Sugar Act Explained — Section 33

April 5, 1764

Section 33 of the Sugar Act of 1764 explains the guidelines for the seizure and confiscation of foreign ships by British authorities.

Sugar Act, 1764, Date, Taxes, Reaction, Grenville Acts, AHC

George Grenville, Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, was responsible for the Sugar Act of 1764, starting the movement in the 13 Colonies against Taxation Without Representation.

Understanding the Sugar Act of 1764

This entry is part of a series that explains the Sugar Act of 1764, including, rules, regulations, and penalties. To learn more, see History of the Sugar Act and Facts About the Sugar Act. Vocabulary, key people, and primary documents related to the Sugar Act are listed at the bottom of this article.

Section 33 — Seizure of Foreign Ships

XXXIII. And whereas by an act of parliament, made in the ninth year of the reign of his late majesty King George the Second, intituled, An act for indemnifying persons who have been guilty of offences against the laws made for securing the revenue of customs and excise, and for enforcing those laws for the future, and by other acts of parliament since made, which are now in force, in order to prevent the clandestine landing of goods in this kingdom from vessels which hover upon the coasts thereof, several goods and vessels, in those laws particularly mentioned and described, are declared to be forfeited, if such vessels are found at anchor, or hovering within two leagues of the shore of this kingdom, without being compelled thereto by necessity or distress of weather; which laws have been found very beneficial to the publick revenue: and whereas, if some provision of that sort was extended to his Majesty’s American dominions, it may be a means of preventing an illicit trade therewith, and tend to enforce an act made in the twelfth year of the reign of King Charles the Second, intituled, An act for the encouraging and increasing of shipping and navigation, and another act made in the seventh and eighth years of the reign of King William the Third, intituled, An act for preventing frauds, and regulating abuses in the plantation trade, so far as those laws do prohibit any goods or commodities to be imported into or exported out of any British colony or plantation in America, in any foreign ship or vessel; to which end therefore, be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, That from and after the twenty ninth day of September, one thousand seven hundred and sixty four, if any foreign ship or vessel whatsoever shall be found at anchor, or hovering within two leagues of the shore of any land, island, plantation, colony, territory, or place, which shall or may be in the possession or under the dominion of his Majesty, his heirs or successors, in America, and shall not depart from the coast, and proceed upon her voyage to some foreign port or place, within forty eight hours after the master or other person taking the charge of such ship or vessel shall be required so to do by any officer of his Majesty’s customs, unless in case of unavoidable necessity and distress of weather, such ship or vessel, with all the goods therein laden, shall be forfeited and lost, whether bulk shall have been broken or not; and shall and may be seized and prosecuted by any officer of his Majesty’s customs, in such manner and form as herein after is expressed.


Section 33 of the Sugar Act of 1764 explains additional measures and regulations to prevent smuggling in the American Colonies. It reinforces the authority of customs officers and the importance of legal trade routes, as defined in the Navigation Acts. The key points are:

  1. Historical Context — Refers to previous laws that help prevent smuggling by penalizing vessels hovering near the British coast without valid reasons.
  2. Extension to American Colonies — Similar measures are extended to British American colonies to prevent illegal trade.
  3. Effective Date — Starting on September 29, 1764.
  4. Foreign Vessels — If any foreign ship is found anchored or hovering within two leagues (approximately six nautical miles) of the shore of any British American territory.
  5. Requirement to Depart — The ship must leave the coast and continue its journey to a foreign port within 48 hours after being ordered to do so by a customs officer.
  6. Exception — The only exceptions are cases of unavoidable necessity or bad weather.
  7. Penalty for Non-Compliance — If the ship does not comply, it and all goods on board will be forfeited, regardless of whether the cargo has been touched or not.
  8. Seizure and Prosecution — Customs officers are authorized to seize and prosecute these ships and their cargoes according to the procedures outlined later in the act.


The Sugar Act put an elaborate system in place that was intended to verify and track each shipment of goods to the American Colonies. The system ended Salutary Neglect by enforcing the Navigation Acts and supported Mercantilism in the colonies. The system also included:

  • Documentation — The Sugar Act introduced an elaborate system of bonds and cockets to accurately document the cargo of vessels and ports of call. This system was meant to make it more difficult for merchants to engage in smuggling by providing a detailed paper trail that customs officials could use to verify the legality of goods being traded.
  • Naval Enforcement — Naval officers were instructed to assist in collecting customs duties and patrolling American waters smugglers. This was intended to establish ongoing enforcement of the Sugar Act, however, many officers abused their authority. This contributed to the Gaspee Affair (1772).
  • Admiralty Courts — Accusations of violating the Sugar Act were to be prosecuted in the Admiralty Courts. These courts did not use juries, and the judges had full authority. Parliament considered these courts more reliable than common law courts and would ensure strict enforcement of the law. However, the financial incentives provided to judges by the Sugar Act increased the likelihood they would seize cargo regardless of the evidence.
  • Customs Officer Accountability — The Sugar Act required British Customs Officers to perform their duties in person or forfeit their jobs. Before this, Customs Officers usually lived in England and hired someone in the American Colonies to perform the duties of the position. Requiring Customs Officers to live in the Colonies was intended to reduce corruption and increase effectiveness. However, customs officers were given immunity from counter-suits by merchants, encouraging them to enforce the regulations without fear of legal repercussions.
  • Colonial Governor Reporting — Colonial Governors were required to report on smuggling. They were also required to swear an oath that they would enforce the Sugar Act.


These terms and definitions provide more context for students studying the Sugar Act. For more on the Sugar Act as it relates to the AP US History curriculum, see Sugar ACT APUSH Review.

  • Anchor — To moor a ship to the sea bottom with an anchor.
  • Authority — The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.
  • Bulk — The main mass or body of a cargo.
  • Clandestine — Done in secret, often to deceive.
  • Clandestine Landing — Secretly unloading goods to avoid customs regulations.
  • Customs — The government agency responsible for regulating the import and export of goods and collecting duties.
  • Depart — To leave, especially to start a journey.
  • Dominion — Control or sovereignty over a territory.
  • Forfeit — To lose or be deprived of something as a penalty for wrongdoing.
  • Foreign Vessel — A ship registered in a country other than Great Britain.
  • Goods — Items or products for sale or trade.
  • Hovering — Remaining in one place in the air or on the water, often suspiciously.
  • Illicit Trade — Illegal trade, especially smuggling.
  • Indemnifying — Compensating for harm or loss.
  • Necessity — An unavoidable need or requirement.
  • Officer — A person holding a position of authority, especially in law enforcement or customs.
  • Penalties — Punishments or sanctions for breaking a law or rule.
  • Possession — Ownership or control over something.
  • Proceed — To continue or begin a course of action.
  • Prosecute — To conduct legal proceedings against someone.
  • Required — Mandated by law or rule.
  • Seized — Taken possession of by force or legal authority.
  • Ship — A vessel used for transporting goods across water.
  • Shore — The land along the edge of a sea, lake, or other large body of water.
  • Smuggling — The illegal movement of goods into or out of a country.
  • Vessel — A ship or large boat.
  • Weather — The atmospheric conditions at a particular place and time.

Key People

  • Samuel Adams — Adams helped lead opposition to the Sugar Act in Massachusetts. Went on to become a leader of the Boston Sons of Liberty and one of the most influential men behind the movement for independence.
  • George Grenville — Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Responsible for the design of the Sugar Act and introducing it to Parliament.
  • Stephen Hopkins — Governor of Rhode Island. Critic of the Sugar Act and its impact on the Rhode Island economy and colonial rights.
  • James Otis — Early advocate of the rights of Americans as British subjects. Argued against Writs of Assistance (1761) in the Paxton Case.

Primary Documents

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Sugar Act Explained — Section 33
  • Date April 5, 1764
  • Author
  • Keywords Sugar Act, What did Section 33 of the Sugar Act do
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update June 14, 2024