Friday, 13 May 2016

The Navigation Act of 1651

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.

Trade protection

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 Navigation Act of 1651 stipulated that goods could only be carried to English territories (i.e. England itself and its colonies) by English ships, or by ships that belonged to the country that had produced the goods. It was designed with the Dutch in mind, because of the extensive shipping business carried out by the Dutch in carrying other nations’ goods. There was also a clause that prevented Dutch fishermen from landing and selling catches in English or colonial ports.

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 It is noteworthy that Cromwell’s Navigation Act was one of very few that were not repealed after the fall of the Commonwealth.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.

Political overtones

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 Ireland 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 Sicily, 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.

England’s early colonies had followed the Greek model, in contrast to those of other European countries, most noticeably Spain. Spanish colonies were under the direct rule of the King of Spain, but no such institutional framework had governed England’s colonies, which enjoyed a considerable amount of freedom to develop in ways that best suited them. The imposition of a more Roman model that dictated who the colonists could trade with, by what means, and with the consequence of import and export duties being levelled on the goods that were traded within an imposed trade monopoly, inevitably cause resentments that were to build over the succeeding decades and lead eventually, in the North American colonies, to revolution.

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