British Mercantile Policies

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Great Britain enforced a wide variety of policies in an attempt to control its massive colonial empire. One of the economic policies it believed in was mercantilism, a policy that colonies exist for the benefit of the mother country. Many of their colonies, such as America, became enraged with the mercantilist policies and revolted. Some of Great Britain’s policies were created to protect the people they governed, while others were created purely to control and exploit the people of the colony. Because the people of the American colony wanted to be free, they saw many of the policies as infringing upon their rights.


John Cabot laid claim to North America in 1497, but this claim lay dormant until Queen Elizabeth I went to war with Spain in 1588. Elizabeth saw many beneficial opportunities from Great Britain’s colonization of America. Some of these benefits included new trading markets, the weakening of Spain, a place for the surpluses of England’s population to go, and to conversion of the heathen. Once Great Britain began to colonize America, three types of colonies were created: royal, proprietary, and corporate. Although there were different types of colonies, they were all subjects of the king. In 1606, James I granted the London Company a charter under which the crown would receive 20% of the profits. Additionally, the colony would relieve Great Britain’s dependency on foreign trade. This colony was known as Jamestown.


In Jamestown, there were many rules to resolve problems that had arisen. James Smith is known to have said “No work, no food”. In 1610 De La Warr arrived at the colony and instated the Dales Laws. These laws were very strict and included the prevention of killing poultry or cattle, as well as leaving the colony, and trade with Indians. These rules were important to ensure the vitality of the colony because, at that time, many colonists had been killed by disease, starvation, and Indian attacks.


In 1619, the House of Burgesses was established. This was the first representative assembly and was a benchmark in colonial government because it allowed colonists to control who governed and created laws for the people of the colonies as well as a step towards democracy. Edwin Sandys governed the colony in 1619 and brought many reforms, including parliamentary supremacy, religious toleration, and an extension of political rights. Although the colonists lacked power, they were able to control the governors of the colonies through the “power of the purse.”


In 1660, Governor Berkeley angered Virginians by imposing Aristocratic rule. In 1675, Bacon’s Rebellion occurred because of inadequate military protection and Berkeley’s Indian policy. Because some of the colonies contained religious and political refugees, the Act of Toleration was passed in 1649 in Maryland to protect Catholics. Pennsylvania and Rhode Island became the most liberal colonies, while North Carolina was known as the rogues’ haven. During the Great Puritan Migration, which occurred from 1629 until 1640, many non-separatist puritans left Great Britain for America. Their ability to live in America free of persecution demonstrated that, while America had many rules set by Great Britain, it was also able to establish its own rule.


The Dominion of New England, which was established by Governor Andros in 1686, was created to ensure the efficiency of the English Navigation Laws. It also increased royal control over the colonies and provided defense against England’s enemies. This is an example of a rule that both restricted and protected the colonies. The Glorious Revolution ended Andros’ attempts. He was driven out of Boston and shipped back to England.


Under mercantilism, colonies provided one raw material for two market goods. Manufacturing was reserved for Great Britain and the crown restricted trade, which created hardships. Fortunately many of these restrictions were not strictly enforced. This disregard for the policy is called salutary neglect. A problem with salutary neglect is that for a colony to be self-sufficient, it must export more than it imports. Because America was unable to do this, it was unable to become self-sufficient easily. This also demonstrates a way in which Great Britain was able to maintain control over its colonies. When Britain began to realize the extent of salutary neglect, it began to instate more and stricter policies. Some of these included the Navigation Act of 1651, 1660, and 1663. The Navigation Act of 1651 stated that all trade with the colonies was required to take place on an English ship. The Act of 1660 contained a list of enumerated articles that could only be sold to Great Britain at set prices. Finally, the Navigation Act of 1663 said that all ships transporting goods bound for English colonies were required to land at an English port before they could proceed to the colony. These Acts were also known as the Intolerable Acts.


There were several benefits for the colonies that resulted from mercantilism. Some of these included an increase in shipbuilding, a monopolized and guaranteed tobacco market, and protection of the colonies by the English military. During King William’s War, 1689 to 1697, Queen Anne’s War, 1702 to 1713, King George’s War, 1740 to 1748, and the French and Indian War, 1754 to 1763, the colonists were especially fortunate to have British protection. Negative aspects of mercantilism included the fact that colonial manufacturing was limited, farmers received low prices for their crops, and colonists paid high prices for English goods. Because colonists had to pay taxes, but were not properly represented in parliament, they felt this was tyranny. The British government claimed that the colonies had virtual representation.


After the British won the French and Indian war, the British government instated the Proclamation of 1763. This policy attempted to curb western expansion, enforce existing laws, and decrease the power of the colonial government. It also was instated to enhance Indian and British relations, protect the colonists against future Indian attacks, set a uniform policy on westward expansion, and reduce English tax burdens on the mother country. The colonists disregarded many of these policies. They did not want to pay for the French and Indian war and they felt it was their right to expand into the Ohio River Valley. This proclamation was set by the British government to both protect the people of the colonies and to exercise English control over the colonies. The colonists did not see the fact that their mother country was trying to protect them, only the fact that they were being restricted and heavily taxed.


During this time period, Britain imposed other acts. These acts included the Stamp Act, the Sugar Act, the Quarting Act, the Tea Tax, the Coercive Act, the Quebec Act, the Declaratory Act, and the Townshend Duties. The Stamp Act raised taxes on documented papers. Its purpose was to raise money for the British military. The colonists bitterly protested, so the crown lowered tax. This caused the colonists to unify against the crown as did many of the other acts. The Quartering Act caused the colonists to provide food and housing for British soldiers. Its purpose was to reduce the cost of the military in America for the crown. The colonists were upset by this because they were forced to comply, but already felt invaded by the presence of the British soldiers. The Tea Tax added a tax on the tea that the colonists bought. Its purpose was to pay for the salaries of the royal governors and judges in America. This tax resulted in the infamous Boston massacre and Boston Tea party. The Coercive Act closed the Boston Harbor until damages were paid and prohibited town meetings. Trials for civilians were moved to General Court in England, and the Quartering Act was re-enacted. The purpose of this act was to punish the City of Boston for the Boston Tea Party. Bostonians became frustrated and smuggled more goods into the city. The Quebec Act allowed Catholics to retain their religion, customs, institutions, and extended the province of Quebec into the Ohio valley. The British government passed this act in response to the violence that had occurred in Boston. Colonists were angry and many voiced their anti-Catholic beliefs. The colonists brought together the Continental Congress. The Townshend Duties were internal taxes on glass, lead, paper, paint, and tea. The Declaratory Act replaced the Stamp Act and reaffirmed Parliament’s authority to tax the colonies. This resulted in a continuation of colonial confrontation towards the crown. This act caused the colonies to become adamant about creating their own sovereign state.


These Acts catapulted the Americas into a revolution. Though some of these acts were passed to help the people of the Americas or to lessen the stress upon the people of Great Britain, Americans only saw tyranny and wanted reform. The leaders of the American Revolution did not necessarily want independence, but wanted Dominion Status or the right to determine their destiny within the British Empire. After much fighting and resentment, America won its revolution in 1783.





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