Navigation Acts 1651–1733

Although England established its first shipping regulations in the fourteenth century, trade between England and the American colonies was still duty-free as late as 1642. Under mercantilist, or pre-free market capitalist, theory, trade with the colonies was encouraged, while trade with rival nations was to be limited as much as possible.

The first navigation act came as an attempt by Oliver Cromwell, under the British Commonwealth, to counter the Dutch carrying trade (transporting goods of another country), which was more efficient than and threatened to overwhelm British shipping interests. The Navigation Act of 1651 required all imports from Asia, Africa, and America to be brought in English-owned vessels. European goods could travel on ships of the producing country, the receiving country, or, again, on ships belonging to English people. Colonial goods also had to enter England on English ships or on those of the originating country. This act damaged New England’s interests, because Northern colonial products were similar to those produced in England. As suppliers of raw material and receivers of finished goods, the Southern colonies benefited from the limitation on trade in Southern products, such as tobacco, ship’s stores, and rice. Northerners adjusted because the act was ignored or only loosely enforced. The real intent of the act was to hurt the Dutch colonial feelings did not matter and it did lead to the first Anglo-Dutch war.

The next act, in 1660, required colonial trade on English vessels only; defining colonial ships as English, the act helped develop Northern shipping. This act hurt the Southern colonies by enumerating the items the colonies could and could not trade outside English territory. Restricted items included wool, sugar, tobacco, and cotton. Over time, modifications to the Navigation Acts expanded the list of enumerated items. Even worse, this act imposed a duty on exports to England. The act of 1672 extended this tax to intercolonial trade in restricted items. The impact of these taxes on trade among the colonies and with Europe or the West Indies could have been disastrous, but again enforcement was mostly nonexistent.

Other acts came into being in 1661, 1662, 1663, 1670, and 1673. The act of 1663 required all shipments to the colonies to pass through England. On the other hand, colonial commodities did gain preferential treatment monopolies or tax exemptions. Tobacco was an American monopoly, while the West Indies had tariff protection against the French sugar interests. State subsidies were also English policy, designed to guarantee a steady supply of critical items such as ship’s stores.

The most unpopular act was the Molasses Act of 1733. It increased tariffs on sugar and molasses from the French West Indies. Trade for these items was the New England way of getting rid of its surplus flour, lumber, livestock, and fish; the English Corn Laws barred these items from England, and there was no other market. The risk of economic disaster was real but enforcement was lax. Still the acts galled. And the protected British West Indian sugar was too expensive. The New Englanders kept their French West Indian trade by smuggling. The British began enforcing their restrictions after the French and Indian War, thirty years after New Englanders had begun smuggling in response to the Molasses Act. Seemingly arbitrary seizures of vessels increased the hostility of the colonials. The Navigation Acts limped along until they finally were repealed in 1849, and the mercantilist policy was replaced by free trade.

The English oversight and enforcement efforts proved ineffective, making the situation worse. In England, the Board of Trade and Plantations, charged with enforcing the act, came into being only in 1696 and proved somewhat more effective. Still, enforcement was nearly impossible when oversight was weak. Lawbreakers connived with the local customs officials and possibly the governor, and admiralty court juries refused to convict their neighbors, maybe fellow smugglers. Smuggling was a popular pastime in Britain, with an estimated 40,000 or so smugglers of Indian tea and French silk.

The British adoption of the mercantilist philosophy meant that inevitably conflict would arise. The colonies became more substantial and independent, less willing to accept trade deficits and restrictions on their livelihoods, and reluctant to make sacrifices for the good of the mother country with no reciprocal benefit. Britain’s difficulties were only made worse by her bad habit of forgetting the colonies in favor of more immediate business, such as the British Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, and wars with the Dutch and French. Benign neglect became merely neglect, and when the British tried to re-establish a strong subordinate status after the French wars, it was too late. People accustomed to ignoring or working around the multiple Navigation Acts had no compunction about resisting new laws, which were inconsistently applied and frequently repealed under colonial pressure. John H. Barnhill See also: Board of Trade; Economy, Business, and Labor (Chronology); Economy, Business, and Labor (Essay); Mercantilism; Merchants; Trade; Transportation, Water. Bibliography Kammen, Michael. Empire and Interest; The American Colonies and the Politics of Mercantilism. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970. McCusker, John J. Mercantilism and the Economic History of the Early Modern Atlantic World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001

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