Back to WHKMLA Main Index . WHKMLA, Students' Papers Main Page . WHKMLA, Students' Papers, 12th Wave Index Page



History of the Navigation Acts


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Oh, Taek Hyun
Term Paper, AP European History Class, October 2007



Table of Contents


I. Introduction
II. Navigation Acts before 1651
III. The Navigation Act of 1651
III.1 Description
III.2 Relationship with the Dutch
III.3 The First Anglo-Dutch War and its Aftermath
IV. The Navigation Act of 1660
V. The Navigation Act of 1663
VI. Navigation Acts after 1663
VII. Repeal
VIII. Conclusion
IX. Notes
X. Bbliography



I. Introduction
            17th century Europe commonly practiced Mercantilism, an economic system that aimed to increase the power and especially the monetary assets of a nation at the cost of competing nations. Therefore, policies that were based on Mercantilism the purposes of maintaining a positive balance of trade with other nations and increasing the revenue of the king. Some of the most important policies were the Navigation Acts by England. This series of acts allowed the English shipping industry to develop under protection, making London an economical center and creating a strong navy, eventually leading England to a global superpower until the mid-20th century. This paper will discuss about the characteristic and effect of each Navigation Act.

II. Navigation Acts before 1651
            Most acts before 1651 were virtually dead acts, mainly due to a shortage of English ships. The laws were unsuccessful or occasionally enforced.
       The act of 1381 required English traders to ship their goods in English ships upon pain of seizure of their goods in other vessels, the crown taking two thirds, the relaters one third (1).
       The act of 1382 created an exception where no English vessels were available.
       The act of 1390 reenacted the act of 1381 and 1382 with the major addition that ship owners were to take reasonable gains (2).
       The act of 1485 required Gascony (3) wines to be imported in English ships.
       The act of 1487 reenacted the act of 1390 and extended the act of 1485 to include Toulouse wood.
       The act of 1531 by Henry VIII repealed the act of 1487, but he restored the act later in his rule.
       The act of 1558 by Elizabeth repealed the system as a diplomatic concession to Spain.
       The act of 1562 revived the statute of 1487. It also stated that foreign ships were not to carry between English ports and puffed rice were to be exported solely in English ships sailing to European ports east of Caen (4).
       The act of 1570 made the prohibition become total
       The act of 1581 forbid fish imports by English merchants, an attempt to encourage English fishery. However, instead of English fisherman catching more fish, foreigners took over the fish trade.
       The act of 1597 repealed the act of 1581.
       The act of 1605 encouraged the export of beer in cask.

III. The Navigation Act of 1651

III.1 Description
            The Navigation Ordinance of 1651, or, for the exact wording, "9 October 1651 Act for increase of shipping and encouragement of the navigation of this nation" (5), was the first major Navigation Act passed by the Commonwealth government, then led by Oliver Cromwell. The act stipulated that goods imported into the territory of the English Commonwealth must be carried on ships belonging to English people, to people of the country that originally produced the goods, or to the people of the country receiving first shipment.

III.2 Relationship with the Dutch
            The Navigation Act of 1651 itself did not apply to a certain country, but it was primarily aimed at the Dutch. In the mid-1600s, the Dutch had a dominant position on international trade and even much of England's coastal trade.
            By the Navigation Act, Dutch merchants were excluded from essentially all trade with England, since the Dutch ships would only be able to import a limited range of products of the Dutch Republic (mainly cheese and butter). The Dutch fishing industry was also affected because salt-fish and fish-oil could only be imported or exported from Commonwealth territories in English vessels. This applied English coastal trade as well, and Holland's freight trade with the English was completely broken; however, it was constantly violated.

III.3 The First Anglo-Dutch War and its Aftermath
            As the Dutch constantly violated the Navigation Act, it was commonly used as a way to usurp Dutch ships. George Ayscue captured 27 Dutch ships in 1652, and over a hundred more Dutch ships were taken by the British between October 1651 and July 1652. Moreover, the death of Dutch stadtholder William II., who favored the army over the navy, resulted in the Dutch to expand their fleet, leading to the expansion of the English fleet. With several more reasons and an accidental encounter of fleets, the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654) begins.
            After a few victories in 1653 (the Battle of Portland, the Battle of the Gabbard and the Battle of Scheveningen), the English won the war, and the Treaty of Westminster was signed. This made the Dutch recognize the Navigation Act, but it had limited influence on real practice.

IV. The Navigation Act of 1660
            When the Restoration of Charles II occurred, all legislation of the Commonwealth period as well as the Navigation Ordinance of 1651 was declared void, for it was considered to be passed by appropriating powers. Therefore the Navigation Act was reenacted. This Navigation act of 1660, also called as the Enumeration act of 1660, was meant to enumerate certain colonial products which could be shipped directly only to England, Ireland or any other English colony. Major products that were enumerated include sugar (until 1739), indigo, tobacco and rice. Nonenumerated goods could go directly to foreign ports from English colonies in English ships.

V. The Navigation Act of 1663
            Another Navigation Act was passed in 1663, named the Encouragement of Trade Act (also called the Staple Act). This act required all European goods shipped to English colonies, mainly America, to be shipped through England first by English ships. Here, the goods will be inspected and taxed. Moreover, imports of enumerated goods also had to be landed and taxed before going to other countries. These two Navigation Acts increased the cost and shipping time for the colonies.
            Since 1664 English colonies could receive European goods only through England. Scotland was treated as a foreign country until the Act of Union (1707) gave it equal privileges with England; Ireland was excluded from the benefits of the laws between 1670 and 1779 (5).

VI. Navigation Acts after 1663
            Most navigation acts after 1663 - the Navigation Acts of 1673, 1696, 1764 - were meant to close trade loopholes. There were also further restriction of transporting commodities and expansion of duties, appointment of vice-admiralty courts in America to enforce the navigation laws. These all led to limit the industrial development and competition with the English industry, which caused annoyance and anger in the colonies.
            One notable act is the Navigation Act of 1733, also known as the Molasses Act. This navigation act levied heavy taxes on sugar from the West Indies to the American colonies; that is, it forced the colonists to purchase the more costly sugar from Britain instead. The act was not kept strictly, but it ignited hostility leading to the American Revolution.

VII. Repeal
            VII.1 Problem
            The problem was that the system made by the Navigation Act was difficult to enforce because of two characteristics; it was expensive and maddening. There were situations where goods were rotting on a quay with empty foreign ships offering less fees to transport while the high-cost British ships were blocked by foul winds. These occasional shortages of British ships created an artificial shortage of necessary goods, while there were a local glut of the necessary goods and empty foreign ships somewhere else. Also, the transatlantic voyage was much more expensive than the voyage of the Caribbean to American colonies; therefore, a huge illicit trade was formed.

VII.2 Repeal
            Local difficulties, lack of ships, famines or depressions made constant lack of supply, making many exceptions necessary; exceptions were made for Irish linen in 1704, for the loading of sugar for European pots direct in 1739, for southern rice to other colonies in 1764 and to Europe in 1766. During the American rebellion and the French Wars of 1793-1815 so many exceptions had to be enacted that the system basically collapses; for example, in 1780 alone exceptions were made for corn, all Mediterranean goods, all Irish trade with the colonies and all Irish wool and glass for foreign destinations. Also, British shipping after the wars soon acquired a world predominance which made Navigation law unnecessary. Therefore, enumeration was abandoned in 1822, and the Navigation Acts were gradually repealed by acts of 1814, 1823, 1846, 1849 and 1854

VIII. Conclusion
            The Navigation Acts were acts that acted as a perfect mercantilism policy for the English, discriminating the Dutch. They also benefited the English sailing industry in the beginning by protecting it and offering an assured market, resulting in the expansion of the British navy and of British trade. However, as the English continued to develop, the acts functioned as a chain, holding them back from persistent development - a negative factor.
            Protectionist policies such as the Navigational Acts are surely beneficial and somewhat required to the countries that have to run into an already developed, competitive domain. However, it can be thought unfair by the countries that have a dominant position in that area.
            In conclusion, we can see that the series of Navigation Acts were a necessary factor of the English to develop as one of the hegemonies of the time


IX. Notes

(1)      Article Navigation Acts, from The Companion to British History 2001
(2)      ibid.
(3)      Gascony is a historical region and former province of southwest France. It was originally settled by Basque people and conquered later by the Romans and Franks. It also served as a major battlefield during the Hundred Years' War and became a part of the French royal domain in 1607
(4)      Caen is a city of northern France southwest of Le Havre. A Huguenot stronghold in the 16th and 17th centuries
(5)      Article : Navigation Acts, from Wikisource


X. Bibliography

Note : websites quoted below were visited in December 2007.
1.      Article : Navigation Acts, from Encyclopaedia Britannica 15th edition. Micropaedia. Volume 8 1998
2.      Article : Navigation Acts, from Columbia Encyclopedia 6th edition 2007
3.      Charles Arnold-Baker, The Companion to British History 2nd edition 2001
4.      John Keay, The Honorable Company, A History of the East English East India Company 1st American edition 1994
5.      T.O. Lloyd, The British Empire 1558-1995 2nd edition 1996
6.      Birdsall S. Viault, Modern European History 1st edition 1990
7.      Article : First Anglo-Dutch War, from Wikipedia, last modified on 22 October 2007
8.      Article : List of Acts of Parliament of the English Parliament to 1601, from Wikipedia, last modified on 4 October 2007
9.      Article : List of Acts and Ordinances of the Parliament of England, 1642 to 1660, from Wikipedia, last modified on 1 September 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Acts_and_Ordinances_of_the_Parliament_of_England%2C_1642_to_1660
10.      Article : List of Acts of Parliament of the English Parliament, 1660 to 1699, from Wikipedia, last modified on 4 October 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Acts_of_Parliament_of_the_English_Parliament%2C_1660_to_1699
11.      Article : Navigation Acts, from Wikipedia, last modified on 24 October 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navigation_acts
12.      Article : Mercantilism, from Wikipedia, last modified on 2 November 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercantilism
13.      Article : Treaty of Westminster (1654), from Wikipedia, last modified on 31 July 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1654_Treaty_of_Westminster
14.      Article : Navigation Acts, from Wikisource, last modified on 9 May 2007, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Navigation_Acts
15.      David Plant, Navigation Act 1651, British Civil Wars and Commonwealth website
16.      David Plant, The Purged Parliament, British Civil Wars and Commonwealth website

Back to WHKMLA Main Index . WHKMLA, Students' Papers Main Page . WHKMLA, Students' Papers, 12th Wave Index Page