Modern history

The Benefits and costs of Empire

The combined forces of global trade and international warfare altered the political and economic calculations of imperial powers. This was especially true for British North America, where colonists settled as families and created towns that provided key markets for Britain’s commercial expansion. Over the course of the eighteenth century, British colonists became increasingly avid consumers of products from around the world. Meanwhile the king and Parliament, determined to reap the benefits of their costly empire, sought greater control over these far-flung commercial networks.

Colonial Traders Join Global Networks

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, trade became truly global. Not only did goods from China, India, the Middle East, Africa, and North America gain currency in England and the rest of Europe, but the tastes of European consumers also helped shape goods produced in other parts of the world. For instance, wealthy Englishmen had long desired fine porcelain from China, and by the early eighteenth century the Chinese were making teapots and bowls specifically for that market. The trade in cloth, tea, and sugar was similarly influenced by European tastes. The exploitation of African laborers contributed significantly to this global commerce. They were a crucial item of trade in their own right, and their labor in the Americas ensured steady supplies of sugar, rice, tobacco, indigo, and other goods for the world market.

By the early eighteenth century, both the volume and the diversity of goods multiplied. Silk, calico, porcelain, olive oil, wine, and other goods were carried from the East to Europe and the American colonies, while cod, mackerel, shingles, pine boards, barrel staves, rum, sugar, rice, and indigo filled ships returning west. A healthy trade also grew up within North America as New England fishermen, New York and Charleston merchants, and Caribbean planters met one another’s needs. Salted cod and mackerel flowed to the Caribbean, and rum, molasses, and slaves flowed back to the mainland. This commerce required ships, barrels, docks, warehouses, and wharves, all of which ensured a lively trade in lumber, tar, pitch, and rosin. The volume of trade originating in British North America was impressive. Between April and December 1720, for example, some 425 ships sailed in and out of Boston harbor alone (Map 3.2).

The flow of information was critical to the flow of goods and credit. By the early eighteenth century, coffeehouses flourished in port cities around the Atlantic, providing access to the latest news. Merchants, ship captains, and traders met in person to discuss new ventures and to keep apprised of recent developments. British and American periodicals reported on parliamentary legislation, commodity prices in India and Great Britain, the state of trading houses in China, the outbreak of disease in foreign ports, and stock ventures in London. Thus colonists from Boston to Charleston could follow the South Seas Bubble in 1720, when shares in the British South Seas Company rose to astronomical heights and then collapsed. William Moraley’s father was among the thousands of British investors who lost a great deal of money in this venture. But colonists could also track the rising price of wheat.

Imperial Policies Focus on Profits

In the midst of this growing international trade, European sovereigns worked to ensure that colonial possessions benefited their own treasuries. In the late seventeenth century, both Louis XIV and his English rivals embraced a system known as mercantilism, which centered on the maintenance of a favorable balance of trade, with more gold and silver flowing into the home country than flowed out. In France, finance minister Jean- Baptiste Colbert honed the system. Beginning in the 1660s, he taxed foreign imports while removing all barriers to trade within French territories. Colonies like New France provided valuable raw materials—furs, fish, lumber—that could be used to produce manufactured items for sale to foreign nations and to colonists.

While France’s mercantile system was limited by the size of its empire, England benefited more fully from such policies. The English crown had access to a far wider array of natural resources and a larger market for its manufactured goods. As early as 1660, Parliament passed a Navigation Act that required merchants to conduct trade with the colonies only in English-owned ships. In addition, certain items imported from foreign ports—salt, wine, and oil, for instance—had to be carried in English ships or in ships with predominantly English crews. Finally, a list of “enumerated articles”—from tobacco and cotton to sugar and indigo—had to be shipped from the colonies to England before being re-exported to foreign ports. Thus the crown benefited directly or indirectly from nearly all commerce conducted by its colonies. But colonies, too, often benefited, as when Parliament helped subsidize the development of indigo in South Carolina.

In 1663 Parliament expanded its imperial reach by requiring that goods sent from Europe to English colonies also pass through its ports. And a decade later, ship captains had to pay a duty or post bond before carrying enumerated articles between colonial ports. Despite the Great Plague of 1665 and the London fire of 1666, England’s overseas colonies fueled an economic upsurge. Indeed, when London was rebuilt after the fire, its wide boulevards, massive mercantile houses, crowded wharves, and bustling coffee shops marked it as the hub of an expanding commercial empire. Beginning in 1673, England sent customs officials to the colonies to enforce the various parliamentary acts. And by 1680, London, Bristol, and Liverpool all thrived as barrels of sugar, cases of indigo, and stacks of deerskin were unloaded and bolts of dyed cloth and cartons of felt hats were put on board for the return voyage. At the same time, the transformation of New Amsterdam into New York allowed England to incorporate the diverse commercial ventures that thrived in the Dutch colony into its imperial network. 

MAP 3.2

North Atlantic Trade in the 18th Century North Atlantic trade provided various parts of the British empire with raw materials, manufactured goods, and labor. Many ships traveled between only two regions because they were equipped to carry particular kinds of goods— slaves, grains, or manufactured goods. Ultimately, however, people and goods were exchanged among four key points: the West Indies, mainland North America, West Africa, and Great Britain.

Parliament then sought to quash nascent manufacturing in the colonies by prohibiting the sale of products such as American-made textiles (1699), hats (1732), and iron goods (1750). In addition, Parliament worked to restrict trade among the North American colonies. Settlers in the British West Indies had begun selling surplus fish, flour, and meat arriving from the mainland to their French neighbors. Meanwhile mainland colonists bought growing quantities of molasses, which they made into rum, from those same French islands at a much lower price than British West Indians could offer. Fearing French planters would dominate the sugar and molasses trade, Parliament passed the 1733 Molasses Act, which allowed mainland merchants to export fish and agricultural goods directly to the French West Indies but required them to pay a high import tariff on French molasses. The law might have crippled the American distilling industry, but mainland colonists instead began smuggling cheap French molasses into their ports and bribing customs officials to look the other way.

Despite the increasing regulation, American colonists could own British ships and transport goods produced in the colonies. Indeed, by the mid-eighteenth century, North American merchants oversaw 75 percent of the trade in manufactures sent from Bristol and London to the colonies and 95 percent of the trade with the West Indies. Ironically, then, a system established to benefit Great Britain ended up creating a mercantile elite in British North America. Most of those merchants traded in goods, but some traded in human cargo.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

Parliament chartered the Royal African Company in 1672, and England slowly expanded its role in the slave trade as the Dutch commercial empire waned. In 1713, when the British gained the right to sell slaves to Spanish colonies, that nation became a major player in the horrific trade in human cargo. Between 1700 and 1808, some 3 million captive Africans were carried on British and Anglo-American ships, about 40 percent of the total of those sold in the Americas in this period (Figure 3.1). Half a million Africans died on the voyage across the Atlantic. Huge numbers also died in Africa, while being marched to the coast or held in forts waiting to be forced aboard ships. Yet despite this astounding death rate, the slave trade yielded enormous profits and had far-reaching consequences: The Africans that British traders bought and sold transformed labor systems in the colonies, fueled international trade, and enriched merchants, planters, and their families and partners.

The Rise and Decline of the Slave Trade


The Slave Trade in Numbers, 1501-1866 Extraordinary numbers of Africans were shipped as slaves to other parts of the world from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. These shipments increased dramatically during North America's colonial era (1601-1775). Although the slave trade transformed mainland North America, the vast majority of enslaved Africans were sent to Brazil and the West Indies.

Source: Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database,

The Destinations of Slaves*

European traders worked closely with African merchants to gain their human cargo. Where once they had traded textiles and alcohol for gold and ivory, Europeans now traded muskets, metalware, and linen for men, women, and children. Originally many of those sold into slavery were war captives. But by the time British and Anglo-American merchants became central to this notorious trade, their contacts in Africa were procuring labor in any way they could. The cargo included war captives, servants, and people snatched in raids specifically to secure slaves. Over time, African traders moved farther inland to fill the demand, devastating large areas of West Africa, particularly the Congo- Angola region, which supplied some 40 percent of all Atlantic slaves.

The trip across the Atlantic, known as the Middle Passage, was a brutal and often deadly experience for Africans. Exhausted and undernourished by the time they boarded the large oceangoing vessels, the captives were placed in dark and crowded holds. Most had been poked and prodded by slave traders, and some had been branded to ensure that a trader received the exact individuals he had purchased. Once in the hold, they might wait for weeks before the ship finally set sail. By that time, the foul-smelling and crowded hold became a nightmare of disease and despair. There was never sufficient food or fresh water for the captives, and women especially were subject to sexual abuse and rape by crew members. Many captives could not communicate with each other since they spoke different languages, and none of them knew exactly where they were going or what would happen when they arrived.

Those who survived the voyage were likely to find themselves in the slave markets of Barbados or Jamaica, where they were put on display for potential buyers. Once purchased, the slaves went through a period of seasoning as they regained their strength, became accustomed to their new environment, and learned commands in a new language. In this period of acculturation, enslaved laborers also confronted strange foods, new diseases, and unfamiliar tasks. Most were also given new names. Some did not survive seasoning, falling prey to malnutrition and disease or committing suicide. Others adapted to the new circumstances and adopted enough European or British ways to carry on even as they sought means to resist the shocking and oppressive conditions.

More than half of the slaves imported to the Lower South entered the mainland at Charleston, South Carolina. Beginning around 1700, enslaved Africans were shipped directly to Charleston rather than transshipped from the West Indies. Successful planters like Eliza Lucas likely had first choice of the new arrivals, sending agents to the wharves to buy Africans.

Seaport Cities and Consumer Cultures

The same trade in human cargo that brought misery to millions of Africans provided traders, investors, and plantation owners with huge profits that helped turn America’s seaport cities into centers of culture and consumption. When Eliza Lucas arrived in Charleston in 1738, she noted that “the Metropolis is a neat pretty place. The inhabitants [are] polite and live in a very gentile [genteel] manner.” Throughout British North America, seaports, with their elegant homes, fine shops, and lively social seasons, captured the most dynamic aspects of colonial life. Although cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston contained less than 10 percent of the colonial population, they served as focal points of economic, political, social, and cultural activity.

Many affluent urban families shed the religious strictures or financial constraints that shaped the lives of their colonial forebearers and created a consumer revolution in North America. Changing patterns of consumption challenged traditional definitions of status. Less tied to birth and family pedigree, status in the colonies became more closely linked to financial success and a genteel lifestyle. Successful men of humble origins and even those of Dutch, Scottish, French, and Jewish heritage might join the British-dominated colonial gentry.

Charleston, 1739 This 1739 engraving offers a view of Charleston harbor from the Battery, where heavy rocks fortified the banks of the Cooper River and artillery later was placed in the American Civil War. Some of the ships in this scene carried slaves and consumer goods that made Charleston one of the great commercial centers in the South. The Granger Collection, New York

Of those who made the leap in the early eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin was the most notable. He might have taken the path of the “infortunate” William Moraley Jr., but Franklin was apprenticed to his brother, a printer, an occupation that matched his interest in books, reading, and politics. At age sixteen, Franklin published (anonymously) his first essays in his brother’s paper, the New England Courant. Two years later, a family dispute led Franklin to try his luck in New York and then Philadelphia. His fortunes were fragile, but hard work, a quick wit, good luck, and political connections led to success. In 1729 Franklin purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette and became the colony’s official printer.

While Franklin worried about the concentration of wealth in too few hands, most colonial elites happily displayed their profits. Thus in the early eighteenth century, leading merchants in Boston, Salem, New York, and Philadelphia emulated British styles and built fine two- and three-story brick homes that had separate rooms for sleeping, eating, and entertaining guests. Mercantile elites also redesigned the urban landscape in the early eighteenth century. They donated money for brick churches and stately town halls. They constructed new roads, wharves, and warehouses to facilitate trade, and they invested in bowling greens and public gardens that beckoned affluent families on a Sunday afternoon.

Many Anglo-American elites used their knowledge of London fashions to reassert their British identity. Tea drinking was especially important in this regard, and families who could afford the finest furnishings and the time for extended social rituals made teatime a daily event. Yet the tea served at the home of Boston merchant Anthony Stoddard was imported from East Asia; the cups, saucers, and teapot were from China; and a handsome bowl held sugar from the West Indies. Stoddard decorated his home with heavily lacquered “japanned” boxes, French-patterned wallpaper, Indian calico bedding, and Italian silk curtains—all of which demonstrated that he was a successful merchant as well as a fashionable British citizen.

The spread of international commerce created a lively cultural life and great affluence in colonial cities. But it also created deep divisions between rich and poor. Wealthy merchants and professionals congregated in urban areas along with a middling group of artisans and shopkeepers and a growing class of unskilled laborers, widows, orphans, the elderly, the disabled, and the unemployed. The frequent wars of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries contributed to these divisions by boosting the profits of merchants, shipbuilders, and artisans. They also improved the wages of seamen temporarily. But in their aftermath, rising prices, falling wages, and a lack of jobs led to the concentration of wealth in fewer hands.


• What place did North American colonists occupy in the eighteenth-century global trade network?

• How did the British government seek to maintain control over the colonial economy and ensure that its colonies served Britain's economic and political interests?

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