MOLASSES BEGINS THE DISPUTE
T HE DETERMINATION of the British Ministry in 1763 to enforce vigorously the Navigation Laws and particularly the old Molasses Act came as a complete surprise to the people of Rhode Island. The act which Parliament passed in 1733 laid a prohibitive duty of six pence on each gallon of foreign molasses and four shillings per hundredweight on foreign sugars imported into the American colonies. But it had never been troublesome since it was only infrequently enforced. Rhode Island's commerce which depended primarily on foreign West Indian trade had expanded by ignoring the duties. That Rhode Island was a trading center of importance in 1763 was owing mostly to evasion of the Molasses Act. The collection of duties prescribed by the act was as often winked at by the customs officials as it was by the colony's merchants.
The first blow came on May 1, 1763, when Parliament authorized the naval officers of His Majesty's ships operating along the coasts to make seizures of vessels and goods for violation of the laws of trade. The ships and cargoes seized by the King's officers were to be sold by the court condemning them to the highest bidder, and the net result was to be divided equally between the seizing officers and His Majesty's Exchequer.1 Rhode Island traders never had much fear for customs officials already in the colonies; but now, in and about their own ports, were armed vessels whose officers, with all the authority of customs officials, were more than willing to board colonial ships and make seizures.
In consequence of the act of 1763 the colonial Governors received fresh instructions directing them to suppress all illicit trade in any shape or manner. Naval vessels, some already in the colonies and some from England, were ordered to the various ports. In all, twenty of these