What is Contraband?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2019
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Contraband is a blanket term for goods which are illegal to import or export. Goods which are illegal to possess, such as stolen materials, are also called contraband. Typically, contraband will be confiscated without compensation if it is found by representatives of the law. Most nations have clear laws governing contraband, in the interest of free trade and public safety. Since contraband must be brought into or out of a nation by stealth, smuggling is often involved in the trade of contraband goods.

The term is derived from the Latin contra, or “against” and bando, for a legal and public proclamation. The term was turned into contrabande in medieval French, and was borrowed by the English in 1529. Examples of contraband include illegal goods such as weapons, drugs, and other substances which may be banned by law.

In the legal world, the word may also be used to discuss goods which have been obtained in an illegal way, although the goods themselves are not illegal. Stolen goods, for example, are considered contraband, and just like smuggled contraband they will be confiscated and held by authorities. The results of fraud and forgery are also termed “contraband,” as in the case of someone who uses money from fraudulent activity to purchase things like houses and cars.


In wartime, a belligerent nation may intercept goods shipped from a neutral nation to another antagonist in the conflict. These goods are known as contraband, and while it is not illegal for neutral nations to supply material to one side or another, these nations do so at their own risk. Typically, the goods and the vessel are seized, to prevent further shipments of contraband. Neutral vessels which are carrying military supplies may also be treated as enemy ships.

The global community has debated the practice of intercepting goods in wartime, but has not reached a resolution on the issue. While most nations agree that intercepting things like munitions is allowable, materials like food, medication, and shelter supplies are a bit more ambiguous. While these may be used to support military actions, they could also be used to help civilians. Treating neutral ships like enemy combatants also is a dubious practice, as seen in the case of the Lusitania.

A lively trade in contraband goods may spring up in some cases, especially if consumers have no other way of obtaining them. This becomes known as a black market. Black markets may sell everything from the pelts of endangered species to vitally needed medications. Doing business on the black market carries risks, as consumers can be punished for owning contraband and dealers can face severe legal repercussions.


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