MOLASSES ACT, a British law put into effect on 25 December 1733, laid prohibitive duties of six pence per gallon on molasses, nine pence per gallon on rum, and five shillings for every one hundred weight on sugar imported from non-British colonies into Great Britain's American mainland colonies. The duty had to be paid before the ships landed. The act also stipulated that these products could only be imported into Ireland on British ships, in accordance with the Navigation Acts.
The Molasses Act originated in the vying economic interests of the British continental and island colonies. In 1717, France permitted French West Indies sugar to supersede the British product in European markets, and it competed successfully in the markets of the English colonies. At the same time, France prohibited the importation of rum into France to protect French brandy production. This obliged the molasses producers in the French colonies to develop markets in New England and New York. The mainland colonial merchants involved in the considerable rum industry in New England found it more lucrative to deal with the French, Dutch, or Spanish sugar interests in the West Indies than with the costly English suppliers. Boston alone produced more than a million gallons of rum per year by the 1730s. From 1730 to 1733, the planters in the British West Indies sugar colonies, led by Barbados, which had highly placed political connections, petitioned Parliament to disallow the mainland colonies from carrying on commerce with the foreign West Indies. The British West Indies planters insisted they were suffering from soil exhaustion, a recent hurricane, burdensome export taxes, and the restraints of the Navigation Acts. The mainland colonies argued that the British West Indies could not consume all of the fish, lumber, flour, cheese, and other agricultural products of the Bread Colonies (the mainland colonies) or provide the amount of rum the mainland colonies demanded.
Colonial smuggling minimized the act's effects. Lax enforcement within the negligible customs bureaucracy allowed colonial commerce to follow previous routes without coercion. Illicit trade with the enemy, even during wartime, had become a way of life for the colonists. Estimates indicate that New England distilled considerably more rum than could have been produced with legally imported molasses, so rum production in New England could only survive by circumventing the act. The act continued in force for five years and was renewed five times. As the Molasses Act was about to expire, George Grenville, the first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer, replaced it in 1764 with the Sugar Act. A more effective tariff, the sugar duty collected a greater amount of revenue than any other duty in the next decade, because it lowered the levy on molasses from six pence to three pence, making molasses less profitable to smuggle. Any ships in violation of the Sugar Act were subject to immediate seizure by British customs commissioners and were placed under the authority of the Vice Admiralty Court in Nova Scotia.
Barrow, Thomas C. Trade and Empire: The British Customs Service in Colonial America, 1660–1775. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.
Taussig, Charles William. Rum, Romance, and Rebellion. New York: Minton, Balch, 1928.
Walton, Gary M., and James F. Shepherd. The Economic Rise of Early America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Molasses Act of 1733
MOLASSES ACT OF 1733
In an ongoing effort to control commerce in its North American colonies, the British Parliament passed the Molasses Act in 1733. It imposed heavy duties on any molasses, sugar, or rum imported by the colonies from non-British West Indies (islands in the Caribbean).
The American colonists had a substantial appetite for rum. They consumed it at a rate of nearly four gallons a year for every man, woman, and child. By the time that the act was passed New England distilleries had developed into a successful industry. They bought most of their raw materials (molasses and sugar) from the French islands in the West Indies. The French islands offered cheaper rates than the British islands. Thus Parliament was prompted to pass the Molasses Act to protect its sugar industry.
Smugglers evaded the law by transporting African slaves to Spanish colonies where they were traded for sugar and molasses. These goods were then sold to New England distillers. The smugglers used the profits to buy more African slaves, establishing one of many triangular trade routes that proved lucrative in colonial times.
In 1764 British Parliament passed the Sugar Act to replace the Molasses Act of 1733. The legislation cut by half the per-gallon duty on sugar and molasses imported into British colonies from non-British islands in the West Indies. The Sugar Act also provided for British customs officials to be sent to America where they would work with colonial governors to enforce the law.
See also: Sugar, Sugar Act, Triangular Trade