The navigation acts were a number of related legislative measures passed between 1651 and 1696 and designed to enhance Britain’s international economic position. They reflected the mercantilistic concern for economic control of colonies and a favorable balance of trade and collectively provided a blueprint for management of Britain’s first empire.
The Navigation Act of 1651, leading to the First Dutch War, required that all goods from Africa, Asia, and the Americas be imported to England in English ships and that all European goods shipped to England be carried in English ships or the ships of the country producing the goods. The First Navigation Act (1660) reinforced the previous provisions, adding that crews had to be at least 75 percent English and establishing a list of enumerated colonial goods, not produced in England, that could be supplied only to England or other British colonies. The original articles included sugar, cotton, indigo, dyewoods, ginger, and tobacco; rice, furs, molasses, resins, tars, and turpentine were later added. It also provided that only English or colonial ships could carry trade to and from the British colonies. The Staple Act of 1663 required that most foreign goods be transshipped to the American colonies through British ports. When enumerated articles passed through British ports, heavy duties were levied on them. The British government did seek to protect some American products, however, levying high tariffs on Swedish iron and Spanish tobacco and prohibiting the raising of tobacco in England. The last major piece of mercantile legislation was passed in 1696, expanding the limited British customs service and establishing vice-admiralty courts to quickly settle disputes occurring at sea. Closely related to the navigation acts were laws passed throughout the colonial period limiting the sale of American grain in England and inhibiting the development of American industries, including textiles, timber, and iron.
The navigation acts were aimed principally at the Dutch, who had controlled much of the world’s middleman trade in the first half of the 17th century, and at emerging American industries poised to compete with the mother country. Among agriculturalists, small tobacco planters were especially hard hit, but on the whole the northern colonies suffered more as a result of the regulations. New England merchants routinely carried on commerce in violation of the acts throughout the 17th century. By the beginning of the 18th century, most smuggling from Europe had been stopped, and Americans had grown accustomed to purchasing English goods, which they preferred to local manufactures. After passage of the Molasses Act (1733), however, which raised prohibitive duties on molasses and sugar from the French West Indies and threatened American trade, smuggling again increased. Following the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), new legislation utilized the navigation acts as a means of raising revenue for the British treasury and as a result raised the ire of American colonists.