Between 1920 and 1933, residents of Saint Pierre would all benefit from this huge influx of currency and renewed business, at a time when the rest of the world was engulfed in a serious crisis and recession.
Life on Saint Pierre was more trouble-free and vapours from liquor replaced the smell of cod. The French State also cashed in, through its levies on each crate of liquor. The fact that bootleggers’ boats subsequently came to reload the goods to redistribute them along American coasts was of no concern to the French administration as there were no restrictions on trade.
Significant improvements were made to infrastructures on Saint Pierre, including the construction of more modern port facilities, renovation of all the island’s buildings and government blocks, building of roads and a drainage network.
Henri Morazé, the gentleman bootlegger
Whilst most people on Saint Pierre were happy to be used simply as postal addresses or act as intermediaries, ninety-five percent of the import business was in fact controlled by Canadian distilleries. The people of Saint Pierre pocketed a fairly moderate sum per litre, but they took no risks either.
Those who had to escape surveillance as they entered the United States after collecting supplies on Saint Pierre were the bootleggers. And obviously, the profits they amassed were commensurate with the risks they took.
Mouettes dans le port de Saint Pierre, face à l’île aux marins.
22-year-old Saint Pierre native Henri Morazé came up with the idea of handling operations from start to finish. He decided to take to the seas, pick up supplies directly from France, Germany, Holland, the Bahamas and British Guiana and deliver them straight to his clients on the North American coast. As his business developed, he honed his techniques and equipped himself with radios and super-fast boats fitted with airplane engines – or speedboats – to thwart attempts by cutters, or American customs officers and their fast launches, to catch him.
The epic tale and adventurous life of this ‘Gentleman Bootlegger’ is recounted in the book by journalist Freddy Thomelin, published in 1986 and re-released in 2017 by the Océan publishing house.
In the book, the author describes the adventures of Henri Morazé who, ironically, was not afraid of the cutters so much as the hijackers – organised gangs from the New York underworld who held ships to ransom. He preferred to deal with the toughest bootleggers rather than come face to face with the hijackers of Rum Row. He did dealings with Al Capone, whom he met in Chicago in 1926. Capone went to Saint Pierre himself. During his stay, Capone discussed the issue of wooden crates which were too noisy during transhipments, causing several ships to be intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. The solution came by pre-packing the bottles in jute bags, where each bottle had its own straw sleeve with handles sewn on to facilitate transhipment. The solution was soon introduced by all bootleggers.
He preferred to deal with the toughest bootleggers rather than come face to face with the hijackers of Rum Row. He did dealings with Al Capone.
Saint-Pierre – Photo « Des îles d’exception »
The end of Prohibition, but not the end of smuggling
In 1933, the US Senate voted to abolish Prohibition. It was a promise made by newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, during his campaign had stressed that Prohibition had in fact produced the opposite effect of what had been intended. People were drinking more alcohol than before, and the measure had allowed the Mafia to boom. In Saint Pierre, the news came as a bombshell.
The repeal of the Volstead Act did not spell the end of bootlegging in Saint Pierre, despite a significant scaling back of operations. Liquor produced in Canada was exported to Saint Pierre, only to be smuggled back to Canada and Newfoundland to avoid high customs and excise taxes in these territories. But things became more complicated. A year after the end of Prohibition, France gave in to pressure from the American government to stop delivering spirits from Saint Pierre. In 1935, companies shipping spirits from Saint Pierre were required to include a customs form with consignments, certifying that the products would be delivered to the destination stated on the customs clearance paperwork. Henri Morazé then changed tack, buying a boat in Europe that could ship 10,000 cases of alcohol – the ‘Greta Kure’. He would load his boat in Europe and anchor it just outside the territorial boundaries of Saint Pierre, in international waters. He would then send his super-fast smugglers’ ships to the mother ship, where they transhipped the goods and headed for the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. He subsequently bought back the enormous stocks of liquor in Saint Pierre, which had become unmarketable.
Subsequently, the United States offered lower customs duties on alcohol with countries willing to collaborate. France voted a decree to this effect in 1935, because lower trade tariffs with the United States were more advantageous than a few cases of liquor which, after all, were not bound for American soil but for Canada.
Smuggling with Canada continued until 1949. For Newfoundland, a 1987 annual report stated that smuggling spirits and cigarettes was a long-standing practice that continued to be both widespread and profitable. Smugglers from Newfoundland and Saint Pierre used small Saint Pierre boats called Doris or fishing boats to reach the Newfoundland coast, which is barely 20 km from Saint Pierre.
Henri Morazé amassed a considerable fortune, though never revealed exactly how much. An endearing figure admired by the people of Saint Pierre, he was elected Vice-Chairman of the Territorial Assembly in 1947. He ‘sobered down’ and focused on the island’s development, receiving the Legion of Honour in 1965.
Les Contrebandiers – J.P. Andrieux – 2012 – Editions de l’Océan
Gentleman Bootlegger – Freddy Thomelin – 2017 – Editions de l’Océan