The tobacco smugglers of Cadaqués saved the village from poverty and abandonment after the wine louse phylloxera wiped out the vineyards.

Penelope Cruz illustrates the tobacco smugglers of Cadaqués.

Penelope Cruz

In the right circumstances, tobacco is good for your health. The stuff has been chewed, sniffed and smoked since man discovered fire and was finally able to light up. American tribes carried the brown leaf in pouches to trade and smoked the Nicotiana plant at sacred rituals and in peace pipes to seal treaties.

Christopher Columbus during his first voyage to America in 1492 described in his diary seeing natives ‘using a burning cone called Tabaco.’ The first plants unloaded on the docks in Seville in 1520 were delivered to King Phillip II’s physician. He fired up a pipe, sucked the smoke down into his lungs and commended tobacco as a mood enhancer and appetite suppressant.

Smoking caught on quickly and the government in 1636 established a tobacco monopoly to provide tax revenues to maintain its fleet of war ships and defend the colonies. The company was called the Real Estanco del Tabaco. The Royal Tobacco Shop. Small producers were closed down. A state run factory opened in Seville in 1728 and the product was sold in licenced Tabacs – kiosks, or estancos – in every small hamlet in the country.  

Smoking was popularised across Europe and there was barely a single individual during the industrial revolution who didn’t enjoy the assumed benefits of nicotine as a soporific and psychostimulant. Bored in army trenches, on a break from digging coal or smelting ore, there was nothing like a fag. Smoking gave people a sense of self image and belonging, a sign of masculinity in men and risqué in women, qualities suggested by advertising and movies.

The Tobacco Smugglers of Cadaqués Just Pirates

After the vineyards died in Cadaqués at the end of the 19th century, smuggling was one of the few ways to survive. The coastline is dangerous with tricky currents and deceptive rock formations. There are countless small coves, secluded tracks and myriad ways of outwitting the authorities with contraband goods.

The tobacco smugglers of Cadaqués were known as tabaqueros, although it wasn’t only tobacco they smuggled. During the wine boom, people had grown to enjoy their small pleasures: coffee, sugar, silk for making shirts and dresses – a glass of wine. The tabaqueros catered for these small addictions. They were men of great standing who grew into their role dressing like buccaneers in Neapolitan berets, a gold earring dangling from one ear and skin blackened and burnt by the sun. Without maps or a compass they entered the Gulf of Leon to bring goods back from France and crossed the Mediterranean from North to South to return loaded with bales of tobacco they unloaded on the beaches.

The bales were taken to storehouses with basements cut into the living rock and doors painted oxblood red. Behind the these doors and in many private households, workshops were set up to shred the bales and chop the dry leaves into fine cut shag ready for rolling cigarettes and small cigars called caliqueños. The work was done by nimble fingered women. The men moved the product in the baskets once used to carry grapes over the mountain paths to secret rendezvous with couriers on horseback in charge of the next leg of the journey.

The tobacco smugglers of Cadaqués may have looked like pirates but were solid Catalan businessmen with the skills to create a network of outlets. Cadaqués smokes were a product of such quality, they were sold from under the counter in kiosks in towns and cities across Catalonia and even in the most exclusive tobacco emporium in the Ramblas in Barcelona.

Holy Smoke

The trade flourished until a deputy denounced the enterprise on the floor of the Cortes, and an infantry battalion led by General Martínez Campos was dispatched to Cadaqués to seek out and confiscate the contraband. With grim expressions and bayonets fixed, the soldiers went from house to house. They searched cupboards and drawers, under beds, in pots and baskets, in tool sheds and tree-shaded patios where women with nimble fingers sat counting prayer beads with unforgiving expressions. The soldiers found absolutely nothing, not even a shred of tobacco to fill a clay pipe.

What General Martínez Campos had not considered was the long march his men would have to make over the mountains. It gave the bootleggers 24 hours to shift the bales of tobacco over the rooftops to hiding places created among the drystone terraces for that very purpose.

The last of the tobacco bales were concealed under the altar in the church, the bell tower and in tombs with loose lids in the cemetery. The tabaqueros then took to the sea in their fishing boats and disappeared. Was the priest in league with the tobacco smugglers of Cadaqués? Were the tobacco bales hidden in the church a token for the soldiers to find? It is unknown, but the denunciation made in the Cortes had been fully confirmed.

The haul was carried down to the plaza and guarded night and day. People came from nearby villages and towns to observe the spectacle. When General Martínez Campos was satisfied that he had recovered the entire stash, it was loaded on carts and the crowd gathered along the main street to watch the soldiers march back over the hills with their general bringing up the rear in his horse and trap.

The tobacco smugglers of Cadaqués had acquired the tobacco by nefarious means. They paid no tax and by selling their product illegally, depressed the sales of regular merchants who did pay tax. They were considered criminals by the authorities. In Cadaqués, the tabaqueros were heroes, men who believed in liberty and individualism who saved the village as the big clock turned into the 20th century and there were new ways to survive.


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One Comment

  1. This rousing historical account reads like a screenplay written specifically for Johnny Depp to play the lead role and perhaps Keith Richards by his side … playing the role of Capitán Depp’s Sancho Panza. Yet as always, there exists an ironic twist to the historical juxtaposition between then and now. Then, tobacco was considered a boon to health and happiness, and legal … if you paid your taxes. Now, we know it for the poison it is. Yet cannabis, which does enhance so many aspects of life from stress reduction to creativity is still considered a devilish poison and criminally illegal in many places around the world. Pete Seeger’s ‘Where Have All the Flower Gone?’ comes to mind … “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”

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