Toward the end of the seventeenth century the colonial governments, largely because of acute dissatisfaction with the price of tobacco, became more active in encouraging the cultivation of hemp, flax, and other crops which might be expected to yield a good return. On several occasions Virginia adopted legislation requiring each county to purchase a quart of hemp seed and a like quantity of flax seed for each tithable, who was expected then to produce in the following year a specified minimum quantity of fiber.

Dissatisfaction with the price of tobacco in England colonies

Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and other colonies adopted laws making hemp and other staples legal tender, the dual purpose of these acts being to encourage the production of the commodities in question and to relieve the prevalent money shortage. In addition, colonial legislatures began to offer special inducement in the form of bounties for hemp and flax. None of these efforts to increase the production of fiber was particularly successful.

It is true that during periods when the price of tobacco was depressed, planters turned to other crops, but it was said that “The moment the price of tobacco rises, other produce is laid aside.”

Laws providing bounties for the production of hemp were common in the colonies over a long period of time, but the purpose behind these subsidies was not the same in every instance. The objective of the earliest bounties was the encouragement of manufacturing as well as the growth of hemp. Maryland in 1671 offered one pound of tobacco for every pound of hemp raised in the colony in order to put an end to the importation of materials which could be made at home; in 1700 Massachusetts attempted to encourage her hemp industry by requiring manufacturers of cordage to use fiber produced within the colony; and other New England colonies followed this example. Another reason which led many of the colonies to offer bounties was a wish to co-operate with England after she began to provide subsidies to producers of naval stores.

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In addition, during the eighteenth century several colonies used bounties on hemp and other crops which were considered suitable for the back country as inducements to attract immigrants and others to the uplands. South Carolina in 1733 employed a certain Richard Hall to devote his time for three years to the promotion of hemp and flax culture, and as late as 1767 Georgia distributed to its farmers free seed and special directions for the cultivation of hemp and flax.

England appears to have paid little attention in the seventeenth century to the colonial bounties as a means of encouraging the production of hemp, although in 1664 she offered a subsidy in the form of immunity from duties for five years for all hemp and naval stores imported from Virginia and Maryland. Even the purpose of that act was not primarily to increase the amount of these commodities but to turn the colonists from “the precarious and immoral tobacco industry.”

After the 1680’s England ceased trying to encourage diversification and to curtail the production of tobacco, but she still desired to procure naval supplies from her colonies rather than be dependent upon foreign countries for them.

That desire became more pronounced at the beginning of the eighteenth century and led England to offer bounties for the production of several articles. The balance of trade with countries from which England purchased naval stores was running against her. owing to their failure to import English manufactured goods in exchange for these commodities. During the War of Spanish Succession England was disturbed by the attempt of Sweden to increase the prices of her products, and Parliament decided to make a serious effort to relieve the situation by developing the production of naval stores in the American colonies.

In addition, the colonies themselves were showing signs of interest in manufacturing articles which would compete with those turned out by the mother country, and England sought to divert this activity to the production of materials which she needed and which would not offer competition for her own industry.

The British government inaugurated the system of bounties in 1705 with the passage of legislation providing for the payment of six pounds per ton for “water-rotted, bright and clean” hemp and additional premiums for tar, pitch, rosin, turpentine, masts, yards, and bowsprits imported from America. All fiber entering the country under this act was for twenty days after its arrival subject to pre-emption for the use of the navy. The production of certain of the listed articles was stimulated to such an extent that bounties were no longer considered necessary and were dropped in 1721.

The subsidy on hemp, however, brought meager returns and was renewed at that date for a period of sixteen years. At the same time the import duty on fiber, which had been collected even while the bounty was offered, was at last repealed. Because of its long failure to produce the desired results, the bounty on hemp was allowed to lapse at the end of the specified sixteen-year period, and England ceased to offer encouragement to producers of the fiber.