Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Thad W Tate


When historians have addressed the issue of maritime lawlessness in the English colonies of North America their attention almost invariably has been drawn to New England where, according to the commonly held belief, opposition to the navigation system of the home government was most fervent, concerted, and pervasive. Rarely have researchers examined local involvement in piracy, illicit trade, and the unauthorized salvage of stranded or sunken vessels, or "wrecking," in the Chesapeake region where, scholars customarily have maintained, the colonists willingly participated in the imperial navigation scheme. Traditional historical investigations of freebooters and smugglers have also tended to focus on the lawbreakers themselves, generally neglecting the activities of coastal inhabitants without whose support the outlaws could not have operated and prospered.;Contrary to the conventional wisdom, however, not only did residents of the greater Chesapeake personally engage in piracy, contraband trade, customs fraud, and wrecking, but many more supported their actions by assisting and harboring the perpetrators or by refusing to convict the lawbreakers in the common-law courts. In the provincial assemblies, other colonists opposed legislative initiatives designed to improve the enforcement of imperial policy in the maritime sphere. Compounding the enforcement problem in the greater Chesapeake was the participation of both royal and provincial officials--including customs officers, guardship commanders, and even colonial governors--in various contraband, duty fraud, and piratical schemes themselves. If British authorities wondered about the sources of such behavior they did not have far to look for precedents. English piracy, smuggling, and wrecking--often tacitly approved and even actively promoted by high-ranking government officials--dated back centuries before the colonial era.;The coincidence of the periods of greatest complaint about maritime lawbreaking in the Chesapeake with the intervals of most active regulation of colonial affairs by the home government suggests that inhabitants of the bay region conducted illegal maritime activities continuously between 1650 and 1750 and beyond. Reports by customs officials and guardship captains in the decade preceding the Revolution, including accounts of violent resistance to royal authority, indicate that compliance with the Navigation Acts was no better than it had been in the late seventeenth century when English authorities undertook a major reform initiative designed to end abuses of the system.



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