The Principality of Andorra

The Principality of Andorra – one of the oldest and smallest countries in Europe, squashed between Spain and France. It is an independent country whose heads of state are the President of France and the Bishop of Seo de Urgel, Spain. Probably, the country is best known for winter sports and its biggest “industry” duty free shopping.

It is a mountainous land tucked in the Pyrenees; small fields scraped out of the mountainsides support cattle or are used for tobacco growing; vertiginous roads and tracks twine through the landscape. It was, in early times, a smuggler’s paradise, often carried out under the cover of the transhumance – the movement of sheep and cattle up to the high pastures in spring and back to softer ground in autumn.

It was a pretty open trade which boosted the subsistence level of many families. One Andorran priest remarked:

“It is a hard country…The cattle begin to straggle down from the hills when the snow falls early in September. The winter is long and very cold and my people are so poor. But for the smuggling they would suffer. What would you?”

American author and traveller Herbert Corey visited Andorra and watched the trade openly carried out. In 1918, he wrote:

“the public square was filled with men putting impatient feet against the ribs of rebellious mules in the effort to pull tighter the ropes of the diamond hitch. Loads were going across the hills, fête day or no. Other tired men straggled in at the heels of tired mules, the pack-saddles empty, after a successful trip into France. Small boys were importantly aiding. Girls clung to the arms of the contrabandista, and old women waddled about with parcels that looked like provisions for the departing.”

Accounts of 19th century smuggling tell of houses set up as receiving points for goods inwards and outwards. Often there was a “master” who paid the smugglers about 7 francs a day. If the men were caught they went unpaid and, as there was no defence against smuggling, went straight to jail.



The goods were transported as 25kg loads in a canvas bag reinforced by a wood frame. This made it easier for the smugglers  to dump the load and take to their heels if necessary, hiding out in the rocky mountainsides.

The men travelled over French or Spanish “ports” – these were the little-known, narrow and often dangerous tracks and pathways through and over the mountains which ultimately led into France or Spain. Sometimes mules were used to carry the contraband or the men hefted the packs themselves. The men wore rope soled shoes which were light and quiet and usually made their silent way through the “ports”  in small groups.

Tobacco and Spanish wine were popular contraband but market demands could change. During the First World War mules were an important cargo. Mules from Spain were in high demand by the Allied armies so much so that their exportation was frowned upon by the Spanish government. Although the smuggled mules were ultimately purchased  for use by the French army, there was French import duty upon live stock. This created a unique opportunity for Andorran smugglers who obtained mules from Spain by any means they could and led them over the mountain paths, at night into France. The French gendarmes  were persuaded to look the other way for a small percentage per mule.

The Spanish civil war brought a demand for smuggled foodstuffs, chemicals and pharmaceuticals and there was an inflow of refugees who crossed the border from Spain. Many children and wounded fighters died in makeshift camps set up just over the border.

Similarly during WWII smuggled goods entered Vichy France via the mountain passes and from 1942 onwards, cross-border networks, established along tracks not closely monitored, were set up so that smugglers could help families to escape from occupied France.

Nowadays, illicit free-trading has turned into duty-free shopping and the mountain passes are left to the hikers whilst those in search of cheap booze and fags take to the relative safety of tarmac roads.

The Hurricane, The Church Roof and The Parish Clerk

The eighteenth century is regarded as the golden age of private, duty-free enterprise, otherwise known as smuggling. Any coastal area appears to have involved itself in the trade when a man could earn more from a packhorse load of merchandise than he could from a week’s wage.

The Holderness coast is just a hop and a skip away from Holland across the cold and grey North Sea facilitating this brisk export and import business and the remote flat beaches of are made for discreet landings on a still, dark night.

Large boats called coopers,bristling with guns, hove-to off shore like floating cash-and-carry warehouses whereupon local folk from the Holderness villages would venture out in smaller boats to acquire merchandise for further distribution to friends, family and valued customers.

It was the job of Revenue men assisted by the Navy to intercept and capture the smugglers at sea and they had a hard time of it. In 1777 Captain Mitchell of the Revenue cutter Swallow met a notorious smuggler called Stoney in his schooner Kent, just off Spurn Point. Captain Mitchell sent in this report of the encounter:

“as their (the Kent) guns were in readiness, and at the same time waving us to go to the Northward, we were, by reason of their superior force, obliged to sheer off, but did our best endeavours to spoil his Market.”

This was not the first time that Captain Mitchell decided it was better to render himself able to “fight another day”; he was either very prudent or very timorous and perhaps not without cause. The smugglers, despite the romantic view presented in fiction, were dangerous, ruthless and violent men.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for those on land who stored the cargoes either. Take the incident of the hurricane, the church roof and the Parish Clerk. It occurred in the little town of Hornsea at a time when there was no resident vicar for the church only a curate who visited now and again to save the souls of the town dwellers. The Parish Clerk, clearly a man of enterprise, conceived the idea of storing contraband in the crypt of the church. On Christmas Eve 1732, perhaps in anticipation of the festivities, he opened the door to the crypt just at the moment when the town was struck by a hurricane. The force of the hurricane ripped the roof off the church and as it went flying away, the Clerk, huffing and puffing over his brandy kegs, keeled over with a stroke. For weeks after, he lay in his bed, paralysed and completely mute until one night he finally cocked up his toes and breathed his last.

Since hurricanes are definitely not the norm in these parts some might consider that Him (or Her) Up There was not best pleased at the use to which His (or Her) House was put and we can only speculate whether the good folk of Hornsea enjoyed a pipe of baccy and a glass of brandy that Christmas – all duty free of course.

“Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!”

(From: A Smuggler’s Song by Rudyard Kipling)