Empires of the Ancient and Early Medieval world were primarily continental in nature, in that a powerful nation pushed its borders ever wider by conquering its neighbours. However, from the mid-16th century onwards, as European explorers discovered lands across the sea that offered massive opportunities for trade or plunder, empires became trans-oceanic and intensely competitive, so that nations such as Britain, Holland, Spain and France found themselves in conflict over pieces of land across the world, as well as the sea routes that were essential for their trade and defence.
Measures to protect the rights of English sailors and traders go back to the reign of Edward III in the 14th century, and the development of overseas colonies made such laws essential for ensuring that only English ships could carry goods to and from these overseas territories. Without such laws there was always the possibility that the colonists would trade directly with other European countries, and the home country would lose the goods and revenue that it came to expect from its burgeoning empire.
By the second half of the 17th century England’s chief colonial rival was the Netherlands, and the succession of Navigation Acts that began in 1651 was designed to create a closed market that excluded the Dutch, through establishing a monopoly of the colonial trade in raw materials for English ships, at the Netherlands’ expense.
The Act had the desired effect in that it severely damaged Dutch interests, and it was the cause of a series of Anglo-Dutch wars that continued into the reign of Charles II. It is noteworthy that Cromwell’s Navigation Act was one of very few that were not repealed after the fall of the Commonwealth. Indeed, other Acts were to follow that continued and extended the protectionist theme, for example by adding a ban on exports in non-English ships.
The 1651 Act also had a political purpose in that most of the English colonies were loyal to the Stuart monarchy that had ended with the execution of Charles I in 1649. Cromwell’s government could keep
within the empire by military means, but this was not so easy when the
potential rebels were on the other side of the Atlantic
Ocean. The Navigation Act therefore established an invisible but
effective fetter that tied the colonies to the home country.
Greek to Roman colonisation
One effect of the Act (and its successors) was that the nature of English colonialism changed from a “Greek” to a “Roman” model. In the ancient world, several colonies were established around the
Mediterranean by Greek
settlers who set up independent city-states like those on the Greek mainland.
Among these was Syracuse in , the home of Archimedes. These
colonies acknowledged their origins, and were proud of their Greek culture, but
saw no obligation of obedience to the city-state which had sent them out. On
the other hand, Roman colonies, founded by conquest, were expected to be
subservient to the Roman Emperor, and any attempts to deviate from imperial
policy were ruthlessly suppressed. Sicily
The irony is that, without the Navigation Acts, it is quite possible that the early colonies, most notably those in North America, could have broken away as early as the 1650s. As it was, the spark for eventual independence was probably struck by Oliver Cromwell, whose Puritan religious persuasion had in fact a great deal in common with that of many of the colonists. Cromwell’s attempt to keep the colonies loyal by economic force clearly worked in the short term, as it took another 125 years for the fuse lit in 1651 to reach the powder keg.
© John Welford