Navigation Acts

views updated May 08 2018


NAVIGATION ACTS had their origin in Britain's regulation of its coastal trade, which was extended to the British colonies as they developed. Parliament enacted the first Navigation Act in 1660, although this legislation had its roots in earlier policy. By the close of the seventeenth century, Parliament had put other Navigation Acts in place and had installed colonial officials to enforce them through a system of admiralty courts, which had jurisdiction in cases involving trade law. The purpose of the Navigation Acts was two fold: to protect British shipping against competition from the Dutch and other foreign powers, and to grant British merchants a monopoly on colonial commodities such as tobacco and sugar. The Navigation Acts came about in the context of mercantilism, the dominant economic system of the time among the European powers. According to mercantilist thought, a nation could measure its wealth in bullion, or its accumulated supply of gold. According to conventional wisdom, because there existed a finite supply of gold in the world, there also existed a finite supply of wealth. An imperial power acquired colonies for the purpose of expanding its wealth—preferably through the discovery of gold, but also through the production of natural resources, which colonists would ship to the mother country, where manufacturers would process these raw materials into wealth-producing finished products. According to the mercantilist economic model, therefore, a system of open trade could only result in the loss of wealth. To retain material wealth in the imperial realm, a trading power had to utilize its colonies' resources within a closed-trade system, such as the one that the Navigation Acts implemented.

Under these acts, British colonies in Asia, Africa, and America could import and export goods only in English vessels, and three-fourths of each crew was to be English. Other clauses stipulated that England could import products from its colonies in Asia, Africa, or America on English vessels and that goods from foreign countries could arrive in England only on English vessels or on the vessels of the country from which the goods originated. In effect, the Navigation Acts gave English subjects (defined as anyone living within the British realm) and English ships a legal monopoly of all trade between various colonial ports and between these ports and England. Even the trade between colonial ports and foreign countries was limited to English vessels. Thus, foreign vessels were excluded entirely from colonial ports and could trade only at ports in the British Isles.

Another field of legislation related to commodities. The Navigation Acts "enumerated" certain colonial products, which could be exported from the place of production only to another British colony or to England. At first the list included tobacco, sugar, indigo, cotton, wool, ginger, and fustic and other dyewoods. Later, Parliament extended the list to include naval stores, hemp, rice, molasses, beaver skins, furs, copper ore, iron, and lumber. In addition, the colonies could import Asian goods and European manufactures only from England—although an exception was made in the case of salt or wine from the Azores or the Madeira Islands and food products from Ireland or Scotland. Parliament implemented a system of bonds to enforce the trade of enumerated commodities under the Navigation Acts. These bonds required the master of the vessel to comply with the provisions of the acts. Such arrangements operated so as to give American shipowners a practical monopoly of the trade between the continental and West Indian colonies. Residents of Great Britain in turn had a general monopoly of the carrying of the heavy enumerated goods from the colonies to the British Isles.

Colonists were largely limited to buying British manufactures. This was not necessarily a disadvantage, because an elaborate system of export bounties was provided so that British goods were actually cheaper in the colonies than similar foreign goods. These bounties averaged more than £38,000 per year for the ten years preceding the Revolution. From 1757 to 1770 the bounties on British linens exported to the colonies totaled £346,232 according to British treasury reports. In addition to bounties, there was a series of rebates, or drawbacks, of duties on European goods exported to the colonies. These, too, ran into formidable sums. Those to the West Indies alone amounted to £34,000 in 1774. The average payments from the British treasury in bounties and drawbacks on exports to the colonies in 1764 amounted to about £250,000 sterling per year.

Closely related to the Navigation Acts was another series of measures called the Trade Acts, which are usually confused with the Navigation Acts proper. Most of these were enacted after 1700, and they gradually developed into a complicated system of trade control and encouragement. The general plan was to make the entire British Empire prosperous and the trade of one section complementary to that of other sections. The Trade Acts employed a variety of measures to encourage the colonial production of goods desired in Britain. These laws gave colonial tobacco a complete monopoly of the home market by prohibiting its growth in England and imposing heavy import duties on the competing Spanish tobacco. The Trade Acts encouraged production of other colonial goods through tariff duties, which discriminated sharply in favor of the colonial product and against the competing foreign product. The legislation also granted rebates for some colonial commodities for which production exceeded British demand. Rebates facilitated the flow of these items through British markets to their foreign destinations. In other cases, regulations permitted exports of surplus colonial products, such as rice, directly to foreign colonies and to southern Europe without passing through England. In still other cases, Parliament allowed direct cash bounties on such colonial products as hemp, indigo, lumber, and silk upon their arrival in England. These alone totaled more than £82,000 from 1771 to 1775. Naval stores also received liberal bounties, totaling £1,438,762 from 1706 to 1774, and at the time of the Revolution were averaging £25,000 annually.

Overall, the navigation system was mutually profitable to colonies and mother country. Resistance to the acts emerged periodically, however. In the late seventeenth century, for example, colonists complained that James II used the Navigation Acts to hamper colonial economic autonomy. Colonists also resisted British attempts to use trade law as taxation measures. Occasionally, parliamentary prohibitions discouraged colonial industries if they threatened serious competition with an important home industry. Notable examples include prohibitions of the intercolonial export of hats made in the colonies (1732; see Hat Manufacture, Colonial Restriction on) and wool grown or manufactured in the colonies (1699). In this case, the powerful Company of Felt-Makers in London became alarmed at the increasing number of hats that colonial manufacturers were distributing throughout the British colonies and in southern Europe. In response to these complaints, Parliament passed legislation that regulated apprenticeships for hatmakers and slowed the growth of this industry. In another instance, Parliament—responding to English manufacturers who feared colonial competition—forbade the establishment of new mills to produce wrought iron and steel (1750). The same legislation encouraged the production and export of pig iron and bar iron, which benefitted both the colonies and the mother country. Laws such as these produced some local complaint, although they evidently affected few people, because many ignored the more restrictive aspects of the regulations.

More common than resistance to the law was simple negligence—either by ignoring specific restrictions, as hat and iron manufacturers often did, or by smuggling. Evidence indicates that smuggling flourished in the colonies throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Parliament's delays in empowering customs agents, the distance between Britain and its colonies, and the length and complex geography of the North American coastline all made thorough enforcement of the Navigation and Trade Acts nearly impossible. As a result, foreign goods proliferated throught the colonies, and many colonial materials left North America on foreign vessels. Other evidence of smuggling included the frequent abuse of customs agents and the preponderance of bribery, forgery, and other fraud among customs agents and colonial merchants alike. Smuggling was so prevalent that, in the mid-eighteenth century, measures such as the Revenue Act (also known as the Sugar Act, 1764) and the Tea Act (1773), which reduced duties in the legitimate trade while cracking down on smugglers, sparked some of the fiercest patriot resistance.

As long as the trade and navigation laws were limited to the regulation of trade and the promotion of the total commerce of the empire, they generally found support in eighteenth-century America. The enumerated products came largely from the colonies that remained loyal. The bounties went largely to the colonies that revolted. The New England shipping industry depended greatly on the protection that the Navigation Acts ensured. Consequently, the First Continental Congress approved the navigation system in its resolutions, and Benjamin Franklin offered to have the acts reenacted by every colonial legislature in America and to guarantee them for a hundred years if Britain abandoned efforts to tax the American colonies.


Andrews, K. R., et al. The Westward Enterprise: English Activities in Ireland, the Atlantic, and America, 1480–1650. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1979.

Carr, Lois Green, et al., eds. Colonial Chesapeake Society. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Church, R. A., ed. The Coal and Iron Industries. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Kammen, Michael G. Empire and Interest: The American Colonies and the Politics of Mercantilism. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970.

McCusker, John J., and Kenneth Morgan, eds. The Early Modern Atlantic Economy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

McCusker, John J., and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607–1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.


O. M.Dickerson

See alsoBoard of Trade and Plantations ; Bounties, Commercial ; Culpeper's Rebellion ; Dominion of New England ; Enumerated Commodities ; Mercantilism ; Townshend Acts ; Triangular Trade .

Navigation Acts

views updated May 18 2018

Navigation Acts

The Navigation Acts were a series of laws enacted by the English government from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century. In the early modern period nation-states in Europe were influenced by a set of ideas subsequently known as mercantilism. According to mercantilist theory, the amount of wealth available for each nation was fixed, and so one nation's gain meant another nation's loss. In fact, European nations competed with each other to acquire "fixed wealth." To win, each nation developed a series of policies of establishing a trading system within its empire. The Navigation Acts were the set of rules that the English devised. Their framework included three pillars: regulation of vessels engaging in trade, regulation of colonial exports, and regulation of colonial imports. Some of the most important laws pursuing these goals were passed in 1651, 1660, 1663, and 1673.


Englands first Navigation Acts were partly responsible for two naval wars with the Netherlands. The Dutch considered the Commonwealths 1650 and 1651 Navigation Acts to be a serious threat to their trade, and the two nations went to war in 1652. Oliver Cromwell had reformed the English navy, employing good commanders such as Robert Blake and George Monck, and this paid dividends in the first war fought entirely at sea. In 1663 Dutch Admiral Maarten Tromp was killed, and peace was made in 1654. The two nations remained commercial rivals. In 1660 Englands Parliament, under King Charles II s restored monarchy, enacted a new Navigation Act, contributing to another war in 1664. The English captured New Amsterdam (New York), and won naval victories off Lowestoft and Orfordness, but in 1667 Admiral Michiel De Ruyters fleet sailed up the Medway, capturing and burning sixteen vessels. The Treaty of Breda (1667) left the Dutch the masters of the seas. A third Anglo-Dutch war (1672—1674) was due not to the Navigation Acts, but to an unlikely Anglo-French alliance. De Ruyter foiled allied invasion attempts, forcing Charles to sign the Treaty of Westminster.

David J. Clarke


The first half of the seventeenth century was the golden age of the Netherlands in the commerce of the Western world. American colonists were willing to trade with Dutch merchants because they offered the colonists higher prices for their exports and lower prices for European imports. This practice negatively affected the English mother country. In addition, during the English Civil War, the Dutch made deep inroads into North American trade. In the face of such encroachment, Parliament passed the first of the Navigation Acts in 1651. Though the act was meant to regulate the entire English shipping and trade, as were the acts that followed, it primarily aimed to prohibit the use of Dutch vessels in the colonial (and English) trade, and to help English merchants to take control of trade from the Dutch. For example, this act stipulated that European goods imported to the colonies could only be carried by English ships. The act of 1651 was the first step in regulation but it had its shortcomings and it was thought important to take another step to complete the framework of trade.


Towards this end, two more acts were passed in 1660 and 1663. These two acts established the commercial system of the "First British Empire." Under the 1660 act, both colonial imports and colonial exports would be carried by only English ships. This act also stipulated that certain colonial products could only be exported to Europe as long as they passed through England. These so-called "enumerated commodities" originally were sugar, tobacco, cotton, indigo, and some dyewoods. The list was subsequently expanded to include rice and molasses in 1704, and tar, pitch, hemp, and masts in 1705; the list continued to be expanded from then on. The act of 1663 required that European goods be sent to the colonies only from England. This regulation of colonial imports was a final step towards building the mercantilist trading framework. The English government also enacted acts in 1673 and 1696 to boost the 1660 and 1663 acts. Specifically, the 1673 act established a system of duties and a more effective customs service in the colonies in order to enforce the shipment of enumerated commodities only to imperial ports. The 1696 act set up a system of admiralty courts to reinforce shipping and commercial regulations.

Generally, the Navigation Acts controlled colonial trade and benefited the mother country by increasing the "wealth of the nation." Increasing wealth was not an end but a strategy, however. The main purpose behind their promulgation was the acquisition of national strength. In order to attain this purpose, mercantilists insisted that the financial stability of the state, achieved with a trading framework, was a necessity. Moreover, there was a system of bounties built into the acts. Some bounties from the English government were given for colonial exports such as naval stores and hemp. Finally, the Parliament passed laws to prevent England's colonies from producing certain goods in competition with British producers, including the Hat Act of 1732 and the Iron Act of 1750. These, too, were designed to help the financial strength of the state.


One historical school saw in the commercial regulations of the First British Empire the main cause of the discontents that erupted in the American Revolution. In this view the economic effects of the Navigation Acts on the American colonies were a critical issue for the colonists; the negative effects of the enumeration constraint on colonial exports were pronounced. Historians have long debated whether their burdens were heavy enough to trigger the revolution. Recently, most scholars have come to regard these burdens as slight, with some pointing to countervailing positive effects. For instance, colonial merchants could engage in international trade, including the trade to the colonies of other countries, and could carry unenumerated products to European and Western Hemisphere ports. Moreover, all these trades were carried on under the protection as well as the regulation of the Navigation Acts.

Similarly, discussion of the effects of the acts has been inconclusive. The acts did not disrupt Dutch trade, but they helped the British to win a series of wars against France. The key to the final victory over France was the fact that, under the commercial regulations embodied in the Navigation Acts, the English government acquired its revenue for waging war. However, the acts should be evaluated, above all, as laws to define British shipping and trade, and to hold together the "commercial empire."


The First British Empire was basically an Atlantic construct. After the American Revolution Great Britain lost the largest part of its possessions in the West, but it began to expand its territorial possessions in the East. At the same time, commercial regulations, the feature of the first empire, were loosened, and replaced by free-trade principles, which stood as a hallmark of the Second British Empire. Nonetheless, the first empire did not give way to the second; they coexisted well into the nineteenth century. The British Parliament continued to pass navigation laws until 1845.

Although ministers had no intention of destroying the traditional regulatory scheme, they introduced many modifications to it in the 1820s in order to allow it to more efficiently respond to new conditions. Under these new laws the principle of enumeration was abandoned in 1822, and international reciprocity was established in 1825, although the rule that imperial trade should be conducted only by imperial ships with imperial crews persisted. Despite such a situation, however, by the mid-nineteenth century, especially after the repeal of the Corn Laws, removal of protective policies advanced in Britain. The Navigation Acts were repealed in 1849, and foreign ships were allowed to participate in Britain's coastwise trade in 1854.

SEE ALSO Empire, British;Mercantilism;Ships and Shipping;United States.


Andrews, Charles M. The Colonial Period of American History, Vol. 4: England's Commercial and Colonial Policy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1938.

Cain, P. J. "Economics and Empire: The Metropolitan Context." In The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 3, ed. Andrew Porter. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Dickerson, Oliver M. The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951.

Engerman, Stanley L. "Mercantilism and Overseas Trade, 1700–1800." In The Economic History of Britain Since 1700: 1700–1860, vol.1, 2nd edition, ed. Roderick Floud and D. N. McCloskey. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Harper, Lawrence A. The English Navigation Laws: A Seventeenth-Century Experiment in Social Engineering. New York: Colombia University Press, 1939.

Marshall P. J. "Britain Without America: A Second Empire?" In The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 2, ed. P. J. Marshall. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1998.

McCusker, John J. "British Mercantilist Policies and American Colonies." In The Cambridge Economic History of the United States: The Colonial Era, vol. 1, ed. Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kenkichi Omi

Navigation Acts

views updated May 23 2018


NAVIGATION ACTS. The Navigation laws enforced a system of economic management designed to ensure that England's colonial trade was controlled for the benefit of the mother country. There was nothing unique in this arrangement, later referred to as mercantilism, since all the major European powers operated similar systems. Unfortunately, the weak state of England during the second quarter of the seventeenth century meant that much of its colonial trade had been taken over by foreign powers, notably the Dutch. Accordingly, in 1651 the Commonwealth Parliament introduced the first Navigation Act, which required that all plantation goods imported into England be shipped in vessels owned and (three-quarters) manned by Englishmen or in vessels belonging to the country of origin. The expectation was that these restrictions would exclude the Dutch from England's colonial commerce while increasing England's wealth and naval power. The immediate result was the first Anglo-Dutch Naval War of 16521654.

Despite the successful exclusion of the Dutch from the carrying trade, it was quickly perceived that the act of 1651 was deficient because it still allowed colonial goods to be shipped directly to Europe in the vessels of other nations, resulting in a loss of revenue and trade to the mother country. Accordingly, a new bill was drafted in 1660 that not only banned foreign vessels from English colonial ports but declared that certain high-value commodities such as sugar, tobacco, cotton, and indigo must be shipped to England before being reexported elsewhere. However, because the colonies were not only exporters of raw materials but also importers of finished goods, a third Navigation Act was deemed necessary in 1663 to ensure that foreign manufactures reached the colonies only via England, where they first could be taxed, to make them less competitive with English products, while at the same time raising revenue for the crown.

While the acts of 1660 and 1663 constituted the heart of the system of navigation laws, further measures proved necessary over time. In 1673 a fourth act was passed to bring the colonies into line regarding the enumerated duties, notably the one penny duty on a pound of tobacco and the five shilling duty on a hundredweight of white sugar, which up to this time were collected only in England. Then in 1696 a new administrative agency, the Board of Trade, was established to monitor the system more effectively. Simultaneously, special vice-admiralty courts were created to punish those breaking the acts of trade.

Until this time the colonies had been seen primarily as producers of exotic goods and consumers of British manufactures. Now a new consideration began to influence British imperial policy: the need to protect metropolitan producers from colonial competition. In 1699 the Woollen Act was passed, which banned the export of colonial woolen garments to Britain. It was followed in 1732 by the Hat Act and in 1750 by the Iron Act, both similarly aimed at prohibiting (or at least regulating) the production of finished articles in the colonies. These acts, however, were poorly enforced and largely unnecessary since colonial output was rarely of sufficient quality to challenge British manufacturers.

Opinions vary about the economic effects of the Navigation Acts. Most historians believe that the system on balance was beneficial to the colonies: the advantages of being part of an expanding British economy greatly outweighed the disadvantages of these poorly enforced trade restrictions. In any case, there were few complaints about the Navigation Acts in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. Indeed, the Americans, finding that economic independence was not necessarily as attractive as political independence, sought to negotiate partial reentry into Britain's mercantilist system after the Peace Treaty of 1783.

See also Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars ; British Colonies: North America ; Commerce and Markets ; Mercantilism ; Shipping .


Appleby, Joyce Oldham. Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth Century England. Princeton, 1978.

Dickerson, Oliver M. The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution. New York, 1963.

Egnal, Marc. New World Economies: The Growth of the Thirteen Colonies and Early Canada. New York, 1998.

McCusker, John J., and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 16071789. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985.

Shepherd, James F., and Gary M. Walton. Shipping, Maritime Trade, and the Economic Development of Colonial North America. Cambridge, U.K., 1972.

Richard Middleton

Navigation Acts

views updated May 18 2018


Between 1645 and 1761 British Parliament passed a series of 29 laws intended to tightly control colonial trade, shipping, and industry to the benefit of English interests. The American colonists largely ignored these acts, which were intended to ensure that the British colonies in North America remained subservient to the mother country. The initial act of 1645 forbade the import of whale oil into England unless it was transported aboard English ships with English crews. Subsequent laws passed in 1651, 1660, and 1663 provided the basis of the Navigation Acts. The First Navigation Act (1651) resembled the legislation of 1645 but was more far-reaching. It stipulated that goods could only enter England, Ireland, or the colonies aboard English (or English colonial) ships. Furthermore colonial coastal trade was to be conducted entirely aboard English ships.

The Second Navigation Act (1660) reaffirmed that goods could only be transported aboard English ships and established a list of "enumerated articles" that had to be shipped directly to England. The intent was to prevent the colonies from trading directly with any other European country. England required the colonies to sell their materials directly to English merchants or pay duties on goods sold to other countries. The list of articles included sugar, cotton, tobacco, indigo, rice, molasses, apples, and wool. In 1663 Parliament passed the Staple Act, making it illegal for colonies to buy products directly from foreign countries; European countries would first have to ship their products to England or pay customs fees. Through the Navigation Acts England tried to establish itself as the gatekeeper of colonial imports and exports. But the laws were difficult to enforce and the colonists easily circumvented them. Smuggling was rampant: In 1684 Parliament annulled the 1629 charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company. It charged that the colonists had violated English law by exporting tobacco and sugar directly to Europe and had thereby shown disrespect to the king. The laws nevertheless had little effect on the colonial economy, which grew at twice the rate of England's during the period. The acts continued to be passed until the eve of the American Revolution (17751783).

See also: Indigo, Molasses Act, Rice, Sugar, Tobacco, Triangular Trade

Navigation Acts

views updated Jun 11 2018

Navigation Acts

The Navigation Acts were a series of laws passed by English Parliament between 1645 and 1761. The twenty-nine laws were intended to control colonial trade and shipping to the benefit of English interests. Through these measures, England boosted its shipping industries, guaranteed markets for English goods, inhibited other European trade with the thirteen colonies , and benefited from colonial trading goods.

Over time, the Navigation Acts defined England as the gateway for colonial trade. Only British ships were to be used to carry European goods to the colonies. Likewise, American exports were to be carried only by British ships to be processed through English ports. This enabled England to collect tax on the imports and to prevent direct trading with any other country. Certain products (such as sugar, cotton , tobacco , indigo, rice, molasses, apples, and wool) could only be shipped to England. Colonial goods, however, could not compete with English goods.

The laws had both benefits and detriments for the colonies. Certain American markets gained support from the business that the measures guaranteed. Others, however, suffered from the noncompete restrictions or from the increase in costs due to tax and shipping that resulted from the laws.

Shippers often took advantage of loopholes and a lack of clarity to evade the laws. Smuggling goods directly from other countries offered cheaper options to the colonists and so proved to be a lucrative business. In spite of the difficulties presented to the colonies, the laws were effective enough to offer benefits to British trade. Parliament continued to pass Navigation Acts until the eve of the American Revolution (1775–83).

Navigation Acts

views updated Jun 27 2018

Navigation Acts were intended to protect English (later British) commerce from foreign competition. They originated in Tudor times and were based on ideas usually called mercantilist. This assumed that the volume of world trade was finite and that any gain by one country could only be at the expense of another. The great Act of 1651 was aimed at the Dutch carrying trade. It required that all imports should be carried in ships either owned by English subjects or owned by the nationals of the country from which the goods came. Exports were similarly restricted. The Acts had the concurrent purpose of fostering the merchant navy, which retained an important defensive role. The Navigation Acts were abolished in 1849, a final step towards making Britain a free trade economy.

Ian John Ernest Keil

Navigation Acts

views updated May 29 2018

Navigation Acts English 17th-century statutes placing restrictions on foreign trade and shipping. The first Navigation Act (1651) declared that English trade should be carried only in English ships; it was the main cause of the first Anglo–Dutch War. Later acts placed restrictions on the trade of the colonies.