From the Mayflower to Massachusetts Bay: Colonial America V

06 September 2019

Empire and Globalism | History

This blog contains temporary free access to the shipping return pictured below. Click the images to view this document for free until 6th October 2019.

On September 6th, 1620, a group of pilgrims left Plymouth aboard a ship called the Mayflower, bound for a new life in what was then the British colonies of America. Almost 400 years on from one of the most well-known events from America’s colonial beginnings, it feels fitting that, here at Adam Matthew, work on our long-running Colonial America resource has finally reached its conclusion with the publication of Module V: Growth, Trade and Development. In a project spanning five modules and at least as many years, we have digitised the entire corpus of CO/5 documents from The National Archives, covering the history of Colonial America from its founding until the American Revolution and the first few decades of independence.

Among the new additions Growth, Trade and Development brings to Colonial America is a new document type: shipping returns. Usually collated by colony, these records list every outgoing and incoming trading vessel at certain ports, along with their cargoes and their point of origin or destination. Details on the ships themselves are also recorded: their tonnage, their owners, where they were built, their masters and their place of registration. In short, these documents contain everything you ever wanted to know about colonial-era shipping (but were afraid to ask).

Inspired by the voyage of the Mayflower, which led to the establishment of the Plymouth Colony, I was drawn to CO 5/850, a compilation of shipping returns for Massachusetts from 1762 to 1766. While the Plymouth Colony was subsumed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691, an echo of it survives in the name of the town of Plymouth – which, thanks to HTR technology, we can find mentioned 13 times across the document:

Image © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Looking more closely at the document, one gains a sense of how important shipping was to 18th-century Massachusetts, and the range of goods that changed hands at its ports: from relatively exotic luxuries – spices and cocoa – to the comparatively mundane but vital everyday products – barrels of pork and mutton, tableware and furniture. The shipping returns reveal a trade network focusing on internal trade within the American colonies and the Caribbean, but with frequent connections to London, Ireland and Lisbon.

Image © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Needless to say, in an age when smuggling was rife, colonial shipping returns are not quite the comprehensive, self-contained databases they appear to be, and must be carefully interpreted alongside other sources. Nevertheless, they do provide a wealth of clear and accessible statistical information and represent a wonderful resource for anyone researching trade into and out of Colonial America.

For more information on Colonial America V: Growth, Trade and Development, including free trial access and price enquiries, please e-mail us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions which have purchased a licence.

About the Author

Jade Bailey

Jade Bailey

I joined Adam Matthew's Editorial team in January 2017 and have since had the opportunity to work on projects including Trade Catalogues and the American Home, Colonial America and Service Newspapers of World War II. My academic background is in medieval manuscripts, French literature and the history of language.

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