Legalized Smuggling: Nova Scotia and American Grain Merchants, 1807-1814

by Patrick Callaway

The slow development of agriculture in Nova Scotia in the wake of the American Revolution created a conundrum for provincial and imperial officials.  The need for provisions linked the colony closer to the American states than was the case prior to the revolution.  With local producers unable or unwilling to meet the demand for grain caused a political problem: the material need for American grain in a political environment designed to eliminate American trade.[1]  Dependency produced a formulaic response: A shortage of grain required imports, which willing American merchants (with the support of an eager American government) supplied combined with acquiescence by provincial officials allowed continuing trade out of necessity for the next 20 years.


George Prevost, by Jean-Baptiste Roy-Audy (1778 – c. 1848).

The Leopard-Chesapeake incident and subsequent American embargo changed the calculation.  American authorities, however, could not enforce the law despite deploying military force.[2]  Lt. Governor George Prevost openly encouraged embargo violations by opening Nova Scotia’s ports to trade, which authorities in London deemed “judicious and well timed.”  Prevost’s declaration as it amounts to a de facto abandonment of the Navigation Acts in this case in order to facilitate the flow of provisions into the colony, transforming a reluctant British acquiescence into open encouragement and official American enthusiasm for trade into a crime.

The end of the embargo in 1809 allowed for a resumption of legal trade. The outbreak of war in June 1812 presented another challenge.  Licensed trade persisted, and functioned similar to that issued to Edward Perkins in July 1812.  The license allowed Perkins to “import and bring into the port of Halifax … in any ship or vessel a cargo of flour, meal corn, or provisions of any kind.”[3]  By October, Lt. Governor Sherbrooke reported to London “this province has of late been supplied with flour and other articles of provisions imported from the United States under licenses signed by me….”[4]  War created an odd persistence- merchants on both sides remained willing, while British authorities encouraged trade and American officials (especially in New England) were ambivalent.


The USS Chesapeake, by F. Muller.

The saga of the brig Dispatch in January 1813 outlines the practical difficulties of licensed trade.  Two American merchants named Plasket and Clarke sailed Dispatch into Halifax with a provisions license. In the cargo were a few candles “which was done by them solely with a view of concealing from the custom house officers in Massachusetts the real place of the brig’s destination.”[5]  The illicit candles were seized, but after investigation Sherbrooke ruled, “the candles were embarked by the adventurers solely with a view to deceive their own government” and therefore should be returned.[6]  Confusion on permissible and impermissible licensed trade was epidemic- customs officers in Nova Scotia did not have official instructions as late as August 1813.  The collector in Halifax reported to Sherbrooke “the probability is that they were lost in the May or June mails.”[7]

February 1814 finds another customs case involving an American merchant.  Frederick Starling entered Halifax with a cargo of flour, salt meat, staves, and a few prohibited articles intended for export to St. Bartholomews.  The ship was wreaked; upon salvage, the cargo was seized.  Starling begged for the restoration of the property and Sherbrooke ruled that the contraband portion of the cargo was onboard due to Starling’s goal to “conceal from the American government the next destination of the said vessel,” all property seized by the customs service should be restored.[8]  Sherbrooke’s intervention on behalf of American merchants on two occasions in conflicts with British customs authorities speaks to the importance of maintaining these trading relationships even at this later stage of the war.

The calculus between trade and war changed in 1814. A short-lived American embargo made illegal all exports in early 1814.  By July 1814, demand for American provisions collapsed due to supplies from Europe, breaking the connection between willing merchants and consumers.  From July 1 through September 30 1814, only four intrepid American merchant vessels carrying grain entered Halifax.[9]  The end of the war restored the traditional connection. Sherbrooke’ s proclamation of March 4, 1815- little after two months after the end of the war- illustrates the continuity of the US-Nova Scotian grain trade. The proclamation permitted importation of a number of goods including bread, flour, wheat, biscuit, and livestock into the colony from the United States for a period of three months.[10]  A letter from Lord Bathurst approving this measure arrived in May.[11]

The extraordinary efforts designed to protect and encourage the grain trade despite the rapidly changing political landscape speaks both to the enduring tie of commerce but also to the surprisingly malleable nature of provincial and imperial commercial regulations.  The interest in supporting trade goes beyond structural matters.  As the cases of Plasket and Clarke in 1813 and Frederick Starling in 1814 demonstrates, the necessity of grain imports provoked the direct intervention of officials into commerce- even to the extent of intervening on the behalf of American smugglers in their cases against British customs officials.

Patrick Callaway is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Maine. 


[1] Graeme Wynn, “Late Eighteenth-Century Agriculture on the Bay of Fundy Marshlands,” Acadiensis, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring 1979), 80-89, 89

[2] See Joshua Smith, Borderland Smuggling:  Patriots, Loyalists, and Illicit trade in the Northeast, 1783-1820.  (Gainesville:  University Press of Florida, 2006), Donald Hickey, “Trade Restrictions During the War of 1812” in The Journal of American History, Vol. 68, No. 3 (December 1981), 517-538, American State Papers:  Finance 2, Herbert Heaton, “Non-Importation, 1806-1812” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 1, No. 2 (November 1941), 178-198. See Thomas Jefferson, “The Embargo Laws”  (Boston:  Cushing, 1807), American State Papers, Naval Affairs, I, Statutes of the United States, 10th Congress, 2nd Session, “An Act to Enforce and Make More Effectual an Act Laying an Embargo” (Washington, 1809).

[3] Sherbrooke to Edward Perkins, July 22, 1812.  Provincial Archives of Nova Scotia (PANS), roll 15331.

[4] Sherbrooke to Liverpool, October 7, 1812.  PANS, roll 13874.

[5] Sherbrooke to Liverpool, January 28, 1813.  PANS, roll 13874.

[6] Sherbrooke to Liverpool, January 28, 1813.  PANS, roll 13874.

[7] Sherbrooke to Liverpool, August 13, 1813. PANS, roll 13874.

[8] Sherbrooke to Frederick Starling, February 18, 1814.  PANS, roll 13875.

[9] Halifax Naval Office Records, July-September 1814.  PANS, roll 13969.

[10] Sherbrooke, “A Proclamation” March 4, 1815.  PANS, roll 15876.

[11] Bathurst to Sherbrooke, May 6, 1815. PANS, roll 15241.







Prevost’s Proclamation on Trade, June 1808.  Image credit:  Provincial Archives of Nova Scotia











Account of American Imports, December 1813.  Image credit:  Provincial Archives of Nova Scotia


About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at
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