[Firefly] Nuts & Bolts of the ‘Verse – Smuggling

Discourses on the workings of the Verse, for those as might be looking to spend time there online.



Smuggling thrives where there are imbalances.

Any time a government seeks to control the importation, exportation, or transportation of something, smuggling
arises to circumvent the controls and fill demands. Wherever government or corporate involvement affects the price or availability of something, smuggling is a given.

Smuggling typically involves two categories: things that are prohibited, and things that are taxed. While the notion of smuggling tends to bring first to mind alcohol, drugs, and firearms, it is safe to say that there is hardly any human product that has not been the focus of smuggling, as there is hardly a product that has not been banned or taxed.

(This includes such mundane things as flour and salt. Grain and flour have been vital commodities smuggled during several civil wars; at one time a 2,500 mile barrier, The Great Salt Hedge, divided India in an attempt to force locals to use imported English salt rather than their own product, and smuggling was constant across the barrier.)

It is not unusual for governments to assign taxes or tariffs to imported goods to support local products being
competitive in the marketplace. Taxation is also a significant way for governments to finance themselves, and to keep some of the money local rather than going to offshore suppliers.

Embargoes and blockades are used by governments to restrict imports into areas of dispute, or in an attempt to
limit the economy or military effectiveness of another society. Thus any consumable, product, or technology may
become the cargo of blockade runners. (In the American Civil War, up to half of the supplies vital to the war
effort of the South were brought in by ships running the Northern blockade, and the blockade runners carried out
Southern cotton to finance the purchases, most of it to Europe but some of it actually to the North.)

Prohibited items may include not just goods — weapons, explosives, drugs — but also people. Since weapons and
politically-disallowed people may be considered as tools of insurrection, they are often high on the proscribed list. Morality is also the basis for some proscriptions, with writings and items banned as being immoral. (While pornography is the most common example, condoms and other birth control products have also been banned on moral grounds, as have religious texts.)

Where embargoes are in place to suppress another society “technology smuggling” is a factor, with cargoes including manufacturing equipment, trained technicians, and intellectual knowledge of manufacturing processes. Improved seeds and livestock are also subject to smuggling, and may be viewed as comparable to technological advances..

In less-developed areas such as colonies, where the local products have not caught up to imports in quality and
money for purchasing them is limited, locals are often willing to deal with smugglers to get “foreign” goods. Since smuggling in effect supports the economy, comfort, and growth of colonies, many colonials are passively or actively supportive of the smuggling trade. Export taxes are often placed on raw materials or produced goods, and locals often view smugglers as supporting free trade..

Smuggling is also seen as a means of resistance to regulations imposed by “absentee” governments; many
smugglers have dealt hand-in-hand with rebellious forces. (Although not always for idealistic reasons, as profits
from wartime smuggling can be quite high). In many times and places of Earth’s history those labeled as smugglers by officials have referred to themselves as Free Traders, both as a description of their practice and as a political statement against trade restrictions.

It should be kept in mind during these discussions that smuggling may involve both import and export.


So, how does this scholarly discussion apply to the Verse?

Put simply: there is no way smuggling could not be a part of the postwar Verse.

The Verse as we know it is an imbalanced place, with the relative richness of the Core planets and the trade-poor
poverty of the Border worlds. The postwar environment is one of turmoil, inequities, and outright suppression.

From what we have seen it is very likely that the Alliance has restrictions, effectively embargoes, in place to
punish the cultures that supported the Independents in the War. (It is not at all unlikely that some of these
restrictions extend to those that were merely neutral.) Worlds that were actively militarized are also
monitored and restricted to assure they cannot regain the ability to wage war.

But the War aside, it has long been the policy of parent nations to strive to keep colonies poor, weak, and
dependent. Governments establish colonies to have influence in new areas but also to export dissidents and import raw materials, and the parent nations are typically interested in the benefits to flow toward only themselves.

We have seen glimpses that the Core worlds are technologically advanced and teeming with people. Even with advanced manufacturing techniques all of those raw materials have to come from somewhere, which requires the exploitation of asteroids and the outer worlds. (In fact, as we have seen that terraforming of planets has occurred beyond what might be required to handle population pressures, it can be conjectured that the terraforming process is itself a tool to facilitate the exploitation of the resources of the outer worlds.)

Traditionally, colonists are a mix of government officials, company agents, religious and political dissidents, convicts, slaves, adventurers, the dispossessed… And, the hopeful. Pioneers, willing to work hard to make a go of a new opportunity.

“The original lists of persons of quality; emigrants; religious exiles; political rebels; serving men sold for a term of years; apprentices; children stolen; maidens pressed; and others who went from Great Britain to the American Plantations, 1600-1700.” — title of 1874 document

The home governments are in a peculiar situation — they want colonies to be successful in bringing resources to the citizens back home with a high return on investment, but not so successful that the people in the colonies begin to feel that they deserve a higher percentage of the fruits of their labors or actual independence. An unsuccessful colony can also become a drag upon the resources of the home government.

It is not unusual for colonies to exploit convict or slave labor; using such laborers not only helps the bottom line on profits, it also has a powerful public relations effect — should citizens hear of restlessness or rebelliousness in the colonies, it is easy for the government to turn the perception to “troublesome convicts” and get public support for whatever measures they may have to take to suppress the colonists. (Presenting the idea that the “convicts” are threatening the assured supply of raw materials also goes a long way to mollifying any citizens who might be sympathetic to the colonists.) And even if government officials, with stated regret, have to use deadly force to assure control, well, there are always more dissidents to send to the mines. (It was often the practice, during Earth’s Colonial period, for judges to offer a criminal the options of “jail, or the colonies”, a practice that assured a steady supply of laborers.) Even when the actual percentage of criminals is low in the colonial population, it is not hard for a government to present the image of a colony as being a penal workforce, paying their debt to the home society by providing needed resources.

(The discussion above brings up another type of smuggling: the illegal export/import of news and information. Where colonists might benefit from the public hearing of their plight –“No taxation without representation!” — it behooves the government to keep a tight control on the information the public receives. The more totalitarian a government, the more it tries to control news distribution and the greater the need for “word smuggling”.)

But of course not all colonists are ex-convicts, or slaves, or undesirables exiled from the rigidly controlled Core worlds. Most of the folks out on the Border and on the Rim are good solid pioneer stock, willing to work hard and build new lives and communities. However, until they have sufficient product they may be in trade-deficit and unable to afford import taxes required by Core producers or even the standard prices for the items themselves. Conversely, supplies of luxury items from the Core worlds may be so limited that people on the outer worlds may be willing to pay “smuggler prices” for such goods in order to get them at all.

Another factor in the Verse is that not all colonies and communities were established by governments. Many mining colonies were established by corporations, most notably Blue Sun which is so powerful and well-connected that it is the de facto government in many remote areas. Many towns are “company towns” and companies are not eager to allow in goods from competing companies, or to allow goods to come in other than through the company store. Corporations are even more concerned about the bottom line than governments, and expect a good payoff for their investments.

Smuggling encouraged and supplied by one corporation may actually be a tool to undermine another corporation by challenging trade monopolies, undercutting prices, or as a means of building resentment against a company’s import restrictions. Many smugglers have, all unknowing, become part of a power struggle between rival corporations — a situation that carries with it hazards beyond Alliance involvement, as some corporate factions have proven willing to bring deadly violence into the equation. Where an Alliance customs patrol might seize cargo or even the ship, a corporate security force might also have been instructed to make an object lesson of the crew who dared defy the local power structure.

It must be remembered that smuggling is not always a noble practice. Some smuggled drugs are dangerously addictive. Some weapons are going to be used not for political resistance or self-defense, but for violent crime and domination of innocents. Some smuggling is of people destined for forced labor or prostitution; well-founded rumors suggest that several large corporations utilize significant slave populations – for public image reasons and to allow deniability, these “workers” are often transported via smuggling networks rather than company freighters. Smuggling routes may also be used to import members of a gang or faction so they can infiltrate the local population in preparation for an attack on a local faction. (And some captains have even discovered, too late, that the people they thought they were smuggling to a destination were actually on board to pirate the ship.)

Ship captains would do well to bear in mind the myriad factions potentially involved in a smuggling job, and be wary of a job with a payoff “too good to be true”. While it is not always possible to take a job from someone you know, reputation is important both ways. Too-eagerly accepting a job without checking the background of the party offering it could result in a captain and crew getting involved in a very tricky situation, indeed.


Here’s a startling notion: it actually benefits the Alliance to exercise a significant degree of laxness where smuggling to the outer worlds is concerned.

The reason: smuggling acts as a pressure relief valve. The perception that locally-supported smugglers are “putting one over on the man” creates a sense of satisfaction and a vicarious release of resentment against Alliance restrictions — resentment that, if allowed to fester and grow, could lead to problems affecting Alliance control. By “neglectfully encouraging” a smuggler’s network, putting up just enough of a show to seem that they are being bested, officials re-direct energy that might be used to organize more vigorous resistance. (Allowing the formation of smuggler’s networks also makes it easier for officials to place spies within the system, to monitor if the smuggling includes weapons and other banned items.)

It is a near-certainty that some middlemen supplying smugglers are actually Alliance operatives; this allows officials to keep tabs on what is being smuggled while also building dossiers on those doing the smuggling — information that could be useful should those people seek to exploit the smuggler’s network as a means for organizing rebellion. Having a middleman in the loop also allows the Alliance to make profits from the smuggled goods, goods they supplied in the first place — a win-win situation, supporting the bottom line.

(An Alliance-resentful smuggler such as Captain Malcolm Reynolds would very likely strongly resist the idea that he is a tool of mollification. But the reality that smuggling is not as “pure” as it seems does not reduce the popular admiration of smugglers as folk heroes, as they wily evade the customs officials and bring desired goods to the folks on the outer worlds.)

Here is a good illustration of how “business as usual” smuggling worked during our own history (the British colonies in the Americas), and how a crackdown on smuggling actually helped foment rebellion. (Taken from Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America by Peter Andreas, emphasis mine.)

“The first six decades of the eighteenth century can be described as the golden age of illicit trade in the American colonies. … In 1710, there were only thirty-seven customs officers in the colonies; the number had increased to only fifty by 1760. During this same time period the estimated colonial population increased from 331,700 to 1,593,600. The imperial customs administrative apparatus in the colonies was fragmented and in disarray; enforcement was typically lethargic. The British authorities had neither the will nor the capacity to put a serious dent in the smuggling business. … All sides kept up appearances. Colonial traders continued to use circuitous routes to smuggle goods, disguise their cargo, and dole out bribes rather than publicly challenge the king’s right to collect duties and enforce the trade laws. Customs officials, for their part, went through the ritualistic motions of inspecting ships and collecting modest amounts of duties (while routinely lining their pockets with payments to look the other way).

Institutionalized corruption had a pacifying effect; informal financial accommodation meant that violence between smugglers and customs inspectors was rare. For the most part, bribing trumped bullying, producing a win-win situation for the smuggler and the customs agent — even if not for imperial coffers. Corruption was in fact competitive: colonial ports competed with each other to attract shipping business, and those ports that offered the most laxity in inspections and most bribable customs houses enjoyed a competitive advantage.” – p.16

When the British began to crack down on corruption in the smuggling world, unsettling old arrangements and making bribery less reliable, trouble arose that took on aspects of rebellion.

“Smuggling was certainly not the only contentious issue in the years leading up to the War of Independence, but it is striking how much of colonial outrage toward the British crown was directed at customs agents and their crackdown on illicit trade. The enforcement of trade laws was the most concrete, visible manifestation of imperial presence in the colonies. And the violation of these laws and the increasingly hostile reaction to their enforcement were the most concrete expressions of colonial opposition to imperial rule. Growing resentment toward the king’s customs becames a unifying cause in the otherwise fragmented and loosely connected American colonies.” – p. 29

“Colonial opposition to the crackdown on smuggling took many forms. It ranged from legal challenges, protest letters, and boycotts of British goods to mob riots, tarring and feathering of informants, and sacking of customs vessels. Forcible rescues of seized ships and goods by angry mobs became more frequent. A series of humiliating and embarrassing episodes made British authorities increasingly aware that their grip on the colonies was tenuous, at best.” – p. 33

In light of the above, it is not surprising that penalties for smuggling in the Verse may sometimes seem light. Unless the cargo is actually of proscribed goods — items or people that might be involved in active resistance against the Alliance — seizure of the cargo and a fine levied is actually more in line with Alliance interests than jail time for the crew. The crew will likely go on to more smuggling and perhaps more fines, while the cargo will be sold at auction by the officials to the profit of the Alliance (or corrupt local Alliance representatives) and go back into the mercantile stream. (Perhaps even, ironically, to end up being carried again by the same crew in a new smuggling venture.) Of course, where the cargo does include military items or politically-sensitive people, the Alliance may well bring the full force of legality to bear and seize the ship as well. (History is full of examples of seized smuggling ships being bought back by their captains, at government auction.)

Similarly, local officials are often willing to turn a blind eye to the source of needed cargoes. In the “Safe” episode of Firefly, the local law allows our crew to leave unscathed after being interrupted in what was very obviously a furtive transaction. The herd had already arrived, to get into the local economy; the sheriffs likely didn’t much care where the herd came from, just so long as they too would get some steaks. (Though it is still unclear how the smuggling of a small herd to a moon that looked like good ranching territory could be profitable. Perhaps there had been a disease affecting the cattle, and the smuggled cattle had been bred for resistance to the disease. The fact that Sir Warrick had to arrangement export through Badger would suggest a trade restriction in place to control genetic stock — not an uncommon situation, historically.)

Smuggling also sometimes takes circuitous routes not just to avoid checkpoints, but also to confuse the background of the smuggled goods. This most often occurs by going through a neutral port; items that cannot licitly be delivered from a seller on Moon X to a buyer on Moon Z are delivered to a port on Moon Y, which moon has different import restrictions; the items are transshipped and delivered to Z as a legal cargo. Neutral ports benefit from the extra traffic (and, of course, harbor fees), and many such ports thrive by turning a blind eye to the cargo exchanges.

It is sometimes not the cargo which is disapproved, but rather the carrier. Parent nations and corporations often have regulations in place to control what carriers are allowed into their ports; though the cargo may be innocent and even untaxable, local authorities may object to it being carried by a “foreign” shipper — after all, as far as the parent nations / corporations are concerned the colony’s role is to send money home, not spend it with a competing organization. Such regulations support the “company store” approach that controls availability and prices in company towns, as in a Blue Sun outpost typically being supplied only by Blue Sun ships.


Smuggling is an inherent part of life in the Verse, with the involvement of everyone from the largest governments and corporations down to the average person living on the outer worlds.


Leave a Reply