When I saw this free ebook, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A CORNISH SMUGGLER, I eagerly downloaded it and settled in for what I hoped would be tales of intrigue, danger and adventure on the high seas. The book is based on the manuscript of Captain Harry Carter an Englishman who was born and raised in Cornwall, and who grew up to adopt the life of a smuggler.
But there’s precious little about smuggling in this manuscript.
Most of the document written in 1809 by Carter describes his personal spiritual journey as a God-seeking Methodist after abandoning the illegal and harrowing life of a smuggler.
But I must also add that I was not entirely disappointed. His quest to find God and inner peace does not read like most of today's (or any era's) insufferable Christian tripe. Rather, Carter’s journey projects more like the journal of an acetic monk. He pitches no dogma, offers no haranguing lectures and does no proselytizing.
His journey might better be compared to that of a Buddhist renouncing all the material illusions of the world, or a Hindu seeker determined to focus only on the transcendent, and a desire to merge with the omnipresence of Universal Consciousness.
Carter’s strength is his ignorance, something he confesses to repeatedly throughout his many travails and travels. He possesses what Zen master D.T. Suzuki called “beginner’s mind.” Innocent like a child, he uses the broad tenets of Methodism, but finds his own way with constant simple prayer, fasting, singing (chanting), and a refusal to strive and grasp for wealth. He never resists the aggressive forces which confront him along the way. He only doggedly seeks peace, anonymity and to be left alone.
Carter is like a spiritual Ulysses, buffeted about by the winds of chance and circumstance. Like Ulysses, he often finds friends and aid at unexpected moments. His post-smuggling travels take him all the way to New York – which must have been a fascinating place in 1789 – back to England and then to France where he was caught up in the Reign of Terror precipitated by the French Revolution.
He becomes a political prisoner, but his incarceration is light-handed and mostly “in-house.” Carter demonstrates that a man who has absolutely nothing to gain, nothing to lose, and absolutely no worldly agenda cannot truly be imprisoned.
His aura of complete humility, his renouncement of all things material and his laser focus on aligning his soul with God is inspirational, no matter what your faith, maybe even for an atheist.
Even more famous than Harry Carter’s was his older brother, John, who to this day enjoys a lustrous status among Cornish culture. In Cornwall, John Carter's star eclipses that of another legendary English social malcontent -- Robin Hood -- except Carter was certainly a real person and a real smuggler.
Smugglers were part pirate, part free-enterprise businessmen, part organized crime – but for the most part – few of them considered what they were doing wrong, even though they knew it was illegal under British law. The people of Cornwall were dirt poor. Their only options were to work seasonally in local tin mines as near slaves, scrabble out a living on a rocky patch of farm, or maybe eke out a living as fishermen.
Smuggling was a road to riches – it not only enriched the smuggler, but the loot trickled down considerably throughout Cornish society.
This document was published in 1900 under the auspices of John B. Cornish, who provides a helpful introduction and notes, and who is also listed as editor. A bit of Internet sleuthing turned up nothing about Mr. Cornish, so I’ll leave it at that.
My bottom line is that I find this to be a remarkable tidbit of history. It may not provide much insight into the world of Cornish smuggling, but “Captain” Harry Carter is an endearing and admirable soul. I was delighted to to have met him through the words he left behind.
Ken Korczak is the author of MINNESOTA PARANORMALA