English economy by siphoning off their gold—surely a little wishful thinking on his part. In addition, many French merchants were suffering from the effects of the British naval blockade and Napoleon’s own trade policies. Trading at Gravelines brought much-needed capital to French industries.
There was also a lively trade in prisoners of war who were escaping from British prisons. Smugglers would earn some extra money by bringing them across the Channel to their home country. Napoleon also used Gravelines as a source of intelligence. His agents collected English newspapers and brought them to Paris so intelligence officials could glean the latest news. Smugglers would also take French spies back to English shores.
The story of Gravelines was too good for my writerly imagination to pass up, so I used it as a setting for part of The Unforgettable Mr. Darcy. Sometimes the truth is exactly what an author needs to spice up her fiction.