MOLASSES TRADE was the keystone of colonial commerce, as it supplied a product that enabled the colonists to offset their unfavorable balance of trade with England. Except for experimental attempts to produce molasses locally from corn, the source of supply was the West Indies. It centered at first in the English sugar colonies in Barbados and Jamaica, but by the early eighteenth century it had shifted to the other West Indies, such as Spain's Santo Domingo and France's Martinique.
The main significance of molasses was to provide a "money cargo," almost as current as cash. Once it was exported from the islands, there was little trade in molasses as such. Its real potency came once the New England distillers turned it into rum. Most important, it served as the basis for the triangular trade in rum, slaves, and molasses. New England traders carried rum to Africa in exchange for slaves. These slaves were transported and sold to the West Indies to work in the sugar plantations that produced the molasses. Traders then returned with molasses to New England and sold the goods to rum producers.
At first the trade was unrestrained except for local taxes, but in 1704 Parliament confined the exportation of molasses to England or its colonies. In order to force a British monopoly of the molasses trade on the colonies, Parliament passed a Molasses Act (1733), which unsuccessfully attempted to eliminate trade with the foreign West Indies by prohibitive taxes. At first colonists tried to protest such measures. Rather than comply with these taxes, however, colonial merchants found it far simpler to smuggle molasses, beginning a robust clandestine trade in the good that lasted several decades.
When the British tried to assert their influence over the colonies following the French and Indian War, the new prime minister George Grenville began a strict policy of customs law enforcement. Parliament revived the Molasses Act as the Sugar Act of 1764. This act created strong customs enforcement of duties on molasses imported into the colonies on non-British ships, in effect granting a monopoly of the molasses trade to British West Indies sugar planters. Though colonial protests against this act resulted in a lowering of the tax, the heavy fines and penalties frustrated the colonial commerce in imported sugar and molasses. Independence freed the thirteen colonies from such restraints, but hampered their trade with the British West Indies. Modifications of the law permitted the direct importation of molasses, but the Navigation Acts continued to limit American shipping until 1830.
Lawrence A.Harper/h. s.