The officials chosen by the colonies did not keep commercial records; but there were two classes of British officials in the colonies--the collectors of the customs and the naval officers--whose records and reports ought theoretically to contain detailed statistics of the exports and imports and of the shipping of each colony year by year. As a matter of fact, however, the existing files of the reports of neither class of officials contain an unbroken record of any one of the continental American colonies for the first seventy-five years of the eighteenth century, whereas information concerning the entire maritime commerce of these colonies as a whole is to be had only for a period of five years beginning with 1768.
The law required the British collectors of customs stationed at the colonial ports to make a quarterly report, but they were not held to a strict observance of the law. Their remittances were at least as irregular as were the uncertain means of communication with the home government, and probably much more so. During a large share of the time there was little effort made by the British government to enforce the Acts of Trade, and it is hardly to be doubted that this lax administration of the laws caused the collectors to exercise their discretion as to the completeness and regularity of their trade reports. However that may have been, the remissness of the collectors was rendered of little present consequence by a fire that destroyed the original reports of these officials nearly a century ago.
When, in 1767, Charles Townshend sought to make his revenue measures effective, he created a Board of Customs Commissioners to supervise the administration of revenue laws. The reports made by the "Inspector-General of Imports and Exports of North America and Register of Shipping" for five years from 1768 to 1772, inclusive, have been preserved in a volume entitled Ledger of Imports and Exports for America, 1768-1772, and the data for those years are just such as would be desirable, but are not to be had, for the entire colonial period.
For the years of the eighteenth century prior to 1768, the chief sources of information are the Naval Office Lists containing the reports made in accordance with the act of 1663 by the naval officers to the Board of Trade, while that body was in existence, and previously to the committee or council having supervision of trade and plantations. It is most unfortunate that these detailed reports of the naval officers, containing, as they do, a record by ports of each vessel entered and cleared, the character and quantities (but not the tons) of cargo, do not--at least as now preserved--cover every year and include all the colonies.1 If such were the case, a fairly complete picture of American colonial commerce might be drawn, although, even then, it would be possible only to estimate, and that as the result of great labor, the number of cargo tons comprised year by year in the outbound and inbound maritime commerce of the colonies. The value of the trade was not reported by the naval officers, but by the customs officers, if at all. It was, accordingly____________________