The American Revolution can be said to have its origins in New England’s evasion of the Britain’s Navigation Acts which were aimed at controlling the former’s illicit sea commerce. By 1750, Providence, Rhode Island had become the slaving capital of North America, and surpassing Liverpool for this dubious distinction, and New England rum was preferred by African tribes for the purchase of their slaves.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
British Interference with New England Commerce
“For the West Indies trade alone proved so logical, so sound for the ambitious Yankee traders that in spite of revival of trade with England it ranked in importance with the thriving coastwise and budding transatlantic commerce. Linked inseparably with the venture south to the Indies was [New England’s] brisk trade in rum . . . For the Indies trade was a three-cornered affair hinging on rum, slaves and molasses.
The British decided that one way to increase revenues [to maintain the North American colonies] would be to put a stop to [New England’s] open evasion of the Navigation Acts. It is hardly surprising, then, that among the first real troublemaker of all the British efforts to raise money was a new Molasses Act, for it was molasses brought in from the French West Indies from which New England’s rum was made.
There had been similar acts on the books as long before as 1733, but the duty of sixpence a gallon was such a prohibitive price for the rum distillers to pay that its only practical effect was to create the first of a caste that was to throw a long shadow indeed—the bootlegger.
To the colonists (especially in New England) it must have seemed that there were more acts than ships at this time, and they were in no mood to abide by any of them. American shipbuilding had reached a point where the Massachusetts colony, in a burst of civic pride that would challenge the lustiest chamber of commerce today, laid dubious claim to enough vessels to float every man, woman and child in its domain. It can be said with truth, however, that there were more sailors than farmers in New England.
In years past there had been frequent cases of corrupt officials of the Crown . . . as exemplified by New York’s governor, Lord Bellamont, and his equally-shady successor, Colonel Benjamin Fletcher, who had been in the habit of wining and dining such notorious pirates of their era as Captain Tew.
But Governor Fletcher was admittedly a political pirate in his own right and was ultimately recalled to London to answer graft charges. Now, however, there was a new generation of more upright gentlemen whose profits gained brazenly through bootlegging and illegal activities were overshadowed . . . by their courageous defiance of the ever-increasing strictures on their commerce.
In fact nine-tenths of the colonial merchants and skippers had become smugglers as the break with England neared. Such men as John Hancock, a prince of contraband traders, on the eve of Paul Revere’s ride had for counsel before the Admiralty Court in Boston none other than John Adams answering for him a half-million dollar suit in penalties as a smuggler.”
(Yankee Ships: An Informal History of the American Merchant Marine, Reese Wolfe, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1953, pp. 43-50)