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'Twix' the Lizard and Dover,
We hand our stuff over,
Though I may not inform how we do it, nor when.
But a light on each quarter,
Low down on the water,
Is well understanded by poor honest men.

Even then we have dangers,
From meddlesome strangers,
Who spy on our business and are not content
To take a smooth answer,
Except with a handspike…
And they say they are murdered by poor honest men!

(from) Poor Honest Men Rudyard Kipling

Basic Information

Smuggling is the transportation of goods or people across the frontier of a jurisdiction without official sanction, usually for sale on the black or grey market. One who smuggles is known as a smuggler (amongst other things).

Smugglers can transport their cargos by land, sea or air as required - and even underground in some cases - and can work on almost any scale, from single items to industrial scale shipment of raw materials.

The motive for smuggling can also vary widely - the smugglers may merely be avoiding customs duty on an otherwise legal trade or shipping grey market goods against a price fixing regime, but equally their cargo may be contraband at one or both ends of the voyage. Values dissonance may accrue by cargo, destination and era1. Import/export of illegal immigrants is also a significant branch of the smuggling trade. Often referred to as "people trafficking" this is sometimes voluntary and usually exploitative at best2 … at worst it is a feeder for slavery in the modern era.

Obviously, smugglers need a good knowledge of their transport route and a talent for stealth or disguise (or both) … and the ability to subvert law enforcement at one or both ends probably helps. In many eras, smugglers are liable to be well armed and fairly ruthless - especially when their trade happens to be capital.

An interesting variant of smuggling occurred during the early Colonial Era in the Caribbean, where Spanish colonies were forbidden to trade with merchants from any other nation, but had plenty of demand for imported goods. British, French and Dutch ships (and doubtless others) were all known to "force" smaller colonies to trade at gunpoint, with a peremptory display of naval gunnery providing a fig leaf for an otherwise voluntary trade. Of course, it was not unknown for the goods being sold to have been "acquired" from genuine Spanish merchants on the way to the point of sale - an English privateer (for example) could sail with one cargo, sell it, and then acquire and sell several more over the course of a voyage.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Smuggling may be a significant activity in many campaigns - even as something the PCs do for a living (see Firefly for examples).
  • There may well be moral distinction between black and grey market smuggling … and it may not always be the obvious one. Whilst grey market customs busting is morally neutral to all but the most lawfully inclined, the black market will depend entirely on the trade - as noted, refugees are a more acceptable cargo than slaves and spies are morally compromising under most circumstances, but things like shipping vernacular Bibles (or Jesuits, depending on affiliation) during the wars of religion? After all, legality and morality are not the same thing.
  • A lot of the fun may depend who the smuggled cargo belongs to - if it's your own stock, all you lose by dumping it is your capital … if it belongs to, say, the Hutts, you may be storing up trouble for yourself.
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