British Navigation Acts

England passed a set of laws designed to force the American colonies to trade only with the British Empire. The acts succeeded in enriching Britain, but they created tension between the home country and its colonies.

Summary of Event

During the Elizabethan era, England, hitherto an agricultural country, began to emerge as a great nation ready to compete with the other European nations for wealth and power. The doctrine of mercantilism Mercantilism that the Crown adopted decreed that a nation must attain a favorable balance of trade—that is, it must export more than it imported—in order to accumulate bullion for financing war efforts and maintaining national security. Because the navy was thought to be essential to the strength of the nation and because commercial maritime activity enhanced naval power, attention in the seventeenth century centered upon the promotion of English shipping. Success demanded the overthrow of the Dutch monopoly in the carrying trade. Trade;England and its colonies
[kw]British Navigation Acts (Sept. 13, 1660-July 27, 1663)
[kw]Acts, British Navigation (Sept. 13, 1660-July 27, 1663)
[kw]Navigation Acts, British (Sept. 13, 1660-July 27, 1663)
Trade and commerce;Sept. 13, 1660-July 27, 1663: British Navigation Acts[2020]
Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 13, 1660-July 27, 1663: British Navigation Acts[2020]
Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 13, 1660-July 27, 1663: British Navigation Acts[2020]
England;Sept. 13, 1660-July 27, 1663: British Navigation Acts[2020]
American Colonies;Sept. 13, 1660-July 27, 1663: British Navigation Acts[2020]
Navigation Acts (1660-1663)

All the great commercial rivals of the seventeenth century accepted the tenets that colonies existed for the benefit of the mother country and that the colonies’ trade should be restricted to the mother country. As England’s knowledge of its colonies and of the new products to be reaped from them increased, so did its expectation of the colonies’ potential contribution to its grand scheme. England lacked definite laws relating to commercial policy, however, until 1650, when a combination of private corporate interests and the national interest motivated Parliament to enact legislation designed to attain the national goals.

Thus, in an attempt to break Dutch control of commerce, Parliament in 1650 forbade foreign ships from trading with the colonies without a license. The following year, Parliament enacted a law stating, in part, that only British-owned ships, of which the master and majority of the crew were also British, could import goods from Asia, Africa, and America into Great Britain, Ireland, or the colonies; only British ships or ships of the country of origin could import European goods into Great Britain, Ireland, or the colonies; and foreign goods could be imported into England only from the place of production. The act also prohibited British merchant ships from sailing from country to country to take on produce for import; more seriously, it provoked a two-year war with the Dutch. The entire period from 1651 to 1660 was marked by a great commercial struggle among the powers of western and northern Europe. Furthermore, the last years before the Restoration in Great Britain were fraught with uncertainty and financial difficulties. Trade;maritime

When Charles II Charles II (king of England);commerce and came to the throne in 1660, he acted upon the urging of the merchants to promote British commerce. He established two councils, one for trade and one for plantations, consisting of lords, merchants, planters, and sea captains. Through the Crown’s instructions to these councils, commercial policies gradually were defined. At the same time, Parliament gave the policies statutory authority. The first of these measures was the Navigation Act of 1660, sponsored by John Shaw, Shaw, John a prominent financier, and Sir George Downing, Downing, Sir George later commissioner of customs.

Enacted by the Convention Parliament on September 13, 1660 Convention Parliament (1660) , and confirmed by the first regular Restoration Parliament on July 27, 1661, the act was similar to that of 1651 in many respects. Certain defects and ambiguities in the earlier act had hindered enforcement, and certain revisions were necessary. The act of 1660 provided that only British-built or British-owned ships of which the masters and three-quarters of the crew were British could import or export goods or commodities, regardless of origin, to and from the British colonies. It further restricted shipment of certain enumerated articles produced in the colonies (sugar, tobacco, cotton, indigo, ginger, speckle wood, and dyewoods) to Great Britain or its colonies and required ships sailing from the colonies to give bond that they would unload their cargoes in the realm. The enumeration clause was intended to increase England’s customs revenues, to ensure its access to raw materials, and to advance domestic industries by creating employment in the trades that employed the enumerated products.

In practice, the 1660 regulations created many problems, and shippers took advantage of loopholes and ambiguities to evade the law. Probably to facilitate enforcement, Parliament passed the Act of Frauds Frauds, Act of (1662) in 1662. It restricted the privileges of the act of 1660 to ships built in England, except for ships bought before 1662.

Great Britain still had to clarify the dependent relationship of its colonies to the mother country. If the government were to recover from virtual bankruptcy incurred by the Puritans and royal debts, it could not allow the colonies to buy European products at cheaper prices, and it had to gain customs revenues from the colonial merchants. To make Great Britain the sole exporting center for colonial imports and thus constitute it as a “staple,” Parliament, on July 27, 1663, passed the Act for the Encouragement of Trade Encouragement of Trade, Act for the (1663) . Henceforth, European goods could be imported to the colonies only from England and in English-built ships. The only exceptions to the rule were salt for the New England and Newfoundland fisheries, wine from Madeira and the Azores, and provisions, servants, and horses from Ireland and Scotland.


Because of the complexity of the Navigation Acts, administrative discretion was important in determining how they should be interpreted and enforced. In the colonies, enforcement lay with the governors, who were required to send to England reports of all vessels trading within their jurisdiction and copies of the bonds required of all ships’ masters. Both colonial and English sea captains, however, found ways of continuing direct trade with Europe, and smuggling was common. In the period immediately following passage of the Navigation Acts, the colonists protested the restriction of their markets. As English markets became glutted with colonial goods, the returns that the colonists could expect decreased. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony objected to the acts on the basis that, since they were not represented in Parliament, they were not subject to the laws passed by Parliament. Gradually, however, most colonists adjusted to compliance, and the insurrections that occurred in the years following cannot be attributed in any large sense to the Navigation Acts in isolation.

As far as England was concerned, the legislation did achieve its purpose. Colonial trade with England and British overseas shipping increased more rapidly than before. There were sufficient causes for the American Revolution apart from the Navigation Acts, and the habits of trade that the acts established lasted beyond the eighteenth century, by which time Great Britain had become the world’s greatest commercial and maritime power.

Further Reading

  • Andrews, Charles, M. England’s Commercial and Colonial Policy. Vol. 4 in The Colonial Period of American History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964. Argues that the Navigation Acts were expressions of Great Britain’s goal to develop a great commercial and colonial empire.
  • Armitage, David, and Michael J. Braddick, eds. The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Collection of essays about Great Britain and its colonies in America and the Caribbean. Chapter 3, an essay about the economy of Great Britain and its colonies, contains information about the Navigation Acts.
  • Brenner, Robert. Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Provocative revisionism on mercantilism, colonialism, the English merchant class, the role of politics, and the place of London in the commercial and maritime structure of the British Empire.
  • Clark, Sir George. The Later Stuarts, 1660-1714. Vol. 10 in The Oxford History of England. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1955. A standard history of late seventeenth century England. Depicts the Restoration period, 1660-1685, as characterized by an elaborate and rigid system of trade regulation and protectionism, policies that originated under the Commonwealth.
  • Davies, Godfrey. The Early Stuarts, 1603-1660. Vol. 9 in The Oxford History of England. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1959. Stresses the link between the powerful Dutch commercial empire and the aspiring English determined to compete with and surpass the Dutch.
  • Dickerson, Oliver M. The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951. Analyzes the impact of the Navigation Acts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the role of mercantilism, and the origins of the American Revolution.
  • Harper, Lawrence A. The English Navigation Laws. New York: Octagon Books, 1964. The definitive work on the series of Navigation Acts of the 1650’s and 1660’. Argues that the English acts were an experiment in social engineering and an early manifestation of the economic system of mercantilism.
  • McCusker, John, and Russell Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607-1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985. Comprehensive assessment of the pre-revolutionary economy of Great Britain’s American colonies. Includes information on the Navigation Acts.
  • Ormrod, David. The Rise of Commercial Empires: England and the Netherlands in the Age of Mercantilism, 1650-1770. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Examines the competition between England and the Netherlands in the North Sea economy to describe how England’s increasingly coherent polices of mercantilism undermined Dutch trade in the region.

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Charles II (of England); First Earl of Clarendon; George Monck. Navigation Acts (1660-1663)