Mira Hodnik – Smugglers of mercury ore in the 18th century

The mercury mine provided a livelihood for numerous people in the Idrija basin. Such a livelihood was very often meagre and earned with difficulty. The miners worked in extremely hard conditions, exposed to all sorts of accidents and dangers.

The miners soon recognised that the mercury was a valuable metal. Individuals thus began to be involved in smuggling and the illicit trade in mercury. Despite the careful supervision of the mine guards, these smugglers began to carry off pieces of ore from the mine, which they either sold immediately, or secretly smelted and then sold the mercury. Some of them merely attempted thus to alleviate their poverty, but for others this was a profitable source of income. The majority long evaded justice. However, when their superiors did get on their trail, they were handed over the the mine judge, who informed them unequivocally that they had violated article 13 of the Carolingian Mine Order, and that they would have to answer for their actions. This article of the law banned any sale or removal of ore.  Anyone who violated this article was threatened with a sentence of death and the confiscation of their property.

The illicit trade in mercury ore was at its height in the 18th century. Both miners and serfs from all three border feudal estates (Idria Cameral, Tolmin and Loka) were involved in it. They were connected in a real smuggling network. The serfs of the Loka estate, namely, provided the Idrian mine with the clay pitchers that were used for firing the ore. The Tolmin serfs were employed as miners at the mine or met with the ore as artisans and traders. Both speedily made contact with the Idrijan miners, who delivered ore to them from the pit.

The contribution describes in rather more detail individual thefts and punishment of thieves. It was found that for the most part thieves and smugglers were sentenced to corporal punishment, or exiled from their home environment. Court hearings of the major thefts of mercury ore in 1778-1779 ended with death sentences by hanging for two persons, nine were sentenced to public work at the mine, two were exiled from the Idria region, and some were even pardoned.

All sentences were passed and executed publicly, in order to remind people that smuggling and theft did not pay.


eulogo   “With the support of the Culture Programme of the European Union”

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