Navigation Acts

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Navigation Acts,

in English history, name given to certain parliamentary legislation, more properly called the British Acts of Trade. The acts were an outgrowth of mercantilismmercantilism
, economic system of the major trading nations during the 16th, 17th, and 18th cent., based on the premise that national wealth and power were best served by increasing exports and collecting precious metals in return.
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, and followed principles laid down by Tudor and early Stuart trade regulations. They had as their purpose the expansion of the English carrying trade, the provision from the colonies of materials England could not produce, and the establishment of colonial markets for English manufactures. The rise of the Dutch carrying trade, which threatened to drive English shipping from the seas, was the immediate cause for the Navigation Act of 1651, and it in turn was a major cause of the First Dutch WarDutch Wars,
series of conflicts between the English and Dutch during the mid to late 17th cent. The wars had their roots in the Anglo-Dutch commercial rivalry, although the last of the three wars was a wider conflict in which French interests played a primary role.
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. It forbade the importation of plantation commodities of Asia, Africa, and America except in ships owned by Englishmen. European goods could be brought into England and English possessions only in ships belonging to Englishmen, to people of the country where the cargo was produced, or to people of the country receiving first shipment. This piece of Commonwealth legislation was substantially reenacted in the First Navigation Act of 1660 (confirmed 1661). The First Act enumerated such colonial articles as sugar, tobacco, cotton, and indigo; these were to be supplied only to England. This act was expanded and altered by the succeeding Navigation Acts of 1662, 1663, 1670, 1673, and by the Act to Prevent Frauds and Abuses of 1696. In the act of 1663 the important staple principle required that all foreign goods be shipped to the American colonies through English ports. In return for restrictions on manufacturing and the regulation of trade, colonial commodities were often given a monopoly of the English market and preferential tariff treatment. Thus Americans benefited when tobacco cultivation was made illegal within England, and British West Indian planters were aided by high duties on French sugar. But resentments developed. The Molasses Act of 1733, which raised duties on French West Indian sugar, angered Americans by forcing them to buy the more expensive British West Indian sugar. Extensive smuggling resulted. American historians disagree on whether or not the advantages of the acts outweighed the disadvantages from a colonial point of view. It is clear, however, that the acts hindered the development of manufacturing in the colonies and were a focus of the agitation preceding the American Revolution. Vigorous attempts to prevent smuggling in the American colonies after 1765 led to arbitrary seizures of ships and aroused hostility. The legislation had an unfavorable effect on the Channel Islands, Scotland (before the Act of Union of 1707), and especially Ireland, by excluding them from a preferential position within the system. Shaken by the American Revolution, the system, along with mercantilism, fell into decline. The acts were finally repealed in 1849.


See studies by G. L. Beer (1907–13); L. A. Harper, The English Navigation Laws (1939, repr. 1964); O. M. Dickerson, The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution (1951, repr. 1974).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Navigation Acts


acts passed by the English Parliament to defend England’s sea trade from foreign competition.

The first Navigation Act was passed in 1381. The act of 1651 established that goods from Asia, Africa, and America were to be shipped to England and her possessions only on English vessels; European goods were to be shipped on either English vessels or the vessels of the exporting country. The act was directed against Dutch intermediate trade and fishing; it led to the Dutch War of 1652–54, as a result of which the Netherlands was compelled to accept the principles of the Navigation Acts. The clauses of the act of 1651 were preserved and developed further in the acts of 1660, 1663, 1672, and 1696. The Navigation Acts were based on the principles of mercantilism and played a major role in the development of English sea trade. They were abolished in the mid-19th century with the establishment of English commercial and industrial hegemony and the transition to the principles of free trade.


Harper, L. The English Navigation Laws. New York, 1939.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Navigation Acts. (80) In 1696, Parliament gave concurrent jurisdiction
Perhaps merchants and masters increasingly tended to comply with the rules of the Navigation Acts, but the point is claimed rather than proven.
In this flurry of evidence and counterevidence of the aggregate effect of the Navigation Acts, we may have missed an admittedly trivial but far more enduring impact of British mercantilism-one that continues to shape the table manners of millions of Americans at every meal of every day: the distinctively American custom of switching the fork from the left to the right hand after" cutting meat.
The colonists would have bought most of their manufactured goods from Britain even without the Navigation Acts. And the colonists were generally able to ignore mercantilist laws regarding manufacturing.
These royal instructions were precursors of the Navigation Acts. Parliament passed the first Navigation Act in 1651.
The authors explain that Britain's victory helped the colonies expand and also set the stage for Britain's insistence that the colonies help pay for the expenses Britain incurred during the war, resulting in the famed Stamp Act, the Townsend Duties, and the Navigation Acts, which eventually forced the colonies to come together to oppose "taxation without representation." Who Built America goes beyond most texts' treatment of the coming of the Revolution to explain that, while politicians debated the merits of the new taxes, a revolution never would have succeeded without the support of ordinary colonists in the countryside who were engaged in their own process of rejecting established authority.
Adam Smith favored the Navigation Acts of Britain as a nursery for sailors needed for national defense.
Matson goes on to argue that the impact of the Navigation Acts was limited.
Wedgwood's political interests extended beyond support for the turnpike trusts and canal navigation acts that dictated the siting of his Etruria factory.
Some seeds of the American Revolution were sown at this time by the Navigation Acts of the English Parliament, aimed at the rising power of the Dutch merchant fleet.
Yet initially neither Navigation Acts nor warfare could keep English colonists from trading with their Dutch partners.
And when the English parliament passed the Navigation Acts in the mid-17th century to protect England's national shipping from competition, Hamburg was given a lucrative exemption--a payoff for its earlier open door to London.