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Smuggling French Hats into 17th Century Spain: Worth a Fight?

The following is a guest post by Samantha Mendoza, who served as a summer 2021 remote intern transcribing and researching documents in the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents crowdsourcing campaign at the Law Library of Congress.

Brief on behalf Captain José Figueres versus Captain Julio Grondona, concerning the seizure of Grondona's vessel due to the alleged smuggling of certain goods by said Captain Grondona. [Ca. 1690].

Brief on behalf Captain José Figueres versus Captain Julio Grondona, concerning the seizure of Grondona’s vessel due to the alleged smuggling of certain goods by said Captain Grondona. [Ca. 1690].

In present day, it is not uncommon to hear news of attempts to smuggle items across national borders. This can be something as serious as drugs or even people, or could include invasive plants species, foods, etc. But one item that usually does not cross the mind is clothing. The Brief on behalf Captain José Figueres versus Captain Julio Grondona, concerning the seizure of Grondona’s vessel due to the alleged smuggling of certain goods by said Captain Grondona [Ca. 1690] from the Herencia collection details an attempt to smuggle French hats into Spain. Though to someone in the 21st century these might just be an article of clothing, in 17th century Spain, this was contraband worth fighting for.

A ship captained by Julio Grondona that had left from “Marcella,” likely Marseille, France, was nearing a Spanish port when Captain Joseph Figueres learned that it may have contraband. On the ship were drugs and hats made in France (p. 2). The contraband in question was not the drugs, but the French hats that were being brought to Spain without permission. The Spanish authorities decided that they were going to approach without intending to take possession of the ship because “Si en todo caso, siendo los sombreros de poco valor, y la pena de la perdida del Navio con todos sus ornamentos de tan grande estimacion padeceria, ò no, el vicio de nullidad,” which roughly translates to: “being the hats of little value, and the penalty of the loss of the Ship with all its ornaments of such great esteem, suffer, or not, the vice of nullity” (p. 2).

When the ship was approached, the Spanish authorities were met with hostility. They attempted to allow the ship’s captain and crew to declare themselves as friendly or enemies but were instead met with shooting of a cannon (p. 4). A battle ensued, with those firing from Grondona’s ship killing one person: Alferes Muñoz (p. 5). There were many attempts to negotiate a ceasefire, but intermissions ended quickly with more gunfire followed. Many different types of weapons were used, including pistols, muskets, and even stones (p. 6). Finally, the authorities were able to climb onto the ship, gain control, and detain the men with their variety of weapons. The men on this ship were prepared for combat, even if it is just over hats, something that we just see as a fashion accessory in today’s world.

Though this document does not specifically say why the hats were considered contraband, there is a lot of emphasis on the fact that they were manufactured in France, and that he did not gain permission to bring them into Spain. While there was not a complete ban on French goods, they were strictly controlled. There was even a reference to another smuggling case where someone had French books confiscated, but that occurred peacefully as the ship’s captain obeyed orders. He also claimed that he did not know how to read and write and, therefore, did not know that they books were printed in French (p. 23). The authorities were able to compromise with him and bring about a peaceful resolution, even though he did not have permission to bring in these goods. It makes one wonder if perhaps Captain Grondona could have received similar treatment and been able to keep his ship had he not gone straight into combat mode. Nevertheless, reading this story in 2021, where someone’s ship was seized, and a life was lost — all for hats — was quite surprising, yet provides a thrilling story from the rich history of Spain.

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