British Navigation Acts
A 200-year experiment in trade restriction
The British Navigation Acts (originally the English Navigation Acts) were a series of increasingly restrictive cabotage laws designed to curtail use of foreign bottoms (ships) for foreign trade to or from Britain and throughout the British Empire. In 1645, Parliament enacted a law restricting the import into England of whale products to ships owned by the royally-chartered Greenland Company. The Parliament of the Commonwealth of England adopted the Navigation Ordinance of 1651, restricting English trade to English vessels. It prohibited foreign ships from transporting non-European goods to England or its colonies and prohibited third-country ships from transporting goods between England and other European countries. The law was primarily designed to limit competition from the Netherlands, which had previously dominated English foreign trade. In 1660, the law was reenacted and broadened, requiring that the crew on ships authorized to engage in the restricted trade had to be at least three-quarters English. It also provided that certain colonial-origin products not produced in England (primarily tobacco, cotton, and sugar) could be shipped from the colony of origin only to England or to other English colonies. The Navigation Act 1663 prohibited European goods from being shipped directly to the colonies, requiring that they be transshipped through England. The definition of Europe included islands in the Atlantic north of the latitude of the Strait of Gibraltar. This inadvertently omitted the Madeira Islands, allowing Madeira wine to be imported directly into the American colonies. Madeira soon became the most widely consumed wine in the region. It was a favored beverage of many of our founding fathers, and some of our founding mothers as well. In 1733, Parliament adopted the Molasses Act, imposing high taxes on sugar imported into the British Empire from the French West Indies. The major result of this legislation was a significant increase in the smuggling of sugar and other goods into the American colonies and further tension between those colonies and the British Government. When the United States gained its independence, it promptly adopted cabotage laws similar to those in force in the United Kingdom. While the United Kingdom largely repealed its cabotage laws in 1849, the United States has retained its version.