Rise of British Commercial Supremacy

Although Britain had been recognized as the world's sea power since about 1715, her trade at the close of the Napoleonic Wars was still confined primarily to a limited number of shipping lanes over which commodities moved in limited quantities, mainly to the British Isles or British possessions. Between 1815 and 1850, the British took steps to furnish the commercial leadership that was to make the empire supreme in overseas trade for approximately a century.

Freedom to Trade

British shipowners, who were anxious to keep their ships moving and earning, had become convinced that the protection afforded them under the Navigation Acts made it difficult to man the ships. They were also convinced that protection raised freight rates, thereby restricting trade. They were joined by industrialists who pointed out that free trade was absolutely necessary for an island kingdom that imported a large share of its foodstuffs and raw materials from overseas. Consequently, in 1849, the British opened their ports to the ships of all nations that granted British ships similar rights.

The next step was to revise tariffs downward. In 1823, England had in effect over 1,500 customs laws. During the 1820's, duties were lowered on a number of manufactured articles and raw materials, among them metals, wool, silk, and timber. But when the British tried to export their manufactured goods, European countries countered by saying that as long as the corn laws were in force, prohibiting the flow of wheat from the Continent to the British Isles, they had no means of paying for larger British exports. The real break occurred in 1846, when the tariff on wheat was revised downward on a sliding scale. After 1869, it entered the British Isles duty free, and the British adhered to their policy of free wheat until 1932, when the Wheat Act implemented empire preference. So fundamental to the British customs system and trade policy was free wheat that duties on other basic commodities were also removed. Other countries followed the British lead, and, though no European country felt that it could adopt a free-trade policy during the process of industrial development, international trade was more nearly free from 1850 World War I than ever before or since.

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