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Smuggling and Illicit Trade in British America  

Andrew Rutledge

Illicit trade was an endemic feature of life in 17th- and 18th-century British America, shaping economies and societies from the Caribbean to Newfoundland. Owing to the illegal nature of smuggling in British America, its scale is impossible to estimate, but surviving records from traders and imperial officials testify to the determination of merchants to exchange goods and enslaved peoples across imperial borders and their success in doing so. The same was true for British Americans’ trading partners in the French, Spanish, and Dutch empires. Contraband trade was carried out in a variety of ways, ranging from open commerce in colonial ports to clandestine landings of cargoes on barren shorelines. The lives of both free and enslaved colonists were affected by it, either directly as sailors or laborers on smuggling voyages or indirectly as consumers of illegally imported goods such as tea, molasses, rum, or cloth. Most interimperial trade was labeled illegal under a series of laws known as the Navigation Acts passed between 1661 and 1696 that sought to exclude foreigners from the trade of the British Empire and ensure its products flowed to the mother country. But hampered by insufficient resources and intransigent colonial attitudes, customs agents could do little to curtail smuggling. Yet despite the arguments of some historians seeking to tie illicit trade to the coming of the American Revolution, smugglers engaged in it, seeking profits, not political or economic independence. In British North America, merchants smuggled to French and Dutch territories because the returns outweighed the risks, and because smuggling offered a means of earning the funds needed to repay their creditors in the British Isles. While in the Caribbean, island merchants enjoyed imperial support for their trade with Spanish America even as they condemned the illicit commerce of their northern cousins.

Article

Native American Captivity and Slavery in North America, 1492–1848  

Ann Little

The capture, adoption, and/or enslavement of enemies in North American warfare long predated the European invasion of the 16th century. In every region and among nearly every nation of Native North America, captive-taking continued after the arrival of the Spanish, English, and French and accelerated in the 18th century as a result of the opportunities and pressures that colonialism brought to bear on indigenous peoples. Although the famous narratives of Indian captivity were written by people of European descent, the majority of people who were taken and adopted or enslaved by Native Americans were themselves Native American women, girls, and boys. One scholar estimates that perhaps as many as 2.5 to 5 million Indigenous slaves were owned by Europeans in the Western hemisphere from 1492 to 1900; this estimate excludes the millions more who were retained within other Indigenous communities. Within these Native American communities, captives served a variety of purposes along a continuum: depending on their age and sex, they might be adopted fully into a new kinship network, or they might be ritually executed. Most captive adults seem to have endured fates in-between these dramatic poles: they might be marked as “adopted slaves” and set to the most tedious and repetitive work; they might be traded or given as gifts for profit or diplomacy; they might be subjected to coerced sex; or they might marry a captor and have children who were full kin members of their new community. Most would probably experience more than one of these fates. In the early 21st century, important scholarship on Native American captivity has emphasized its similarities to African slavery and how the African slave trade influenced Native American captive raiding, trading, and enslavement in the colonial era and in the early United States. But there were two possibly interrelated important differences between these two slaveries. First, unlike the adult male African captives who were preferred by Europeans for enslavement in North America, most captives taken by other Native Americans were women and children. Second, this Indigenous slavery was not heritable, although the captives themselves were frequently marked or even mutilated to signify their status as outsiders, or not-kin, in a world defined by kinship ties. Although the differences of intersecting European and Indigenous cultures, chronology, and context made for widely disparate experiences in Indian captivity and slavery over four centuries, one constant across time and space is that captive-taking seems to have been intended to grow the captors’ populations as well as deprive their enemies of productive and reproductive labor. The appropriation of girls’ and women’s sexuality and reproductive power became the means by which female captives might suffer intensely as well as possibly improve their standing and their children’s futures.

Article

The Economy of Colonial British America  

Aaron Slater

Identifying and analyzing a unified system called the “economy of colonial British America” presents a number of challenges. The regions that came to constitute Britain’s North American empire developed according to a variety of factors, including climate and environment, relations with Native peoples, international competition and conflict, internal English/British politics, and the social system and cultural outlook of the various groups that settled each colony. Nevertheless, while there was great diversity in the socioeconomic organization across colonial British America, a few generalizations can be made. First, each region initially focused economic activity on some form of export-oriented production that tied it to the metropole. New England specialized in timber, fish, and shipping services, the Middle Colonies in furs, grains, and foodstuffs, the Chesapeake in tobacco, the South in rice, indigo, and hides, and the West Indies in sugar. Second, the maturation of the export-driven economy in each colony eventually spurred the development of an internal economy directed toward providing the ancillary goods and services necessary to promote the export trade. Third, despite variations within and across colonies, colonial British America underwent more rapid economic expansion over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries than did its European counterparts, to the point that, on the eve of the American Revolution, white settlers in British America enjoyed one of the highest living standards in the world at the time. A final commonality that all the regions shared was that this robust economic growth spurred an almost insatiable demand for land and labor. With the exception of the West Indies, where the Spanish had largely exterminated the Native inhabitants by the time the English arrived, frontier warfare was ubiquitous across British America, as land-hungry settlers invaded Indian territory and expropriated their lands. The labor problem, while also ubiquitous, showed much greater regional variation. The New England and the Middle colonies largely supplied their labor needs through a combination of family immigration, natural increase, and the importation of bound European workers known as indentured servants. The Chesapeake, Carolina, and West Indian colonies, on the other hand, developed “slave societies,” where captive peoples of African descent were imported in huge numbers and forced to serve as enslaved laborers on colonial plantations. Despite these differences, it should be emphasized that, by the outbreak of the American Revolution, the institution of slavery had, to a greater or lesser extent, insinuated itself into the economy of every British American colony. The expropriation of land from Indians and labor from enslaved Africans thus shaped the economic history of all the colonies of British America.

Article

Women, Gender, and the Economies of Colonial North America  

Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor

North American women were at the center of trade, exchange, economic production, and reproduction, from early encounters in the 16th century through the development of colonies, confederations, and nations by the end of the 18th century. They worked for the daily survival of their communities; they provided the material basis for economic and political expansion. There were no economies without them and no economy existed outside of a gender system that shaped and supported it. Connections of family, household, and community embedded the market economies in each region of North America. Gender acted through credit networks, control over others’ labor, and legal patterns of property ownership. Colonialism, by which Europeans sought to acquire land, extract resources, grow profitable crops, and create a base of consumers for European manufactured goods, transformed local and transatlantic economies. Women’s labor in agriculture, trade, and reproduction changed in the context of expanding international economies, created by the transatlantic slave trade, new financial tools for long-distance investment, and an increasing demand for tropical groceries (tea, coffee, and sugar) and dry goods. Women adjusted their work to earn the money or goods that allowed them to participate in these circuits of exchange. Captive women themselves became exchangeable goods. By the end of the 18th century, people living across North America and the Caribbean had adopted revised and blended ideas about gender and commerce. Some came to redefine the economy itself as a force operating independently of women’s daily subsistence, a symbolic realm that divided as much as connected people.

Article

Latinx Business and Entrepreneurship  

Pedro A. Regalado

Entrepreneurship has been a basic element of Latinx life in the United States since long before the nation’s founding, varying in scale and cutting across race, class, and gender to different degrees. Indigenous forms of commerce pre-dated Spanish contact in the Americas and continued thereafter. Beginning in the 16th century, the raising, trading, and production of cattle and cattle-related products became foundational to Spanish, Mexican, and later American Southwest society and culture. By the 19th century, Latinxs in US metropolitan areas began to establish enterprises in the form of storefronts, warehouses, factories, as well as smaller ventures including peddling. At times, they succeeded previous ethnic owners; in other moments, they established new businesses that shaped everyday life and politics of their respective communities. Whatever the scale of their ventures, Latinx business owners continued to capitalize on the migration of Latinx people to the United States from Latin America and the Caribbean during the 20th century. These entrepreneurs entered business for different reasons, often responding to restricted or constrained labor options, though many sought the flexibility that entrepreneurship offered. Despite an increasing association between Latinx people and entrepreneurship, profits from Latinx ventures produced uneven results during the second half of the 20th century. For some, finance and business ownership has generated immense wealth and political influence. For others at the margins of society, it has remained a tool for achieving sustenance amid the variability of a racially stratified labor market. No monolithic account can wholly capture the vastness and complexity of Latinx economic activity. Latinx business and entrepreneurship remains a vital piece of the place-making and politics of the US Latinx population. This article provides an overview of major trends and pivotal moments in its rich history.

Article

Piracy in Colonial North America  

Mark G. Hanna

Historians of colonial British North America have largely relegated piracy to the marginalia of the broad historical narrative from settlement to revolution. However, piracy and unregulated privateering played a pivotal role in the development of every English community along the eastern seaboard from the Carolinas to New England. Although many pirates originated in the British North American colonies and represented a diverse social spectrum, they were not supported and protected in these port communities by some underclass or proto-proletariat but by the highest echelons of colonial society, especially by colonial governors, merchants, and even ministers. Sea marauding in its multiple forms helped shape the economic, legal, political, religious, and cultural worlds of colonial America. The illicit market that brought longed-for bullion, slaves, and luxury goods integrated British North American communities with the Caribbean, West Africa, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans throughout the 17th century. Attempts to curb the support of sea marauding at the turn of the 18th century exposed sometimes violent divisions between local merchant interests and royal officials currying favor back in England, leading to debates over the protection of English liberties across the Atlantic. When the North American colonies finally closed their ports to English pirates during the years following the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), it sparked a brief yet dramatic turn of events where English marauders preyed upon the shipping belonging to their former “nests.” During the 18th century, colonial communities began to actively support a more regulated form of privateering against agreed upon enemies that would become a hallmark of patriot maritime warfare during the American Revolution.

Article

Women in Early American Economy  

Jane T. Merritt

From the planter societies and subsistence settlements of the 17th century to the global markets of the late 18th century, white, black, and Indian women participated extensively in the early American economy. As the colonial world gave way to an independent nation and household economies yielded to cross-Atlantic commercial networks, women played an important role as consumers and producers. Was there, however, a growing gendered divide in the American economy by the turn of the 19th century? Were there more restrictions on women’s business activities, property ownership, work lives, consumer demands, or productive skills? Possibly, we ask the wrong questions when exploring women’s history. By posing questions that compare the past with present conditions, we miss the more nuanced and shifting patterns that made up the variety of women’s lives. Whether rural or urban, rich or poor, free or enslaved, women’s legal and marital status dictated some basic parameters of how they operated within the early American economy. But despite these boundaries, or perhaps because of them, women created new strategies to meet the economic needs of households, families, and themselves. As entrepreneurs they brought in lodgers or operated small businesses that generated extra income. As producers they finagled the materials necessary to create items for home use and to sell at market. As consumers, women, whether free or enslaved, demanded goods from merchants and negotiated prices that fit their budgets. As laborers, these same women translated myriad skills into wages or exchanged labor for goods. In all these capacities, women calculated, accumulated, and survived in the early American economy.

Article

Smuggling in Early America  

Christian J. Koot

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.