Rum Trade

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RUM TRADE began in the New England colonies in the seventeenth century and soon became vital to the existence of a people unable to produce staple crops beyond subsistance farms. Because the lumber and fishing industries of New England were unable to find sufficient markets in England, traders sought a market in the colonies of the West Indies. There, lumber and fish were exchanged for molasses, the main product of the islands. The molasses, in turn, was manufactured in to rum, becoming one of the earliest of New England's industries.

The rum trade became part of a "triangular trade" between New England, the West Indies, and the African Gold Coast that maintained the prosperity of the northern colonies throughout the eighteenth century. In this triangular trade, molasses was sent to New England, rum to Africa, and slaves to the West Indies.

The New England colonies soon came into conflict with Great Britain over the rum trade as traders found it more profitable to deal with the French, Dutch, and Spanish than with the English. The British Parliament attempted, through the Molasses Act of 1733, to limit trade outside the empire by imposing high duties on non-British molasses imported into New England. This legislation was consistently evaded, and smuggling became an accepted practice.

In 1763 the conflict over molasses imports reached crisis proportions, largely because of the war between Great Britain and France. Parliament passed the Sugar Act, a stronger version of the Molasses Act, which attempted to enforce duties through the use of the British navy, the appointment of customs commissioners, and the issuance of writs of assistance. Opposition soared, and, by 1763, smuggling was regarded by New Englanders as a patriotic exercise.


Loades, D. M. England's Maritime Empire: Seapower, Commerce, and Policy 1490–1690. New York: Longman, 2000.

McCusker, John. Rum and the American Revolution: The Rum Trade and the Balance of Payments of the Thirteen Continental Colonies. New York: Garland, 1989.

Temin, Peter, ed. Engines of Enterprise: An Economic History of New England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

RogerBurlingame/h. s.

See alsoMolassas Trade ; Smuggling, Colonial ; Sugar Acts ; West Indies, British and French .