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The Navigation Act of 1651 was passed by the English Parliament in an attempt to prevent non-English ships from transporting goods to England from places outside of Europe, while both English ships and those from the originating country could carry goods within Europe. It was one of several navigation Acts passed by parliament.

England has legislated in the areas of shipping and trade since as early as 1381. The navigation acts were brought about due to the deterioration in English trade following the end of the Eighty Years’ War between the Dutch and the Spanish in 1648. The Dutch emerged with an overwhelming competitive advantage in coastal trade throughout most of Europe. Also, the level of trade in English commodities fell due to a substantial increase in goods from Mediterranean countries, as well as the Levant, the Iberian Peninsula and the West Indies.

The English wanted to stop or reduce the market for these imports. A precedent had already been set in 1645 when the Greenland Company persuaded parliament to pass an Act stopping whale imports other than by this company. Similarly, in 1648 the Levant Company petitioned to prevent Turkish imports. By 1650, parliament was preparing a policy to restrict imports via the Netherlands. A bill was passed in 1651 stating that English trade was to be carried in English ships. The bill was largely a reaction to the failure of the Netherlands to agree to an English proposal to join forces and take over Spanish and Portuguese colonial possessions. England’s idea was for it to take over America and the Dutch could have Africa and Asia. But the Dutch had just finished a protracted war against Spain and had already gained several Portuguese colonies in Asia and weren’t interested. Instead, they suggested a free trade agreement. This would be to the Netherlands disadvantage as they had been the leading sea trader for many years, with their superior ships, lower tariffs and a near monopoly in the Baltic area. England rejected the idea and took the proposal as an affront.

The new Act prevented foreign ships carrying goods from outside the European area to England or English colonies, and also denied other countries from transporting goods from European countries to England except for a ship belonging to a country where the goods originated. Thus the Act specifically targeted the Dutch and the advantage it had in sea trade, something the Dutch economy had become quite dependent on. The failure of negotiations and the Act itself are often blamed for the First Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-54. English naval supremacy resulted in several battle wins in the North Sea, but the Dutch were able to close down English trade in the Mediterranean and the Baltic. Finally, the Treaty of Westminster ended the war in 1654, although English trade continued to suffer at the hands of the Dutch.

All Acts, including the Navigation Act of 1651, were declared void when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 following a period of military and parliamentary rule that operated after the English Civil War. A new Act, the Navigation Act of 1660, was similar to the preceding Act. Another Act, the Navigation Act of 1663, stated that European goods heading for the colonies, including America, had to go via England, where they had to be unloaded, inspected and reloaded, but not before the duties were paid. Costs and delivery times increased. Neither Act lasted long. Following the Second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665-67, the Dutch gained various trade concessions.

The end of the Navigation Acts came in 1849 due to growing support for free trade. The aim of the Acts had been to gain wealth through restricting trade. But in the end, they pushed costs up. By the mid 19th century, England wanted to reduce food prices for the starving masses in the industrial towns and saw that it could do this through cheap imports.

The effects of the Navigation Acts were mixed. In the short and medium term, there were a number of benefits, at least for England. The Acts limited Dutch trade, and may have contributed greatly to London becoming a commercial center for American goods. An increase in English trade led to a larger and more powerful Royal Navy, enabling the British Empire to flourish. Even so, the Dutch trading system was so efficient that they were able to maintain their trade supremacy. The Navigation Acts caused colonial resentment and were partly responsible for the American Revolution. They also led to higher prices and inefficiency, which eventually prompted Britain to repeal them.

A further navigation Act, the Molasses Act of 1733, resulted in heavy duties on French West Indies sugar headed to America, who then had to buy the more expensive British West Indies sugar.