The Convoy System
IT must have been an inspiring sight in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to watch from Cape Henry a tobacco convoy file out of Chesapeake Bay between the sandy foreland and Middle Ground Shoal and spread its canvas to the prevailing westerlies. Nowhere else in the British Empire could an observer see a more impressive demonstration of the maritime nature of the old colonial system. Here, stretching out before him, was a vast, richly laden fleet of one hundred and fifty or two hundred ships bound for England with the annual produce of two of her most prosperous colonies. Here, indeed, was the embodiment of the maritime intercourse between colonies and the mother country upon which the economic structure of the Empire rested.
It was the more remarkable in that the tobacco trade, which by the end of the seventeenth century was one of the most important and lucrative branches of England's overseas commerce, was a comparatively recent development. A hundred years earlier not a single Englishman lived on the shores of Chesapeake Bay and not a single pound of colonial tobacco was imported by the home country. By 1700 Virginia was the largest and Maryland the third largest of the English colonies in America: together they had one hundred thousand inhabitants and annually exported seventy thousand hogsheads of tobacco to England, enriching the royal treasury by £300,000 a year. Considering the tobacco, the shipping employed, and the English manufactures consumed by the colonists, Virginia and Maryland were computed to be worth £1,000,000 a year to England.1
Because the lucrative Chesapeake trade required protection at sea, the convoy system was instituted as a safeguard against the depredations of enemy ships and privateers. Occasional references