Overview of the State of Pre-Revolutionary American Maritime Commerce

At the root of England's difficulties with her American colonies was the mercantilist system of Britain's economy. For Great Britain to profit fully from her colonies and prevent the loss of wealth to her rivals, trade within the empire had to be closely regulated.

To control imperial trade, Parliament legislated a series of "navigation acts" that defined what goods could be shipped from colonial ports to those outside England's control. The acts also defined what goods could be shipped to an English port from a foreign one. Under the regulation and protection of the British government, the Americans prospered, but they also bridled at the controls placed on them. Strict enforcement of the navigation acts was often impossible. American merchants regularly traded with both the Dutch and French West Indies, and smuggling was widespread. Despite recognized American violations of the navigation acts, peace prevailed between England and her American colonies. However, following the French and Indian War in 1763, Parliament sought ways to raise revenues in the colonies to help pay war debts and cover the costs of defending the empire. Efforts to enforce parliamentary authority over the Americans ultimately led to open rebellion and the formation of the United States.

The following is a partial outline of some of the more important acts passed by Parliament. Known collectively as the "navigation acts," they were originally designed to regulate commerce within the British Empire, but ultimately ignited war between the American colonies and England.

1651--The Navigation Act of 1651, one of the earliest navigation acts, was designed to channel all exports from the colonies through an English port before continuing to a foreign harbor. The goods had to be carried on English ships and have English crews, and the ships had to pay duties on the goods before continuing.

1663--The Staple Act of 1663 altered preexisting regulations so that any goods picked up in foreign ports had to be taken back to England, unloaded, inspected, paid for in duties, and repacked for shipment to the colonies. This greatly increased the prices paid by colonial consumers.

1673--The Act of 1673 stated that all goods not bonded in England must have a duty and bond placed on them when the ship reached the colonies. The colonial governor collected the bond and duty and thus started a tradition that continued through the Revolution. Before going to sea, a ship was required to pay a bond guaranteeing that if certain enumerated goods were loaded at any port they would be brought to England or an English port and nowhere else. A shipowner or captain who did not go to an English port would be prosecuted and would usually lose the bond. The Crown thus hoped to channel all trade through English ports and receive income from duties and taxes. The English merchants would also benefit from having a monopoly on sales and increased prices in the colonies. The colonial traders would not be allowed to trade with foreign countries.

1733--The Molasses Act attempted to stop trade between the New England colonies and the French West Indies. Northern traders exchanged salted fish, beef, and pork for molasses, which they converted into rum. This was one leg in the triangular trade between the Americas, Europe, and Africa. The islanders, for their part, traded sugar for needed New England foods. The New Englanders then produced rum from the sugar and exported it to England. New England rum became in turn a key trade item in the slave trade, which finally brought yet more slaves to the West Indies to work on the sugar plantations.

1764--The Revenue Act (Sugar Act) actually reduced taxes on molasses from six to three pence a gallon, but it also added to the list of American exports that had to pass through English ports. The Revenue Act required American merchants to post bonds guaranteeing the observance of the trade regulations before loading their cargoes. This law also applied to any intercoastal trading and severely hurt the small local traders. Violations of these acts were prosecuted by the vice-admiralty courts. Parliament permitted the British navy to help the customs service enforce the regulation of American trade. Soon eight warships and twelve armed sloops arrived on the coast to patrol for smugglers.

1765--The Stamp Act became one of the most unpopular acts passed by Parliament. It required that a revenue stamp be placed on all newspapers, pamphlets, almanacs, legal documents, liquor licenses, college diplomas, playing cards, and even dice. Without the stamp, the document was not legal or admissible in court cases. Violent opposition caused Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act in 1766.

1767--The Townshend Acts added duties to the importation of paper, lead, painters' colors, and tea. This act inspired an effective American economic boycott of English goods. With fifty percent of English ships engaged in trade with colonial America and twenty-five percent of English manufactured goods being consumed in the colonies, the boycott proved effective. With the exception of the tea tax, the Townshend Acts were repealed in 1770.

The Boston Tea Party. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
1773--The Tea Act was designed to help the nearly bankrupt East India Company by giving it direct access to the American market. The act actually lowered tea prices by eliminating the middleman and lowering tea taxes. However, the desired effect was lost when the colonists argued that it granted the East India Company a monopoly injurious to American trade. The Boston Tea Party followed as a protest.

1774--The Coercive Acts (Intolerable Acts) were passed in response to the actions taken by the American colonists at the Boston Tea Party. The Coercive Acts were actually a series of acts that included the Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until the loss of the East India Company's tea was repaid; the Massachusetts Regulating Act, which essentially revoked Massachusetts's colonial charter; and the Quebec Act, which granted a centralized government to Quebec and extended the Canadian border to the Ohio River. British troops were ordered to Boston to enforce the Coercive Acts, and the Quartering Act requiring the billeting of British troops in civilian homes was renewed.

Continue to:
Overview of the Continental Navy

Copyright © 2000 The Mariners' Museum. All Rights Reserved.