The mercantilists were sixteenth and seventeenth-century economic theorists and practitioners who believed that international trade was by and large a zero-sum game in which one nation profited at the expense of the other. This was accomplished through economic exploitation of weaker, but usually resource-rich, nations. Whereas international free trade agreements today are generally negotiated with the intent of benefiting both parties to the agreement, mercantilism was strictly a one-sided affair favoring the larger, militarily stronger state.
The intellectual father of mercantilism was a French finance official named Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a supporter of the French Crown who was concerned about the balance of power among European powers. His economic policy was oriented toward the exploitation of foreign markets while protecting France from foreign imports that would lower the price of domestically produced goods. Mercantilism was, therefore, a protectionist approach to trade that placed financial barriers in the way of foreign imports through the imposition of tariffs, or taxes on imported goods that raise their cost to domestic consumers. Adam Smith would later, in The Wealth of Nations, denounce mercantilism as a source of international conflict that negated sound economic theory by ignoring the benefits of mutually beneficial trade arrangements, such as the potential for nations to maximize efficiency in the production of certain goods.
If mercantilism was protectionist, however, it was also exceedingly rapacious, with exploitation of natural resources in weaker nations a central objective of economic policy. Gold and silver in particular were prized for their contribution to a nation’s power, but these precious metals had to be imported from Africa and other colonized territories. In this sense, mercantilism was even more one-sided and exploitative, in that it reaped the resources of the weak for the benefit of the strong while ensuring that the weak remained weak and the strong grew stronger.
While the intellectual father of mercantilism was French, the most noteworthy practitioners of mercantilism were the British. The British Empire represented the greatest single manifestation of mercantilist practices intended to grow the wealth of itself while limiting opportunities for weaker nations—nations usually colonized and controlled for the sole benefit of Britain. The British fleet controlled many maritime trade routes, albeit with competition from France and Spain, and the protection of those trade routes was a high priority. Britain passed the Navigation Act of 1651 for the purpose of ensuring control of key trade routes while protecting against foreign imports otherwise arriving via ship.
Mercantilism was an essential component of the imperialism that dominated European foreign policies for centuries. The pursuit of colonies for both wealth and prestige resulted in incalculable long-term damage to the conquered.