Smuggling, Colonial

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SMUGGLING, COLONIAL. A vital segment of colonial trade, smuggling developed in response to the strict mercantilist policies of England in the seventeenth century. In an attempt to enhance colonial profitability and exert greater control, England passed a series of Navigation Acts that fostered illicit trade and heightened tensions with the colonies.

The earliest Navigation Acts were passed in 1651, and expanded in 1660 and again in 1662,1663, and 1673. Designed to control Dutch maritime trade, these acts were only loosely enforced, leaving room for colonial merchants to circumvent the laws. With little to hinder their activities, colonial merchants traded illegally in goods enumerated in the Navigation Acts and in the Corn and Manufacturing laws passed in the 1660s. Though the bulk of colonial trade was legal, colonists imported and exported tobacco, sugar, cotton, and wool at will. Had the laws governing trade in enumerated goods been strictly enforced, the economic impact on the colonies might have been disastrous; they engaged in a flourishing trade in many of the goods with other European countries, trade forbidden under the terms of the laws.

Illicit trade between the colonists and European nations did not escape the attention of London merchants, who informed the Lords of Trade in 1676 that their businesses were failing as a result. They warned that the Crown would suffer dramatic losses in customs revenues, losses they estimated at £60,000 per year. When pressed for information by the Lords, colonial merchants admitted they were able to import goods from Europe at a cost twenty percent less than those goods imported from England. Smuggling was profitable indeed, they confirmed.

By 1677, colonial customs agent Edward Randolph estimated that smuggling was costing the Crown over £100,000 per year in lost revenue. By 1684, the Lords of Trade convinced the court to revoke the Massachusetts charter and form the royally governed Dominion of New England, an action justified in part by the intentional violations of the navigation acts.

The Molasses Act of 1733, arguably the harshest of England's laws governing colonial trade, provoked a marked increase in smuggling. The act placed prohibitive duties on molasses and sugar shipped to the colonies from the Dutch, Spanish, and French West Indies. Often bribing customs officials to avoid paying duties, colonial merchants smuggled in large quantities of molasses, used primarily in rum production—an integral product in the so-called triangle trade. The Board of Trade received proof of the breach of the Molasses Act and other trade laws from a variety of sources, but it remained extremely difficult for that body to curb violations. There is evidence to suggest that Rhode Island merchants imported five-sixths of their molasses illegally from the Dutch, French, and Spanish West Indies.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, the Crown passed more trade regulations intended to increase revenue from the colonies and restrict their financial autonomy. These acts, including the Revenue (Sugar) Act of 1764, the Townshend Acts of 1767, and the Tea Act of 1773, provoked greater smuggling. In response, England turned increasingly to military strategy to combat the illegal trade. Tensions escalated and within three years, the opening shots of the Revolutionary War were fired.


Bailyn, Bernard. The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, second printing, 1979.

Dickerson, Oliver Morton. American Colonial Government, 1696– 1765. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962.

Kammen, Michael. Empire and Interest: The American Colonies and the Politics of Mercantilism. Philadelphia, New York, and Toronto: J. B. Lippincott, 1970.

Leslie J.Lindenauer

See alsoLords of Trade and Plantation ; Sugar Acts ; Triangular Trade .