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The Englishmarker Navigation Acts were a series of laws which restricted the use of foreign shipping for trade between England (after 1707 Great Britainmarker) and its colonies, which started in 1651. At their outset, they were a factor in the Anglo-Dutch Wars. Later, they were one of several sources of resentment in the American colonies against Great Britain, fuelling the flames of the American Revolutionary War.

Early legislation

Statutes had periodically been passed concerning shipping and the regulation of English trade since 1381. Examples of the latter were the charters establishing Staple ports.


The major impetus for the Navigation Acts was the ruinous deterioration of English trade in the aftermath of the Eighty Years War, and the concomitant lifting of the Spanish trade-embargoes on trade between the Spanish Empire and the Dutch Republic. The end of the embargoes in 1647 unleashed the full power of the Amsterdam Entrepôt and other Dutch competitive advantages in world trade. Within a few years, English merchants had practically been overwhelmed in the trade on the Iberian Peninsulamarker, the Mediterraneanmarker and the Levant. Even the trade with English colonies (partly still in the hands of the royalists, as the English Civil War was in its final stages and the Commonwealth of England had not yet imposed its authority throughout the English colonies) was "engrossed" by Dutch merchants. English direct trade was crowded out by a sudden influx of commodities from the Levant, Mediterranean and the Spanish and Portuguese empires, and the West Indies via the Dutch Entrepôt, carried in Dutch bottoms and for Dutch account.

The obvious solution seemed to be to seal off the English and Scottish markets to these unwanted imports. The precedent was the Act the Greenland Company had obtained from Parliament in 1645 prohibiting the import of whale products into England, except in ships owned by that company. This principle was now generalized. In 1648 the Levant Company petitioned Parliament for the prohibition of imports of Turkish goods "...from Holland and other places but directly from the places of their growth." Baltic traders added their voices to this chorus. In 1650 the Standing Council for Trade and the Council of State of the Commonwealth prepared a general policy designed to impede the flow of Mediterranean and colonial commodities via Hollandmarker and Zeelandmarker into England.

Navigation Ordinance 1651

For further detail of the background see First Anglo–Dutch War.

The Navigation Act bill was passed in October 1651 by the Parliament of the Commonwealth of England led by Oliver Cromwell, reinforcing a longstanding principle of government policy that English trade should be carried in English vessels. It was reaction to the failure of an English diplomatic mission to The Haguemarker seeking a joining of the Commonwealth by the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, after the States of Holland had made some cautious overtures to Cromwell to counter the monarchal aspirations of stadtholder William II of Orange. The stadtholder had suddenly died however and the States were now embarrassed by Cromwell taking the idea quite too seriously. The English proposed the joint conquest of all remaining Spanish and Portuguese possessions. England would take America and the Dutch Africa and Asia. As the Dutch, however, had just ended their war with Spain and already taken over most Portuguese colonies in Asia, they saw little advantage in this grandiose scheme and proposed a free trade agreement as an alternative to a full political union. This again was unacceptable to the British, who would be unable to compete on such a level playing field, and was seen by them as a deliberate affront.

The Act banned foreign ships from transporting goods from outside Europe to England or its colonies and banned third party countries' ships from transporting goods from a country elsewhere in Europe to England. These rules specifically targeted the Dutch who controlled a large section of Europe's international trade and even much of England's coastal shipping. It excluded the Dutch from essentially all trade with England, as the Dutch economy was competitive, not complementary with the English, and the two countries therefore exchanged few commodities. This Anglo-Dutch trade, however, constituted only a small fraction of total Dutch trade flows. The Act is often mentioned as a major cause of the First Anglo-Dutch War, though it was only part of a larger British policy to engage in war after the negotiations had failed. The English naval victories in 1653 (the Battle of Portlandmarker, the Battle of the Gabbardmarker and the Battle of Scheveningen) showed the supremacy of the Commonwealth navy in home waters. However, farther afield the Dutch predominated and were able to close down English commerce in the Baltic and the Mediterranean. Both countries held each other in a stifling embrace.

The Treaty of Westminster ended the impasse. The Dutch acknowledged the Act in this peace, but it seems to have had very little influence on their trade. For England the Act offered only limited solace. It could not limit the deterioration of England's overseas trading position, except in the cases where England herself was the principal consumer, like the Canaries'marker wine trade and the trade in Puglian olive oil. In the trade with the West Indies the Dutch kept up a flourishing "smuggling" trade, thanks to the preference of English planters for Dutch import goods and the better deal the Dutch offered in the sugar trade. The Dutch colony of New Netherland offered a loophole (through intercolonial trade) wide enough to drive a shipload of Virginian tobacco through.

The Navigation Acts

The 1651 Act (like other legislation of the Commonwealth period) was declared void on The Restoration of Charles II, having been passed by 'usurping powers'. Parliament therefore passed new legislation. This is generally referred to as the "Navigation Acts", and (with some amendments) remained in force for nearly two centuries.

The Navigation Act 1660 added a twist to Oliver Cromwell's act; ships' crews had to be three-quarters English, and "enumerated" products not produced by the mother country, such as tobacco, cotton, and sugar were to be shipped from the colonies only to England or other English colonies.

The Navigation Act 1663 (also called the Act for the Encouragement of Trade) required all European goods bound for America (or other colonies) to be shipped through England or Wales first. In England, the goods would be unloaded, inspected, paid duties, and reloaded. The trade had to be carried in English bottoms (i.e. vessels), which included those of its colonies. Furthermore, imports of 'enumerated commodities' (such as sugar, rice, and tobacco) had to be landed and pay tax before going on to other countries. This increased the cost to the colonies, and increased the shipping time.

This Act entitled colonial shipping and seamen to enjoy the full benefits of the exclusive provisions. There was no bar put in the way of colonists who might wish to trade in their own shipping with foreign plantations or European countries other than England, provided they did not violate the enumerated commodity clause.

"English bottoms" included vessels built in English plantations (i.e. colonies), for example in America.

The Acts were in full force for a short time only. After the Second Anglo-Dutch War, which ended disastrously for England, the Dutch obtained the right to ship commodities produced in their German hinterland to England as if these were Dutch goods. Even more importantly, England conceded the principle of "free ship, free good" which provided freedom of molestation by the Royal Navy of Dutch shipping on the high seas, even in wars in which the Dutch Republic was neutral. This more or less gave the Dutch freedom to conduct their "smuggling" unhindered as long as they were not caught red-handed in territorial waters controlled by England. These provisions were reconfimed in the Treaty of Westminster after the Third Anglo-Dutch War.

Molasses Act 1733

The 1733 Molasses Act levied heavy duties on the trade of sugar from the French West Indies to the American colonies, forcing the colonists to buy the more expensive sugar from the British West Indies instead. The law was widely flouted, but efforts by the British to prevent smuggling created hostility and contributed to the American Revolution. The Molasses Act was the first of the Sugar Acts. The act was set to expire in 1763, and in 1764 was renewed as the Sugar Act, which caused unrest with the colonists.


The Navigation Acts were repealed in 1849 under the influence of a laissez-faire philosophy. The Navigation Acts were passed under the economic theory of mercantilism under which wealth was to be increased by restricting trade to colonies rather than with free trade. By 1849 "a central part of British capital's import strategy was to reduce the cost of food through cheap foreign imports and in this way to reduce the cost of maintaining labour power"(van Houten). Repealing the Navigation Acts along with the Corn Laws served this purpose, but also led to the break up of the formal British Empire.


The introduction of the legislation caused Britain's shipping industry to develop in isolation. However, it had the advantage to English shippers of severely limiting the ability of Dutch ships to participate in the carrying trade to England. The Navigation Acts, by reserving British colonial trade to British shipping, may have significantly assisted in the growth of London as a major entrepôt for American colonial wares at the expense of Dutchmarker cities. The maintenance of a certain level of merchant shipping and of trade generally also facilitated a rapid increase in the size and quality of the Royal Navy, which eventually (after the Anglo-Dutch Alliance of 1689 limited the Dutch navy to three-fifths of the size of the English one) led to Britain becoming a global superpower until the mid 20th Century. That naval might, however, never was sufficient to limit Dutch trading power. The reason was that the Dutch trading system rested on such a degree of leverage over overseas markets and shipping resources, combined with a financial power that was only overtaken by Great Britain during the 18th century (after the Glorious Revolution), that it enabled the Dutch to put sufficient pressure on the English to prevent them from sustaining naval campaigns of sufficient length to wrest maritime concessions from the Dutch.

The Navigation Acts, while enriching Britain, caused resentment in the colonies and contributed to the American Revolution. The Navigation Acts required all imports either to be sold in England or bought from England no matter what price could be obtained elsewhere. The rationale was the theory of Mercantilism: the more money one country or colony has, the more power it will hold. The colonists resorted to smuggling. Writs of assistance were issued to enforce the Navigation Acts.



  • 'Charles II, 1660: An Act for the Encourageing and increasing of Shipping and Navigation.', Statutes of the Realm: volume 5: 1628-80 (1819), pp. 246-50. URL: [25542]. Date accessed: 27 April 2007.
  • 'Charles II, 1663: An Act for the Encouragement of Trade', Statutes of the Realm: volume 5: 1628-80 (1819), pp. 449-52. URL: [25543]. Date accessed: 27 April 2007.
  • 'Corporate Canada: an historical outline', Gerry van Houten, pg 42-43, 1991, Progress Books
  • Craven, Wesley Frank, The Colonies in Transition, 1968
  • (1997), "England's Mercantilist Response to Dutch World Trade Primacy, 1647-74," in: Conflicts of Empires. Spain, the Low Countries and the struggle for world supremacy 1585-1713. Hambledon Press, ISBN 1-85285-161-9, pp. 305-318
  • Navigation Act 1651 at
  • 'October 1651: An Act for increase of Shipping, and Encouragement of the Navigation of this Nation.', Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660 (1911), pp. 559-62. URL: [25544]. Date accessed: 27 April] 2007.

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