Navigation Acts focused on Colonial trade


During the Elizabethan era (1558-1603), England began to emerge as a nation ready to compete with the Spanish, the Dutch and the French for wealth and power.

The doctrine of mercantilism, which British monarchy adopted, decreed that a nation must attain a favorable balance of trade — that is, to export more than it imported. The accumulated bullion could then be used for war efforts, internal improvements and national security.

Because the British Navy was thought to be essential to the strength of the nation and because commercial maritime activity enhanced naval power, attention in the 17th century centered upon the promotion of English shipping. Success demanded the overthrow of the Dutch monopoly in the carrying trade and French expansion in the New World.

That Colonies existed for the benefit of the mother country and that the colonies’ trade should be restricted to the mother country were tenets accepted by all the great commercial rivals of the 17th century.

As England’s knowledge of her colonies and of the new products to be reaped from them increased, so did her expectation of the Colonies’ potential contribution to her grand scheme. But for many reasons, a definite policy of Colonial control was slow to develop.

Parliament acts

England lacked definite laws relating to commercial policy until 1650 when a combination of private corporate interests and the national interest motivated Parliament to enact legislation designed to attain the national goals. In an attempt to break Dutch control of commerce, Parliament, in 1650, forbade foreign ships to trade with the English Colonies without a license.

In 1651, Parliament enacted a second navigation act that forbade bringing goods from Asia, Africa and America to British ports, except in English-owned and English manned vessels. The law said foreign goods could be imported into England only from the place of production.

The act was unpopular with British merchants who were prohibited from sailing from country to country to take on produce for import, and more seriously, it provoked a two-year war with the Dutch. The entire period from 1650-1660 was marked by a great commercial struggle among the powers of Western Europe.

Commercial policies defined

When Charles II came to the throne in 1660, the British restoration was over, and it was possible to give more attention to the Colonial problems. He established two committees, one on trade and the other on plantations. Through the leadership to these councils, commercial policies were gradually defined.

The first of these measures was the Navigation Act of 1660, which provided that only British-built or British-owned ships could import or export goods or commodities, regardless of origin, to and from the British Colonies. It further restricted shipment off certain enumerated articles produced in the Colonies (sugar, tobacco cotton, indigo, ginger and dye wood) to only Great Britain or the Empire.

The aggravating requirement that ships sailing from the colonies had to give bond that they would unload their cargoes in the realm only furthered the act of smuggling. The enumeration clause was intended to increase England’s customs revenue, to ensure its access to raw materials, and to promote domestic industries by giving employment in the various trades.

The purpose of the act of 1660 was to encourage English shipping rather than to vex the Colonies. England needed a large navy to protect an empire, and in time of war trading, ships could easily be converted into warships. In practice, the 1660 regulations created many problems and shippers took advantage of loopholes and ambiguities to evade the law.

To facilitate enforcement, Parliament, in 1662, passed the Acts of Frauds that said only ships built in England could transport goods within the empire. Despite all the various shipping regulations, England still had to clarify the relationship of the Colonies to the mother country.

Customs revenues

If the British government were to recover from near bankruptcy by the Puritans leadership and royal debts, it could not allow the Colonies to buy cheap European products. More importantly, England had to gain control of customs revenues from the Colonial merchants.

To make Great Britain the sole exporting center for Colonial imports, Parliament passed the Act of Encouragement of Trade July 27, 1663.

Henceforth, European goods could be imported to the Colonies only from England and English-built ships. The only exceptions were salt for the fishing industries of New England, wine from Madeira and the Azores and horses from Ireland and Scotland. Because of the complexity of the Navigation Acts, administrative discretion was important in how they were enforced and interpreted.

In the American Colonies, enforcement lay with the governors and royal collectors. These officials soon made themselves obnoxious to the colonists by attempting to enforce the law, but also because of the constant complaints they registered with their English superiors on the unwillingness of the Americans to cooperate.

In the years immediately following the passage of the Navigation Acts, the colonists protested about the enforcement. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony were the loudest complainers that they had no membership voice in Parliament.

Gradually, most colonists adjusted to compliance, and the insurrection which occurred in the years following cannot be attributed solely to the Navigation Acts. As far as England was concerned, the legislation achieved its purpose. Colonial trade increased more rapidly than before.

There were sufficient causes for the American Revolution apart from the Navigation Acts, and the habits of trade which the acts established lasted beyond the 17th and 18th centuries. By the mid-19th century, Great Britain had become the world’s greatest commercial and maritime power. That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to:



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