Smuggling in Early America
- Christian J. KootChristian J. KootDepartment of History, Towson University
Smuggling was a regular feature of the economy of colonial British America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Though the very nature of illicit commerce means that the extent of this trade is incalculable, a wide variety of British and colonial sources testify to the ability of merchants to trade where they pleased and to avoid paying duties in the process. Together admiralty proceedings, merchant correspondence and account books, customs reports, and petitions demonstrate that illicit trade enriched individuals and allowed settlers to shape their colonies’ development. Smuggling formed in resistance to British economic and political control. British authorities attempted to harness the trade of their Atlantic colonies by employing a series of laws that restricted overseas commerce (often referred to as the Navigation Acts). This legislation created the opportunity for illicit trade by raising the costs of legal trade. Hampered by insufficient resources, thousands of miles of coastline, and complicit local officials, British customs agents could not prevent smuggling. Economic self-interest and the pursuit of profit certainly motivated smugglers, but because it was tied to a larger transatlantic debate about the proper balance between regulation and free trade, smuggling was also a political act. Through smuggling colonists rejected what they saw as capricious regulations designed to enrich Britain at their expense.