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Tension when colonial merchants expanded maritime trade beyond the British Empire


During the 18th century, demand for American goods increased. Merchants at the colonial ports of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia developed large, global networks of maritime trade and exchange and then expanded their mercantile networks well beyond the confines of the British Empire. This created tension between the merchants and the British Empire, which wanted to limit American trade to within the borders of the British Empire, that formed the roots of the American Revolution.

Jeremy Land, Postdoctor in Economic History at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg, has in his book Colonial Ports, Global Trade, and the Roots of the American Revolution (1700 — 1776), explored the importance of global maritime trade to the British-American ports of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. It shows that these three ports functioned as a regional port complex that became an essential part of the Atlantic and global maritime economies of the 18th century.

Photo pf Jeremy Land
Jeremy Land

The book emphasizes how important the long-run structural deficiencies in both the British state and British economic demand for colonial American goods, created the conditions wherein American merchants and consumers looked outside of the British Empire to find the goods and customers they needed to become successful.

- Boston, New York, and Philadelphia created and expanded their trade networks beyond the nominal confines of the British Empire, which is technically illegal according to the various mercantilist policies of Britain, explains Jeremy Land.

Photo of the book cover

However, the British Empire did not place enough efforts into enforcing its mercantilist vision due not to a lack of will, but rather a lack of state capacity. As a result, a large portion of the maritime economies of the three ports was composed of smuggling.

- Smugglers and illicit trade factor heavily into the story, and I have added several anecdotal examples and stories about both overt and covert illicit trade in the book, says Jeremy Land.

The illegal trade created significant tensions between imperial officials and colonial subjects. These tensions erupted in political strife and eventually violence in the 1760s and early 1770s when Britain finally started to enforce its rules more broadly. This conflict was one of the causes of the American Revolution, which started in 1776.

Facts and more information

About the book: The title of the book is Colonial Ports, Global Trade, and the Roots of the American Revolution (1700 — 1776) and it is based on thousands of archival documents and revised compilations of existing datasets to create an analytical narrative of 18th century colonial America.

Link to book:

Mercantilism is a nationalist economic policy that is designed to maximize the exports and minimize the imports for an economy. In other words, it seeks to maximize the accumulation of resources within the country and use those resources for one-sided trade. It promotes imperialism, colonialism, protectionism, currency manipulation, and tariffs and subsidies on traded goods to achieve that goal.