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  • A "Dangerous Principle"Free Trade Discourses in Barbados and the English Leeward Islands, 1650–1689
  • Christian J. Koot

Between November 2 and 7, 1676, the Lords of Trade and Plantations, a royal committee formed to manage England's expanding colonial empire, invited two officials into their council chamber at Whitehall to offer their views of the effectiveness of the Navigation Acts and the wisdom of relaxing the rules for colonial trade. The occasion for this debate was a series of reports the lords had received from Governor Jonathan Atkins, of Barbados, and a petition entitled the "Grievances of Barbados." These documents all called for the government to modify the Acts of Trade and Navigation by permitting colonists to export sugar and other tropical commodities to any port of their choice, English or foreign, after paying the proper duties. Allowing the free trade of exports to foreign markets, they argued, would better serve the needs of the empire's most important colony and thus the empire as a whole.1 [End Page 132]

As an architect of those very policies, Sir George Downing defended the continued utility of the laws governing colonial trade. He reminded the committee of "the necessity of Maintaining the present Method of Trade for the encrease of Shipping, and Welfare of Old England" and of the possibility that the "liberty of carrying the product of our Plantations to all parts could quite destroy the Trade of England, and consequently ruyne Barbados." Disagreeing with Downing, Sir Peter Colleton, a former Barbadian planter, carefully advocated loosening the rules governing the markets to which colonists could send their produce. Colleton based his reasoning on his experiences as a planter who knew that "the State of the Plantations is very much changed Since the tyme when these Lawes [the Navigation Acts] were first enacted." Echoing the pleas of Atkins and the Barbadians, he countered that the "Sugar Trade is so much burthened and inconvenienced by being bound up to one market," and he warned that if this was not rectified, "wee must in time, necessarily be eaten out by the French." Drawing authority from his personal knowledge of the West Indies, Colleton added that it would be in the king's "interest to suspend some part of those Lawes [which] are hurt full to the English Trade." In response, Downing insisted that such a policy would be a mistake: it "would occasion a great decay of our Navigation" and decrease customs. Just as important, he added, the nation needed to export plantation goods to Europe to balance the number of goods Englishmen consumed from abroad.2

After hearing both sides, the committee decided not to change the laws, using the proceedings to reaffirm their belief in a still-evolving version of mercantilism that elevated the well-being of the nation-state above its colonial parts.3 Nevertheless, by entertaining the discussion twenty-five years after [End Page 133] the passage of the first Act of Trade and Navigation, the lords revealed the ever-shifting nature of English mercantilism; still in flux, these policies were somewhat open to conversation and negotiation. That imperial administrators took Barbadians and their governor's pleas for free trade seriously testifies to the sophistication of colonists' attempts to renegotiate the structure of the empire and their place in that empire. At the same time, however, it was clear from the lords' reaction that "the last determination [of policy] will not be in Barbados," but in London.4

During the second half of the seventeenth century, colonists in Antigua, Montserrat, Saint Christopher, and Nevis joined Barbadians in calling for more freedom to trade as they wished. For settlers, metropolitan efforts to bring uniformity and regulation to colonial trade represented a challenge to their livelihoods. Since their arrival in the 1620s, the colonists who built their plantations and businesses in Barbados and the Leeward Islands benefited from the ability to trade with foreigners, particularly the Dutch. These connections not only helped settlers build personal and familial wealth, but also advanced the economic growth of their colonies.5 Caribbean colonists' experiences [End Page 134] with building local economies at the periphery of the empire taught them that local success—and...


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