Last month's dramatic arrest of El Chapo, the world's most powerful drug trafficker, brought to mind one of the most gruesome stories in the history of smuggling — one that involved not cocaine, but a substance equally light and easy to transport: tea.

In 18th century England, tea smuggling was a thriving enterprise. Steep taxes on tea made it unaffordable to the ordinary farm hand and factory worker, who craved a cuppa as much as an aristocrat did. A number of smuggling networks offered them a steady and cheap supply of tea. And the group that dominated the southern part of England was the notorious Hawkhurst Gang.

The Hawkhurst Gang and El Chapo's Sinaloa Cartel, though separated by centuries and countries, are similar in that both operated through a canny mix of popular support and fear. Named after the regions from which they sprang – Hawkhurst is a village in Kent, Sinaloa a coastal state in Mexico – these gangs were seen as grassroots get-ups that offered much-needed employment that the government did not provide. If a few laws – and bones – were broken along the way, many locals were either willing to overlook it or were too frightened to speak up.

If the Sinaloa Cartel is valorized in narco-ballads for defying a corrupt system, the Hawkhurst gang members were always welcome at the local pub. That is, until the events of 1747, whose brutality and sadism shook the conscience of the nation, and turned years of local loyalty into outright revulsion.

On the night of Sept. 22, 1747, customs officers waylaid a smuggler's ship off the coast of Dorset and, after confiscating its haul of rum, brandy and two tons of tea wrapped in oilskin, impounded these goods in the King's Custom House at Poole.

But the Hawkhurst Gang had no intention of letting His Majesty get his royal hands on their contraband.

Two weeks later, in a daring midnight raid, 60 men from the gang rode into Poole, stormed the customs house with crowbars and pickaxes, packed their saddlebags with tea, left behind the cumbersome casks of brandy and rum, and coolly rode away.

So brazen was the raid that no one stopped them. As the gangsters rode nonchalantly through the villages, locals gathered to watch, among them a shoemaker named Daniel Chater, who had worked with one of the gang leaders, John Diamond, during the harvest. Diamond, in a cocky, post-heist mood, tossed his old mate a small bag of tea.

That gesture would have the most dreadful consequences imaginable.

Word got around that the shoemaker knew the gang leaders. Months later, when Diamond was picked up on grounds of suspicion, and the authorities needed someone to identity him, they had just the man.

On Valentine's Day 1748, a terrified Chater and an elderly customs officer named William Galley set out for Chichester, where Diamond was being held. On the way, they stopped at the White Hart Inn, whose landlady had two smuggler sons. Suspicious of the strangers, she summoned a few gang members, who, after plying Galley and Chater with drink, went through their luggage and read the incriminating documents they carried.

"Hang the dogs," the smugglers' wives declared, according to popular accounts. "They came here to hang us."

What followed over the next weeks would shock even the most hardened criminals. The men were awakened from their drunken sleep by a smuggler who jumped on the bed and drove his spurs into their foreheads. Galley and Chater were flogged till they bled, mounted on one horse with their legs tied under the horse's belly, and whipped through several villages on a 15-mile northward journey.

"The couple turned upside down several times, so that the horse's hooves repeatedly struck their faces," writes Roy Moxham in Tea: Addiction, Exploitation And Empire. "Occasionally, one of the smugglers would crush the customs officer's testicles."

Unbelievably, the two men survived the journey. When the gang reached the Red Lion pub at Rake – once again, they had a friend in the landlord – they chained Chater in a small shed outside. Then, in a foxhole, where smugglers stored bags of tea, they buried the customs officer, after first flogging him unconscious.

But when Galley's body was disinterred, he was found sitting upright, his hands before his eyes. "He had been buried alive," writes Moxham.

Chater was next on the list. Death by bullet was too slight a retribution for this rat, the gang decided. So he was starved and beaten, and finally taken to a nearby well. As he knelt down to pray, a gang member hacked his nose off with a clasp knife. The bleeding Chater tried to fling himself into the well, but was held back. Five men tried to hang him on a noose they had rigged up. When this rough mechanism failed, they cut him loose and dropped him head-first into the well. When he continued to groan, they flung rocks and gateposts on him to finish the job.

"Even by the standards of the time, all this was considered too barbaric," writes Moxham.

That an old customs officer had been tortured and buried alive shocked people to the core. And the shoemaker, too, was after all a local. The mood began to turn. The Hawkhurst Gang went from heroes to monsters. People came forward with information.

The authorities, outraged as much by the storming of the King's Customs House as the vicious way in which Galley and Chater had been murdered, offered large rewards for the capture of the gang members.

It didn't take long for 11 ringleaders to be captured and executed. Of them, those treated as accessories got away lightly – which meant they were hanged and buried. Those convicted of murder faced what was perhaps the most feared punishment of the age: They were hanged, and their bodies hung in chains and left to rot in the open, as a warning to all. Cutting these bodies down was illegal.

The Hawkhurst Gang did not survive this infamous affair. In any case, it had been losing popular support. As the gang grew more powerful, its members had begun to terrorize the local population. The men of one village had even formed a militia to oppose the gang's abusive ways and constant demands for horses, money and food. With this final act of criminality, local sanctuary and intelligence were withdrawn.

And yet – and this indicates how entrenched tea drinking had become in England – the smuggling went on for decades. Fear of neither the noose nor gibbet deterred smugglers. It was only in 1784, when the 25-year-old Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger boldly slashed the tea tax – from 119 percent to 12.5 percent – that the smugglers finally lost their market.

Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.

Nina Martyris is a literary journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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