While the Cornish were by no means alone in their pursuit of ‘free trade’, it was the Duchy’s geographical proximity with Breton ports, along with affinities of language and culture, that gave Cornish smugglers their unique advantage. Perhaps the most famous/notorious of all the Cornish smugglers were the Carter brothers of Prussia Cove, John, Harry and Charles. Much of what is known about them comes from Harry’s autobiography, The Autobiography of a Cornish Smuggler, alongside the folklore that has passed down through the generations.
John Carter, the eldest of the trio, was known from boyhood as the King of Prussia. His eponymous ‘kingdom’, Prussia Cove (originally Portleah), was sheltered behind a headland at the centre of the wide sweep of Mount’s Bay and was hard to reach from the landward side without being observed. It was rumoured that many of the caves were connected to Carter’s house via secret passages.
The Carters could not have plied their trade without a degree of local collusion; their reputation for fairness, as well as the fact that both John and Harry were ardent Methodists, endeared them to their fellow countrymen. Swearing and uncouth behaviour by their crews was forbidden on the Carters’ vessels, and it’s said that during a period of exile in Roscoff Harry held Sunday services on the quayside for fellow smugglers.
Even the excise men recognised that the Carters were honest in their own way. On one occasion, when the authorities had seized contraband from Prussia Cove, John broke into the Customs House at Penzance and took back his ‘property’, leaving everything else behind. “John Carter has been here,” one of the customs officers is reported as saying. “We know it because he has taken nothing away that was not his own.”
Violent engagements with revenue boats and naval vessels were avoided wherever possible but the occasional sortie did occur. During one such encounter in 1788, Harry records: “The bone of my nose was cut right in two, and two very large cuts in my head that two or three pieces of my skull worked out afterwards.”
Despite such dramatic encounters, an uneasy truce was the general relationship between the Carters and the Customs authorities. These poorly paid minor officials were often unwilling to put their lives at risk, and some were even prepared to turn a blind eye in return for a share of the spoils.
By the early 19th century lucrative mining had ushered in a new era of prosperity and gentility, the revenue service had become better funded and more successful and the ‘golden era’ of Cornish smuggling had effectively come to an end.
In 1825, in one of history’s ironies, a Coastguard station was built at Carter’s Prussia Cove base, finally bringing to an end his Prussian ‘kingdom’.