Colonial Maritime Trade

19th-century-american-maritimeContinuing with our examination of the American maritime origins, the Colonial era stands as important time in the development of the trade routes, maritime industries, and the regional industry differences of the United States. (But remember – it’s not the United States yet. It’s still just the Thirteen Colonies.)

Colonists arrived in American by ship. Ocean going vessels remained their connection with the mother country – England – and a link to European culture, society, and…stuff. Throughout the colonial era, more Europeans continued to arrive; cities were built, usually near good harbors. The Atlantic bordered all the colonies, making it a relatively easy avenue for transportation. Trade routes made triangular shapes across the Atlantic, supplying European markets with raw materials and bringing back manufactured goods or slaves. However, toward the end of the Colonial Era, those trade routes and independence of the harbor cities would open contention between America and England.

Today’s blog post looks at facets of maritime history in the Colonial era: inter-colony transportation, triangular trade routes, fishing (and whaling), and the mercantile theory.

Colony To Colony, Via The Water

Roads in Colonial America were not good. (That’s an understatement). Cut through the woods and fields and sometimes more like trails than roads, these wagon paths left much to be desired. Mud impeded travel. Flooded creeks caused delays. As for a smooth ride…let’s just say the wagons and carriages had room for improvement.

Still, they needed a way to transport people and items from colony to colony. After-all, Massachusetts might want some indigo or cotton grown in South Carolina, and Virginia might want some iron from Pennsylvania. The solution was rather simple: travel by water. Specifically, the Atlantic Ocean. Trade between the colonies flourished, adding to the prosperity and communication between the regions.

Port cities were established all along the colonial coast. Ship building industries came to life, particularly in the New England region – by the 1770’s, America was making 1/3 of all Britain’s trading vessels. During the Colonial Era, distinct region differences and trades begin to emerge; while the South developed and agricultural community, the North leaned toward various industrials – particularly ship building (and all the trades involved in that process) and maritime industries.

Southern Triangle Trade Route (CC BY-SA 3.0,

Southern Triangle Trade Route (CC BY-SA 3.0,

Can You Make A Triangle?

Trade didn’t just happen between the colonies. There was potential for good profit by trading with Europe. Some merchants were American based, others were in Europe and traded with America.

The most profitable trade routes for Colonial America were the triangular trade routes. Here’s how the northern triangle worked:

Ship A leaves the colonies with raw materials (examples: wheat, rice, fish, lumber, tobacco, furs) and sails to Europe, exchanging the American raw materials for oils, wines, and fruits in Southern Europe or Northern Africa. The vessel then sails north to England, exchanging the produce for manufactured goods to take back to America.

The southern triangle route was similar in concept, but different in cargos:

Ship B leaves the colonies with rum and sails to Africa. There the crew trades the rum for African slaves, which – tragically – in this time of history were treated like cargo and transported to the plantations in the West Indies. The slaves were traded for sugar, fruit, and molasses which were returned to the colonies.

Got Fish?

There were extensive fishing grounds (yes, that’s really what they’re called although they’re in the water) off the Canadian and New England coasts. Fish was a profitable business, and tons of dried or salted fish were exported from the colonies to Europe. The fishing industry was so profitable that it was part of the treaty that ended the French & Indian War (Seven Years War); the British got all of Canada, except France got to keep fishing rights around two islands.

Whale oil became a high-demand product as well as both the colonies and Europe wanted it for their lamps. (More on this in a few months).

Both fishing and whaling pushed forward American shipbuilding and created an entire culture and multiple communities that existed around the sea and its profits.

Boston Ships and Harbor (1768)

Boston Ships and Harbor (1768)

You Exist To Serve Me?

During the early Colonial Era, Britain adopted a laissez faire approach to America – which basically meant “hands-off,” do-as-you-like.

However, by the 18th Century, England was interested in empire building and colonies played a major role in that goal. Realizing the wealth and profit available in America, England began to change policies and relations with the Thirteen Colonies. The mother country adopted the mercantile theory – which (in common terms) says a nation’s prosperity is measured in gold and silver and colonies exist only to add to the wealth of the mother nation. Think of it this way: the child has to do all the work while mother lounges on the couch…but mother isn’t even interested in cooking dinner for the child.

Various Acts by Parliament attempted to limit American trade or channel it to only benefit England. Then came the taxes on various items; for example, the Molasses Act (1733), Woolens Act (1699), Hat Act (1732), and Iron Act (1750) – all limited trade with British merchants and benefitted the English merchants only. A Board of Trade was also established to try to “balance” the rules, but most continued to stifle American trade opportunities.

Increasing Acts and Taxes in the 1760’s and 1770’s would frustrate the colonists and start the road to independence.


The Atlantic Ocean bordering the colonies proved a useful “road,” encouraging trade, communication, and travel between the colonies. It also provided a means for the Thirteen Colonies to profit, by exporting and important goods on the triangular trade routes. The success of American Maritime industries (including ship building, fishing and whaling) and import/exports prompted controlling regulations from England.

Unfortunately for Britain, America wasn’t just a land of farmers, sailors, and ship owners. Eventually, they would want to be free to make their own choice – and they would be willing to fight on land and sea for their independence.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

Boston Harbor, 1764

Boston Harbor, 1764

5 thoughts on “Colonial Maritime Trade

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