Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-5d6d958fb5-27v8q Total loading time: 0.717 Render date: 2022-11-26T12:45:11.008Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "displayNetworkTab": true, "displayNetworkMapGraph": false, "useSa": true } hasContentIssue true

The Molasses Act and the Market Strategy of the British Sugar Planters

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 February 2011

Richard B. Sheridan
University of Kansas


In The past few decades several approaches have been adopted with respect to the Molasses Act controversy of 1730–1733. It has been considered from the standpoint of Anglo-French commercial rivalry; as a conflict between two British colonial regions; as a measure designed to aid one group of British colonies at the expense of another; and as a source of precedents for parliamentary taxation of the colonies on the one hand and the colonists’ refusal to comply with such taxation on the other. While the trade between North America and the French West Indies was the chief target of attack, it is not always realized that proponents of the Molasses Act had other objectives in mind. British sugar planters were not only at odds with North American merchants who traded with the foreign sugar islands, but also with Irish merchants who pursued a similar course of trade and with the buyers of sugar in England. Failure to achieve results by means of restrictive legislation in one area did not necessarily preclude success in others. The controversy needs to be understood in terms of the international sugar economy, the changing nature of the British market for sugar and rum, and the planters’ attempt to adapt the Navigation Acts to these changes. From the planters’ standpoint, the Molasses Act was only one of several measures that were needed to adapt the Navigation Acts to the realities of the market, so it may be unrealistic to consider any one act in isolation.

Copyright © The Economic History Association 1957

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 From the abundant literature that has grown up around the Molasses Act controversy I have found the following most useful: Pitman, Frank W., The Development of the British West Indies, 1700–1763 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1917), pp. 242–70Google Scholar; Charles M. Andrews, “Anglo-French Commercial Rivalry, 1700–1750, The Western Phase, II,” American Historical Review, XX, No. 4 (July 1915), pp. 761–80Google Scholar; Southwick, Albert B., “The Molasses Act—Source of Precedents,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, VIII, No. 3 (July 1951), pp. 389405Google Scholar.

2 John Campbell wrote in 1768 that in the reign of Charles II (1660–1685), England “consumed about a thousand hogsheads of sugar, and exported above twice that quantity; at the close of the last century we consumed about twenty thousand hogsheads, and exported about as much. We now consume about fourscore thousand hogsheads, and except in time of war export but very little.” Candid and Impartial Considerations on the Nature of the Sugar Trade (London, 1768), p. 30Google Scholar.

3 In the 1660's and early 1670's British sugar was generally able to compete on the Continent after incurring the expense of transshipment, although profit margins were lower than on sugar that by-passed the mother country. This was owing to the absence of strong competition from foreign sugar producers and a favorable market demand. In subsequent years, however, the transshipment business declined in the face of growing competition from the French and Dutch sugar colonies. See my unpublished Ph.D. thesis of London University, “The Sugar Trade of the British West Indies from 1660 to 1756, with Special Reference to the Island of Antigua” (1951), pp. 310–11. See also Harper, Lawrence A., The English Navigation Acts (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), p. 245Google Scholar.

4 Much evidence in support of this statement is to be found in the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies (hereafter referred to as C.S.P.C.). See, for example, C.S.P.C. 1661–1668, No. 85, pp. 29–30; C.S.P.C. 1669–1674, No. 553, p. 226; C.S.P.C. 1675–1676, Addenda 1574–1674, p. 231.

5 According to Pitman, “There is ample evidence to show that, in the last half of the seventeenth century, the Navigation Acts were generally disregarded by the people of Barbadoes. The boldness of traders engaged in illegal traffic is comparable only with the laxity of administration.” Development of British West Indies, pp. 220–21.

6 See my unpublished Ph.D. thesis, “The Sugar Trade of the British West Indies,” pp. 56, 322.

7 Ibid., pp. 54–74; Pitman, Development of British West Indies, p. 177.

8 It might appear inconsistent for even a small quantity of sugar to be re-exported to foreign countries at a time when English prices were higher than those on the Continent, but this inconsistency is more apparent than real. In the period from 1734 to 1757 the protected Irish market absorbed between 63 and 68 per cent of England's raw sugar exports, while the refined sugar, which went mainly to foreign markets, received a bounty of six shillings per hundredweight when it was exported. Refined sugar made up between 15 and 22 per cent of England's sugar exports from 1734 to 1757.

* This does not include sugar imported into Scotland, Ireland, and the North American colonies directly from the British sugar colonies.

Imports into Great Britain from 1755 to 1757. Source: MacGregor, John, Commercial Statistics (London, 1850), V, p. 382Google Scholar. Public Record Office, London, Customs 3: 1–4; Treasury 64: 276(B), (358), (359), (362), (364), (368), (385).

9 Pitman, Development of British West Indies, pp. 177–78. The authority cited for this statement is a Board of Trade representation to the House of Lords dated January 14, 1735. CO. 5: 5, ff. 114 et. seq. Pitman indicates that these price differentials existed for about thirty years prior to 1735.

10 Ibid., p. 224.

11 Official English rum imports from the colonies amounted to an annual average of 193,494 gallons in 1726–30, but by 1766–70 they had increased to 2,354,395 gallons. Public Record Office, London, Treasury 64: (273), (274).

12 Anon., The Case of the British Northern Colonies (London, 1732), p. 1Google Scholar.

13 Letter from Governor Hart to Horatio Walpole, dated April 4, 1722, Calendar of Treasury Papers, 1720–1728, CCXXXIX, p. 125. Another account of this trade was recorded by a Leeward Island planter who said that “in some or all of those Years [1717, 1718, 1721, 1724, and 1726] a great deal of Sugar was entered in the Custom-house at home, from one or two of our Islands; for it was Sugar imported from Martinico, and Guadaloupe, which upon paying the 41/2 per Cent [duty] here was re-exported for England.” Anon., A Detection of the State and Situation of the Present Sugar Planters (London, 1732), p. 50Google Scholar.

14 C.S.P.C. 1730, No. 468i, pp. 300–1.

15 These combinations covered selling prices in London and not buying prices in the West Indies. Competition between sugar buyers in different markets of England and Scotland was restricted, owing to the control that planters exercised over shipments of sugar to different markets. See discussion of the West India commission system.

16 The price of low-quality muscovado or raw sugar in London ranged between 33 and 47 (average 41) shillings per hundredweight in the period 1701–1705; and between 30 and 35 (average 33) shillings in the period 1713–1716. The low point of the eighteenth century was reached in the years from 1731 to 1733, when prices ranged from 17 to 20 (average 18). After 1733 an upward trend is observed, and in the decade of the 1750's the range was from 30 to 42 (average 37). See my Ph.D. thesis, “The Sugar Trade of the British West Indies,” Appendix II, p. iv.

17 The existence of sugar-buying combinations at this period was confirmed by several writers. John Ashley, a prominent Barbados planter, wrote that “Planters were compelled to send their sugars to a glutted and restrained market, under the government of the United Companies of Grocers and Sugar Bakers who must buy all our sugars, while we remain under our present circumstances.” Some observations on a direct exportation of Sugar from the British Islands, with answers to Mr. Torriano's objection to it. In a Letter from a Gentleman in Barbados to his Friend in London (London, 1735), pp. 7Google Scholar, 10. Malachy Postlethwayt asserted that “Another evil that followed was combinations among the buyers, by which the price of sugar sunk so low as greatly to prejudice the planters, and yet turned only to the benefit of a few private persons who were the first purchasers, and not at all to that of the community in general; by which that island [Barbados] was greatly prejudiced, and thus received very little benefit.” Dictionary of Commerce (London, 1755), II, 766Google Scholar. For direct evidence of buying combinations see testimony of London sugar refiners before a Committee of the House of Commons in 1780. Anon., Thoughts on the Discontents of the People Last Year Respecting the Sugar Duties (Dublin, 1781Google Scholar), Appendix, pp. 16, 22–23.

18 Letter entitled “On the Sugar Trade,” dated March 26, 1735, printed in Caribbeana, Containing Letters and Dissertations … chiefly wrote by several Hands in the West-Indies (London, 1741), II, 36Google Scholar.

19 Lillian M. Penson, The Colonial Agents of the British West India Islands, from Their First Appointment to the Close of the Eighteenth Century, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, June 1921, pp. 14–19.

20 The Barbados Act of 1715 laid the following import duties on foreign commodities: Muscovado sugar, 12s. 6d. per cwt.; Improved sugar, 25s. per cwt.; Molasses, 18d. per gallon; Rum, 2d. per gallon; Scraped ginger, 20s. per cwt.; Scaled ginger, 12s. 6d. per cwt.; Cotton, 6d. per lb.; Aloes, 18d. per lb. The preamble to the Act stated, “Whereas divers Persons in this Island have of late imported, or caused to be imported, great Quantities of Sugar, Molasses, Rum, Cotton, Ginger, and Alloes, from Martinique, or other Places not under His Majesty's Subjection and Government; which lessen the Value of the Manufacture of this Island …” Acts of the Assembly Passed in the Island of Barbadoes, from 1648 to 1721 (London, 1721), Act No. 598, Passed March 21, 1715, Confirmed October 17, 1717, p. 303.

21 Pitman, Development of British West Indies, pp. 228–33. “Whether the Antigua act of 1721 was confirmed or disallowed we cannot say, but in any case the direct trade with Martinique and Guadaloupe continued to be a source of great annoyance to the government of the Leeward Islands.”

22 Ragatz, Lowell J., The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763–1833 (New York: The Century Company, 1928), p. 102Google Scholar.

23 Pitman, Development of British West Indies, pp. 233–35.

24 Acts of the Privy Council, Colonial Series, 1745–1766, pp. 509, 517–20.

25 Instead of reducing the cost of food, Pitman says that the Barbados Act of 1715 really increased the price of North American provisions, “For in the days of ‘free trade’ with the French prior to 1715, Barbadoes being well stocked with sugar at moderate rates, the Northern colonists were satisfied to exchange their provisions for sugar. But since the exclusion of French sugar, its price in Barbados had been higher than in the French islands and consequently the North Americans, not being content to exchange their provisions for sugar, had insisted on payment in cash. The tendency, therefore, had been to drain the island of specie, increase the price of food and supplies, and force North Americans to buy their homeward cargoes of sugar from the French.” Development of British West Indies, pp. 225–27.

26 Several planters who wrote letters to the Barbados Gazette complaining of the hardships resulting from the North American trade with the foreign sugar islands said that the problem must be settled by the British Parliament. One wrote, for example, “The British Parliament must be our Physician; and, in the meantime, I think that our Legislature is not without the Power of administering some Preparatives toward a Cure.” Letter entitled, “Our Trade and Bills of Exchange,” April 14, 1733, Caribbeana, I, pp. 135–36.

27 Penson, Colonial Agents of the British West India Islands, pp. 244–45. “In the seventeenth century there was but little cooperation between agents and planters of the various islands, as yet there was only a very slight identity of interest.”

28 Ibid., p. 255.

29 See my unpublished Ph.D. thesis, “The Sugar Trade of the British West Indies,” Appendix IV, pp. viii-xxx.

30 “The Condition of Barbados,” C.S.P.C. 1706–1708 (?1707 or 1708), No. 1257, p. 630.

31 Anon., The Importance of the British Plantations in America (London, 1732), pp. 2728Google Scholar.

32 Anon., A Short Account of the Interest and Conduct of the Jamaica Planters in an Address to the Merchants, Traders, and Liverymen of London (London, 1754), p. 3Google Scholar. Professor Penson records that “In 1754 William Beckford sat as one of the members for London, Richard Beckford for Bristol, and Julius Beckford for Salisbury.” These brothers were absentees from Jamaica. Penson, Colonial Agents of the British West India Islands, p. 245.

33 Penson, Colonial Agents of the British West India Islands, p. 245.

34 Stock, Leo F. (ed.), Proceedings and Debates of the British Parliament Respecting North America (Washington, D.C., The Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1924), V, 175Google Scholar.

35 Anon., The Case of the British Northern Colonies (London, 1732), p. 2Google Scholar.

36 Anon., The Present State of the British and French Trade to Africa and America Consider'd and Compar'd (London, 1745), p. 52Google Scholar.

37 The original bill, which was reported March 26, 1731, called for the prohibition of imports of foreign sugar, molasses, or rum into Great Britain, Ireland, or any British dominion and forbade the export of horses or lumber to any foreign sugar colony. After the first bill was defeated, a compromise measure was passed by the Commons on March 21, 1733, and the Lords on May 17, 1733, which is commonly known as the Molasses Act (6 Geo. II, c. 13). Although the Act of 1733 did not prohibit the sale of North American lumber, horses, or provisions in the foreign sugar colonies, return cargoes of foreign sugar, molasses, and rum were subject to prohibitive duties. These import duties amounted to 5s. per hundredweight on foreign sugar and paneles; 9d. per gallon on rum; and 6d. per gallon on molasses. The Act also provided for a drawback of the entire import duty on British sugar that was re-exported from Great Britain for one year to help planters recover the European market, and English refiners were encouraged by an additional bounty of 2s. per hundredweight on the export of English refined sugar. With this addition, the total bounty on refined sugar for export amounted to 6s. per hundredweight. Pitman, Development of the British West Indies, pp. 254–64.

38 Although French sugar, rum, and molasses were prohibited in Ireland by the Molasses Act, Portuguese and other foreign sugar could be imported into that country if it was carried in British ships and first landed in Great Britain. The London sugar refiners stated in their petition of 1754 that the Irish were not always able to supply themselves with sugar from Portugal, and “are frequently obliged to comply with the exorbitant Prices of our Market, besides that, when they have Sugars from England, the Duty paid here is entirely drawn back, whereas Portugal Sugars upon their Importation into Ireland pay a Duty there of 3s. 5d. per C[wt].” Anon., An Account of the hate Application to Parliament, From the Sugar Refiners, Grocers, etc. of the Cities of London and Westminster, the Borough of Southward, and of the City of Bristol (London, 1754), p. 37Google Scholar.

39 O'Brien, George, The Economic History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (Dublin, Maunsel & Company, 1918), p. 178Google Scholar. “By Geo. II., ch. 55, rum or spirits of the British Colonies or Plantations were not to be imported into Ireland in any ship under seventy tons burden; whereas foreign brandy and other spirits from any other place whatsoever were not to be imported in ships under a hundred tons burden. By 12 Geo. III., ch. 60, no part of the old subsidy was drawn back for any sugars of the growth or production of any foreign colony or plantation which should be exported from Great Britain to Ireland. Thus the English Parliament succeeded in ruining the Irish trade, not only with the British Plantations, but with foreign countries and Plantations as well.”

40 Letter entitled “On the Sugar Trade,” March 26, 1735, Caribbeana, II, 37.

41 Pitman, Development of British West Indies, pp. 181–82. It should be noted that the commission merchants of London, as distinguished from the merchants trading on their own account with the West Indies, supported the planters in urging a direct export trade. Twenty-three of the forty-eight petitioners whose names appear in a pamphlet of 1738 have been identified as London commission merchants. Anon., The Miserable Case of the British Sugar Planters; Wherein Is Contained … The Advantages of a Direct Exportation from the Sugar Islands to Foreign Markets (London, 1738), p. viiiGoogle Scholar.

42 Pitman, Development of British West Indies, p. 182.

43 The provisions of the Act of 1739 are recorded by Pitman as follows: “The act granted permission to ship sugar direcdy from the plantations to any foreign ports in Europe. Ships bound for northern Europe must, however, touch at some British port; those destined to points south of Cape Finisterre might sail directly widiout touching in England. In both cases sugar bound for Europe was relieved of all duties formerly collectable in England. The privilege was accorded only to ships built and owned in Great Britain, though in 1742 the act was extended to English colonial ships. Licenses must be purchased for the privilege in England at the beginning of the outward voyage and bonds furnished to secure enforcement of the law. In all cases ships must return within eight months to England first of all before sailing again to the colonies. This would secure to England the advantages of the ‘Staple Act’ of 1663.” Ibid., p. 183.

44 Public Record Office, London, Treasury 64: 276(B) (379), “An Account of the Number of British Ships laden with Sugars and the Quantity of Sugars Exported from the British Sugar Colonies to any port in Europe South of Cape Finisterre since die Year 1739 distinguishing the time and place of Exportation,” dated March 24, 1753.

45 Penson, Colonial Agents of the British West India Islands, Illustrative Letters, Appendix, p. xc. (Letter dated June 15, 1743.)

46 Dobbs, Arthur, An Essay on the Trade and Improvement of Ireland (Dublin, 17291731), Part I, p. 88, Part II, p. 140Google Scholar.

47 47 Ibid., Part II, p. 140.

48 Miss Murray writes that in the eighteenth century “Irish trade and commerce was restricted to suit the interests of English merchants….” Murray, Alice E., A History of the Commercial and Financial Relations Between England and Ireland from the Period of the Restoration (London: P. S. King & Son, 1907), p. 174Google Scholar.

49 Anon., The Present State of the British and French Trade to Africa and America Consider'd and Compar'd (London, 1745), p. 52Google Scholar.

50 Annual average rum imports into Ireland and England for two five-year periods, from 1763 to 1772, are as follows:

Source: Irish rum imports are taken from a manuscript entitled “Ireland: Exports and Imports for the Ten Years Ending 1773,” British Library of Political and Economic Science, London.

51 Anon., Sugar Refiners’ and Grocers’ Application to Parliament, p. 38.

52 Pitman, Development of British West Indies, p. 164. “Of all the markets to which sugar was re-exported Ireland was the most important,”

53 Annual average re-exports of British brown sugar to Ireland, to all other countries, total re-exports, and percentage of total to Ireland, are shown for selected five-year periods in hundredweights as follows:

Source: Public Record Office, London, Treasury 64: 276(B), (358), (359), (364), (365), (368), (385).

54 Annual average sugar imports into Scotland amounted to 43,152 hundredweight in the years 1773 to 1777; while annual average rum imports amounted to 90,599 gallons during the same period. Sheffield, John Jord, Observations on the Commerce of the American States (London, 1784Google Scholar), Appendix Table No. III.

55 MacArthur, William F., History of Port Glasgow (Glasgow: Jackson, Wylie & Company, 1932), pp. 6970Google Scholar.

56 Unpublished letter books of Walter Tullideph of Antigua and Dundee, Scotland, 1734– 1767, II, p. 236; III, pp. 47–48, 50, 55, 56, 59, 63, 68.

57 Articles of the Sugar-Copartnery at Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1751), p. 1Google ScholarPubMed.

58 Pitman, Development of British West Indies, p. 395.

59 Letter to Dr. Sydserfe in London, dated Antigua, April 13, 1751, Tullideph Letter Books, II, 83.

60 Long, Edward, The History of Jamaica (London, 1774), II, 524Google Scholar.

61 In 1770 the British North American Colonies imported 67,223 hundredweight of sugar from the British West Indies, as compared with 35,056 hundredweight classified as foreign.Sheffield, Commerce of the American States, Appendix Table No. IV.

62 Dickerson, Oliver M., The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951), p. 86Google Scholar.

63 North American rum imports averaged 2,953,042 gallons annually during the four-year period, 1770 to 1773. Since the Sugar Act of 1764 prohibited the import of foreign rum into North America and the Navigation Acts were enforced quite strictly during this period, it is reasonable to assume that this rum was largely of British origin. Chalmers, George, Opinions on Interesting Subjects of Public Law and Commercial Policy, Arising from American Independence (London, 1784), p. 121Google Scholar.

64 In Virginia and the Carolinas the planters used wine or West India rum, while the poorer class of people consumed beer or the New England spirit. Houlette, William D., “Rum-Trading in the American Colonies Before 1763,” The Journal of American History, XXVII, No. 3 (1934), p. 134Google Scholar For an excellent account of the rum-distilling industry and the rum markets of North America see Richard Pares, Yankees and Creoles: The Trade between North America and the West Indies before the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), pp. 2936Google Scholar, 125, 132–35.

65 Anon., An Essay on the Increase and Decline of Trade, in London and the Out-Ports (London, 1749), p. 43Google Scholar. “For only a small Number of the London Merchants trade upon their own Account to the American Colonies, but the greatest part act by Commission, as Factors or Agents to the Planters…. But the Merchants in the Out-Ports are almost wholly excluded from that lucrative Commerce, and trade chiefly on their own Account; employing Factors in our Colonies there to purchase American Commodities, in return for such Goods as they consign to them from Europe.”

66 Ibid., p. 32.

67 Letter to William Hare, merchant in Bristol, dated London, September 20, 1753, Tullideph Letter Books, II, p. 128.

68 Annual average imports of colonial sugar into England are distinguished as between London and the outports for selected years in hundredweights as follows:

Source: Public Record Office, London, Customs 3: 1–4; Treasury 64: 276(6), (385). C. E. Long, Miscellaneous Papers Relating to Jamaica, British Museum Add. Mss. 12431, p. 139.

69 Joseph Massie was of the opinion that the planters had the upper hand in their dealings with the grocers and refiners. The following quotation from his pamphlet of 1759 must be read with the knowledge that Massie was a bitter critic of the planters. “Sugar is not now, as formerly it was, brought into this Kingdom by British Merchants, in Return for British or other Commodities and Manufactures, and presently sold by them to the Grocers or the Sugar Refiners, at such Prices as Peace, War, or different degrees of Plenty, did from Time to Time make reasonable Prices; for instead of that equitable Course of trading, Sugars are now consigned by the Sugar-Planters, to a Sett of Men whom they have made Servants, and are not sold to the People of Great Britain until the same will fetch such excessive high Prices, as Avarice, or Exorbitance suggest to the said Planters to fix thereon.” A State of the British Sugar-Colony Trade (London, 1759), P. 49Google ScholarPubMed.

70 Letter to Ephraim Jordan, plantation attorney in Antigua, dated London, July 11, 1754, Tullideph Letter Books, II, p. 154.

71 Anon., Sugar Refiners’ and Grocers’ Application to Parliament, pp. 3–8.

72 Ibid., pp. 26–27.

73 ibid., p. 8.

74 Letter to Dr. Walter Sydserfe in Antigua, dated London, April 5, 1754, Tullideph Letter Books, II, 144.

75 Letter to Dr. Walter Sydserfe in Antigua, dated Dundee, November 13, 1758, Tullideph Letter Books, II, 263.

76 Massie, State of the British Sugar-Colony Trade, pp. 50–53.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

The Molasses Act and the Market Strategy of the British Sugar Planters
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

The Molasses Act and the Market Strategy of the British Sugar Planters
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

The Molasses Act and the Market Strategy of the British Sugar Planters
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *