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Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground

Michael Kwass

ISBN 9780674726833

Publication date: 04/07/2014

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Louis Mandrin led a gang of bandits who brazenly smuggled contraband into eighteenth-century France. Michael Kwass brings new life to the legend of this Gallic Robin Hood and the thriving underworld he helped to create. Decades before the storming of the Bastille, surging world trade excited a revolution in consumption that transformed the French kingdom. Contraband exposes the dark side of this early phase of globalization, revealing hidden connections between illicit commerce, criminality, and popular revolt.

France's economic system was tailor-made for an enterprising outlaw like Mandrin. As French subjects began to crave colonial products, Louis XIV lined the royal coffers by imposing a state monopoly on tobacco from America and an embargo on brilliantly colored calico cloth from India. Vigorous black markets arose through which traffickers fed these exotic goods to eager French consumers. Flouting the law with unparalleled panache, Mandrin captured widespread public attention to become a symbol of a defiant underground.

This furtive economy generated violent clashes between gangs of smugglers and customs agents in the borderlands. Eventually, Mandrin was captured by French troops and put to death in a brutal public execution intended to demonstrate the king's absolute authority. But the spectacle only cemented Mandrin's status as a rebel folk hero in an age of mounting discontent. Amid cycles of underground rebellion and agonizing penal repression, the memory of Mandrin inspired ordinary subjects and Enlightenment philosophers alike to challenge royal power and forge a movement for radical political change.


  • Engrossing and ambitious…Vivid and thrilling, Kwass’s depiction of Mandrin and his infamous associates also leads to a compelling reconsideration of the larger political and economic shifts occurring in pre-Revolutionary France…From Savoyard peasants to worldly noblemen, Kwass engagingly recreates the spider-web of illicit commerce and the motivations of those who stood to gain from it…Contraband’s undeniable strength comes from Kwass’s superb, at times cinematic, attention to detail. In recreating Mandrin’s smuggling raids in 1754 and 1755, Kwass develops a fascinating array of characters and settings. Kwass’s Mandrin is a sharply dressed and sophisticated protagonist with a flair for political theater, a shrewd leader, outmaneuvering the numerous intrigues thickening around him, albeit ultimately and tragically undone by circumstances…The story is filled with assassinations, betrayals, sieges, elegant dinner parties, riveting chase sequences, and more…Throughout this remarkable story, there is drama and insight enough to galvanize the attention of both scholars and lay readers.

    —Patrick Hyde, Los Angeles Review of Books


  • 2015, Winner of the J. Russell Major Prize
  • 2014, Winner of the Oscar Kenshur Book Prize


  • Michael Kwass is Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University.

Book Details

  • 472 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press