Chronicles of America 

The Navigation Acts

Three acts of Parliament -- the Navigation Act of 1660, the Staple Act of 1663, and the Act of 1673 imposing Plantation Duties -- laid the foundation of the old colonial system of Great Britain. Contrary to the somewhat passionate contentions of older historians, they were not designed in any tyrannical spirit, though they embodied a theory of colonization and trade which has long since been discarded. In the seventeenth century colonies were regarded as plantations existing solely for the benefit of the mother country. Therefore their trade and industry must be regulated so as to contribute most to the sea power, the commerce, and the industry of the home country which gave them protection. Sir Josiah Child was only expressing a commonplace observation of the mercantilists when he wrote "That all colonies or plantations do endamage their Mother-Kingdoms, whereof the trades of such Plantations are not confined by severe Laws, and good execution of those Laws, to the Mother-Kingdom."

The Navigation Act of 1660, following the policy laid down in the statute of 1651 enacted under the Commonwealth, was a direct blow aimed at the Dutch, who were fast monopolizing the carrying trade. It forbade any goods to be imported into or exported from His Majesty's plantations except in English, Irish, or colonial vessels of which the master and three fourths of the crew must be English; and it forbade the importation into England of any goods produced in the plantations unless carried in English bottoms. Contemporary Englishmen hailed this act as the Magna Charta of the Sea. There was no attempt to disguise its purpose. "The Bent and Design," wrote Charles Davenant, "was to make those colonies as much dependant as possible upon their Mother-Country," by preventing them from trading independently and so diverting their wealth. The effect would be to give English, Irish, and colonial shipping a monopoly of the carrying trade within the Empire. The act also aided English merchants by the requirement that goods of foreign origin should be imported directly from the place of production; and that certain enumerated commodities of the plantations should be carried only to English ports. These enumerated commodities were products of the southern and semitropical plantations: "Sugars, Tobacco, Cotton-wool, Indicoes, Ginger, Fustick or other dyeing wood."

To benefit British merchants still more directly by making England the staple not only of plantation products but also of all commodities of all countries, the Act of 1663 was passed by Parliament. "No Commoditie of the Growth Production or Manufacture of Europe shall be imported into any Land Island Plantation Colony Territory or Place to His Majestie belonging . . . but what shall be bona fide and without fraude laden and shipped in England Wales [and] the Towne of Berwicke upon Tweede and in English built Shipping." The preamble to this famous act breathed no hostile intent. The design was to maintain "a greater correspondence and kindnesse" between the plantations and the mother country; to encourage shipping; to render navigation cheaper and safer; to make "this Kingdome a Staple not only of the Commodities of those Plantations but also of the Commodities of other Countries and places for the supplying of them -- " it "being the usage of other nations to keepe their [Plantations] Trade to themselves."

The Act of 1673 was passed to meet certain difficulties which arose in the administration of the Act of 1660. The earlier act permitted colonial vessels to carry enumerated commodities from the place of production to another plantation without paying duties. Under cover of this provision, it was assumed that enumerated commodities, after being taken to a plantation, could then be sent directly to continental ports free of duty. The new act provided that, before vessels left a colonial port, bonds should be given that the enumerated commodities would be carried only to England. If bonds were not given and the commodities were taken to another colonial port, plantation duties were collected according to a prescribed schedule.

These acts were not rigorously enforced until after the passage of the administrative act of 1696 and the establishment of admiralty courts. Even then it does not appear that they bore heavily on the colonies, or occasioned serious protest. The trade acts of 1764 and 1765 are described in "The Eve of the Revolution".

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