English colonial empire

English colonial empire

The English colonial empire consisted of a variety of overseas territories colonized, conquered, or otherwise acquired by the former Kingdom of England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries.

The first English overseas settlements were established in Ireland, quickly followed by North America and the West Indies and by trading posts called "factories" in the East Indies, such as Bantam, and in the Indian subcontinent,beginning with Surat. In 1639 a series of English fortresses on the Indian coast was initiated with Fort St George. In 1661, the marriage of King Charles II to Catherine of Braganza brought him as part of her dowry new possessions which had been Portuguese, including Tangier in North Africa and Bombay in India.

In North America, Virginia and Newfoundland were the first centres of English colonization. As the 17th century wore on, Maine, New Hampshire, Salem, Massachusetts Bay, New Scotland, Connecticut, Maryland, and Rhode Island and Providence, were settled. In 1664 New Netherland and New Sweden were taken from the Dutch, becoming New York, New Jersey, and parts of Delaware and Pennsylvania.

In 1707, when England was united with Scotland to form the new state of Great Britain, the English colonies became the foundation of the British Empire.



A replica of Cabot's ship, the Matthew

The Voyages of Christopher Columbus began in 1492, and he sighted land in the West Indies on 12 October that year. In 1496, excited by the successes in overseas exploration of the Spanish and the Portuguese, King Henry VII of England commissioned John Cabot to lead a voyage to find a route from the Atlantic to the Spice Islands of Asia, subsequently known as the search for the North West Passage. Cabot sailed in 1497, successfully making landfall on the coast of Newfoundland. There, he believed he had reached Asia and made no attempt to found a permanent colony.[1] He led another voyage to the Americas the following year, but nothing was heard of him or his ships again.[2]

The Protestant Reformation had made enemies of England and Spain, and in 1562 Elizabeth sanctioned the privateers Hawkins and Drake to attack Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of West Africa.[3] Later, as the Anglo-Spanish Wars intensified, Elizabeth approved further raids against Spanish ports in the Americas and against shipping returning to Europe with treasure from the New World.[4] Meanwhile, the influential writers Richard Hakluyt and John Dee were beginning to press for the establishment of England's own overseas empire. Spain was well established in the Americas, while Portugal had built up a network of trading posts and fortresses on the coasts of Africa, Brazil, and China, and the French had already begun to settle the Saint Lawrence River, which later became New France.[5]

The first English overseas colonies

The first serious attempts to establish English colonies overseas were made in the last quarter of the 16th century, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.[6] Soon there was an explosion of English colonial activity, driven by men seeking new land, by the pursuit of trade, and by the search for religious freedom. At first, the destination of most English people making a new life overseas was in the West Indies rather than in North America.

Early claims

Financed by the Muscovy Company, Martin Frobisher set sail on 7 June 1576 from Blackwall, London, seeking the North West Passage. In August 1576 he landed at Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island and this was marked by the first Church of England service recorded on North American soil. Frobisher returned to Frobisher Bay in 1577, solemnly taking possession of the south side of it in Queen Elizabeth's name. In a third voyage, in 1578, he reached the shores of Greenland and also made an unsuccessful attempt at founding a settlement in Frobisher Bay.[7][8] While on the coast of Greenland, he also claimed that for England.[9]

At the same time, between 1577 and 1580, Sir Francis Drake was circumnavigating the globe. He claimed Elizabeth Island off Cape Horn for his queen, and on 24 August 1578 claimed another Elizabeth Island, in the Straits of Magellan.[10] In 1579 he landed somewhere on the western coast of North America, claiming the area for Elizabeth as "New Albion". However, these claims were not followed up by settlements.[11]

In 1578, while Drake was away on his circumnavigation, Queen Elizabeth granted a patent for overseas exploration to his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert, and that year Gilbert sailed for the West Indies to engage in piracy and to establish a colony in North America. However, the expedition was abandoned before the Atlantic had been crossed. In 1583, Gilbert sailed to Newfoundland, where in a formal ceremony he took possession of the harbour of St John's together with all land within two hundred leagues to the north and south of it, although he left no settlers behind him. He did not survive the return journey to England.[12][13]

The first overseas settlements

Re-enactment of English settlers arriving in Virginia, 1607

On 25 March 1584, Queen Elizabeth I (the "Virgin Queen") granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter for the colonization of an area of North America which was to be called, in her honour, Virginia. This charter specified that Raleigh had seven years in which to establish a settlement, or else lose his right to do so. Raleigh and Elizabeth intended that the venture should provide riches from the New World and a base from which to send privateers on raids against the treasure fleets of Spain. Raleigh himself never visited North America, although he led expeditions in 1595 and 1617 to the Orinoco River basin in South America in search of the golden city of El Dorado. Instead, he sent others to found the Roanoke Colony, later known as the "Lost Colony".[14]

On 31 December 1600, Elizabeth gave a charter to the East India Company, under the name "The Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies".[15] The Company established trading posts, which in later centuries evolved into British India, on the coasts of what is now India and Bangladesh.

Most of the new English colonies established in North America and the West Indies, whether successfully or otherwise, were proprietary colonies with Proprietors, appointed to found and govern settlements under mercantile charters granted to joint stock companies. Early examples of these are the Virginia Company, which created the first successful English overseas settlement at Jamestown in 1607, and the Newfoundland Company which settled Cuper's Cove near St. John's, Newfoundland in 1510. Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts Bay were also charter colonies.

Between 1640 and 1660, the West Indies were the destination of over two-thirds of English emigrants to the New World. By 1650, there were 44,000 English people in the Caribbean, compared to 12,000 on the Chesapeake and 23,000 in New England.[citation needed] The most substantial English settlement in that period was at Barbados

In 1660, King Charles II established the Royal African Company, essentially a trading company dealing in slaves, led by his brother James, Duke of York. In 1661 Charles's marriage to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza brought him the ports of Tangier in Africa and Bombay in India as part of her dowry. Tangier proved very expensive to hold and was abandoned in 1684.[16]

After the Dutch surrender of Fort Amsterdam to English control in 1664, England took over the Dutch colony of New Netherland, including New Amsterdam. Formalized in 1667, this contributed to the Second Anglo–Dutch War. In 1664 New Netherland was renamed the Province of New York. At the same time, the English also came to control the former New Sweden, in the present-day US State of Delaware, which had also been a Dutch possession and later became part of Pennsylvania. In 1673, the Dutch regained New Netherland, but they gave it up again under the Treaty of Westminster of 1674.

Council of Trade and Foreign Plantations

In 1621, following a downturn in overseas trade which had created financial problems for the Exchequer, King James instructed his Privy Council to establish an ad hoc committee of inquiry to look into the causes of the decline. This was called The Lords of the Committee of the Privy Council appointed for the consideration of all matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations. Intended to be a temporary creation, the committee, later called a 'Council', became the origin of the Board of Trade which has had an almost continuous existence since 1621. The Committee quickly took a hand in promoting the more profitable enterprises of the English possessions, and in particular the production of tobacco and sugar.[17]

List of English possessions in North America

Captain John Smith, 'Admiral of New England'
Plaque at St John's marking Sir Humphrey Gilbert's landing there in 1583

List of English possessions in the West Indies

Statue of Sir George Somers, in Bermuda
  • Bermuda, discovered in 1505 by Juan de Bermúdez, who claimed it for the Spanish, but the island was settled for England in 1609 by Sir George Somers (1554–1610). Its first capital, St George's, was established in 1612 and claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited English-speaking town in the Americas.
  • Barbados, settled by England about 1622, was the third major English settlement in the Americas, after Jamestown and the Plymouth Colony.
  • Saint Kitts, settled by the English in 1623, followed by the French in 1625. The English and French united to massacre the local Kalinago, preempting a Kalinago plan to massacre the Europeans, and then partitioned the island, with the English in the middle and the French at either end. In 1629 a Spanish force seized St Kitts, but the English settlement was rebuilt following the peace between England and Spain in 1630. The island then alternated between English and French control during the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • Nevis, settled 1628
  • Providencia Island, settled by the Providence Island Company in 1629 and captured by Spain in 1641.
  • Montserrat, settled 1632
  • Antigua, settled in 1632 by a group of English colonists from Saint Kitts
  • The Bahamas were mostly deserted from 1513 to 1648, when the Eleutheran Adventurers left Bermuda to settle on the island of Eleuthera.
  • Anguilla, first colonised by English settlers from St Kitts in 1650; the French gained the island in 1666, but under the Treaty of Breda of 1667 it was returned to England
  • Jamaica, formerly a Spanish possession known as Santiago, it was conquered by the English in 1655.
  • Barbuda, first settled by the Spanish and French, was colonized by the English in 1666.
  • The Cayman Islands were visited by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, who named them. They were largely uninhabited until the 17th century, when they were informally settled by pirates, refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, shipwrecked sailors, and deserters from Oliver Cromwell's army in Jamaica. England gained control of the islands, together with Jamaica, under the Treaty of Madrid of 1670.

List of English possessions in India and the East Indies

Fort St George, Madras, the first English fortress in India
  • Bantam: The English started to sail to the East Indies about the year 1600 and in 1603 established a permanent "factory" at Bantam on the island of Java. At first the factory was headed by a Chief Factor, from 1617 by a President, from 1630 by Agents and from 1634 to 1652 by Presidents again. The factory then declined.
  • Surat: The East India Company's traders settled at Surat in 1608, followed by the Dutch in 1617. Surat was the first headquarters town of the East India Company, but in 1687 it transferred its command centre to Bombay.
  • Machilipatnam: a trading factory was established here on the Coromandel Coast of India in 1611, at first reporting to Bantam.[24]
  • Run, a spice island in the East Indies. On 25 December 1616, Nathaniel Courthope landed on Run to defend it against the claims of the Dutch East India Company and the inhabitants accepted James I as sovereign of the island. After four years of siege by the Dutch and the death of Courthope in 1620, the English left. According to the Treaty of Westminster of 1654, Run should have been returned to England, but was not. After the Second Anglo-Dutch War, England and the United Provinces agreed to the status quo, under which the English kept Manhattan, which the Duke of York had occupied in 1664, while in return Run was formally abandoned to the Dutch. In 1665 the English traders were expelled.
  • Fort St George, at Madras (Chennai), was the first English fortress in India, founded in 1639. George Town was the accompanying civilian settlement.
  • Bombay: On 11 May 1661, the marriage treaty of King Charles II and Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal, transferred Bombay into the possession of England, as part of Catherine's dowry.[25] However, the Portuguese kept several neighbouring islands. Between 1665 and 1666, the English acquired Mahim, Sion, Dharavi, and Wadala.[26] These islands were leased to the East India Company in 1668. The population quickly rose from 10,000 in 1661, to 60,000 in 1675.[27] In 1687, the East India Company transferred its headquarters from Surat to Bombay, and the city eventually became the headquarters of the Bombay Presidency.[28]
  • Bencoolen was an East India Company pepper-trading centre with a garrison on the coast of the island of Sumatra, established in 1685.
  • Calcutta on the Hooghly River in Bengal was settled by the East India Company in 1690.

English possessions in Central and South America

  • Elizabeth Island off Cape Horn, and another Elizabeth Island in the Straits of Magellan, were claimed for England by Sir Francis Drake in August 1578.[10] However, no settlements were made and it is no longer possible to identify the islands with certainty.
  • Guiana: an attempt in 1604 to establish a colony failed in its main objective to find gold and lasted only two years.[29]
  • Mosquito Coast: the Providence Island Company occupied a small part of this area in the 17th century.

English possessions in Africa

A map of James Island and Fort Gambia.

Transformation into British Empire

The Treaty of Union of 1706, which with effect from 1707 combined England and Scotland into a new sovereign state called Great Britain, provided for the subjects of the new state to "have full freedom and intercourse of trade and navigation to and from any port or place within the said united kingdom and the Dominions and Plantations thereunto belonging". While the Treaty of Union also provided for the winding up of the Scottish African and Indian Company, it made no such provision for the English companies or colonies. In effect, with the Union they became British colonies.[30]

See also


  1. ^ Kenneth Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire, 1480–1630 (Cambridge University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-521-27698-5) p. 45
  2. ^ Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of America's Empire (Penguin, 2004, p. 4
  3. ^ Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: the History of the Atlantic Slave Trade (Picador, 1997), pp. 155–158
  4. ^ Ferguson (2004), p. 7
  5. ^ Trevor Owen Lloyd, The British Empire 1558–1995 (Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-19-873134-5), pp. 4–8.
  6. ^ Nicholas Canny, The Origins of Empire, The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. I (Oxford University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-19-924676-9), p. 35
  7. ^ The Nunavut Voyages of Martin Frobisher at web site of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, accessed 5 August 2011
  8. ^ Sir Martin Frobisher, biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, accessed 5 August 2011
  9. ^ James McDermott, Martin Frobisher: Elizabethan privateer (Yale University Press, 2001, ISBN 0300083807) p. 190
  10. ^ a b Francis Drake, The World encompassed by Sir Francis Drake (1854 edition by the Hakluyt Society, p. 75
  11. ^ John Sugden, Sir Francis Drake (Barrie & Jenkins, 1990, ISBN 0712620389), p. 118
  12. ^ Andrews (1984), pp. 188-189
  13. ^ 'GILBERT (Gylberte, Jilbert), SIR HUMPHREY', in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, (University of Toronto, 2005) web page: DC-HGilbert
  14. ^ David B. Quinn, Set fair for Roanoke: voyages and colonies, 1584–1606 (1985).
  15. ^ The register of letters, &c: of the governour and company of merchants of London trading into the East Indies, 1600–1619 (B. Quaritch, 1893), p. 3.
  16. ^ a b John Wreglesworth, Tangier: England's Forgotten Colony (1661-1684), p. 6
  17. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica: a new survey of universal knowledge (Volume 10, 1963), p. 583
  18. ^ Nicholas Canny, The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume I, 2001, ISBN 0-19-924676-9.
  19. ^ "Early Settlement Schemes". Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project. Memorial University of Newfoundland. 1998. http://www.heritage.nf.ca/exploration/early.html. Retrieved 2010-01-09. 
  20. ^ Paul O'Neill, The Oldest City: The Story of St. John's, Newfoundland, 2003, ISBN 0-9730271-2-6.
  21. ^ "William Vaughan and New Cambriol". Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project. Memorial University of Newfoundland. http://www.heritage.nf.ca/exploration/cambriol.html. Retrieved 2010-01-09. 
  22. ^ Permanent Settlement at Avalon, Colony of Avalon Foundation, Revised March 2002, accessed 6 August 2011
  23. ^ John Andrew Doyle, English Colonies in America: The Puritan colonies (1889) chapter 8, p. 220
  24. ^ N. S. Ramaswami, Fort St. George, Madras (Madras, 1980; Tamilnadu State Department of Archaeology, No. 49)
  25. ^ "Catherine of Bragança (1638–1705)". BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A2998461. Retrieved 5 November 2008. 
  26. ^ The Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island 1978, p. 54
  27. ^ M. D. David, History of Bombay, 1661–1708 (1973) p. 410
  28. ^ F. L. Carsten, The New Cambridge Modern History V (The ascendancy of France 1648–88) (Cambridge University Press, 1961, ISBN 9780521045445), p. 427
  29. ^ Canny, p. 71
  30. ^ Treaty of Union of the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England at scotshistoryonline.co.uk, accessed 2 August 2011

Further reading

  • Adams, James Truslow, The Founding of New England (1921), to 1690
  • Andrews, Charles M., The Colonial Period of American History (4 vols. 1934-38), the standard political overview to 1700
  • Andrews, Charles M., Colonial Self-Government, 1652-1689 (1904) full text online
  • Bayly, C. A. ed., Atlas of the British Empire (1989), survey by scholars, heavily illustrated
  • Black, Jeremy, The British Seaborne Empire (2004)
  • Coelho, Philip R. P. "The Profitability of Imperialism: The British Experience in the West Indies 1768-1772," Explorations in Economic History, July 1973, Vol. 10 Issue 3, pp 253–280
  • Dalziel, Nigel, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the British Empire (2006), 144 pp
  • Doyle, John Andrew, English Colonies in America: Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas (1882) online edition
  • Doyle, John Andrew, English Colonies in America: The Puritan colonies (1889) online edition
  • Doyle, John Andrew, The English in America: The colonies under the House of Hanover (1907) online edition
  • Ferguson, Niall, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (2002)
  • Fishkin, Rebecca Love, English Colonies in America (2008)
  • Foley, Arthur, The Early English Colonies (Sadler Phillips, 2010)
  • Gipson, Lawrence. The British Empire Before the American Revolution (15 vol 1936-70), comprehensive scholarly overview
    • Morris, Richard B. "The Spacious Empire of Lawrence Henry Gipson," William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 24, No. 2 (Apr., 1967), pp. 169-189 in JSTOR
  • Green, William A. "Caribbean Historiography, 1600-1900: The Recent Tide," Journal of Interdisciplinary History Vol. 7, No. 3 (Winter, 1977), pp. 509-530 in JSTOR
  • Greene, Jack P. Peripheries & Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Polities of the British Empire & the United States, 1607-1788 (1986), 274pp
  • James, Lawrence, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (1997)
  • Jernegan, Marcus Wilson, The American Colonies, 1492-1750 (1959)
  • Koot, Christian J. Empire at the Periphery: British Colonists, Anglo-Dutch Trade, and the Development of the British Atlantic, 1621-1713 (2011)
  • Knorr, Klaus E., British Colonial Theories 1570–1850 (1944)
  • Louis, William, Roger (general editor), The Oxford History of the British Empire, 5 vols (1998–99), vol. 1 "The Origins of Empire" ed. Nicholas Canny (1998)
  • McDermott, James, Martin Frobisher: Elizabethan privateer (Yale University Press, 2001)
  • Marshall, P. J., ed., The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire (1996)
  • O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. Empire Divided: The American Revolution & the British Caribbean (2000) 357pp
  • Parker, Lewis K., English Colonies in the Americas (2003)
  • Quinn, David B., Set Fair for Roanoke: voyages and colonies, 1584-1606 (1985)
  • Rose, J. Holland, A. P. Newton and E. A. Benians, gen. eds., The Cambridge History of the British Empire, 9 vols (1929–61); vol 1: "The Old Empire from the Beginnings to 1783" (online edition)
  • Sheridan, Richard B. "The Plantation Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, 1625-1775," Caribbean Studies Vol. 9, No. 3 (Oct., 1969), pp. 5-25 in JSTOR
  • Sitwell, Sidney Mary, Growth of the English Colonies (new ed. 2010)
  • Thomas, Robert Paul. "The Sugar Colonies of the Old Empire: Profit or Loss for Great Britain," Economic History Review, April 1968, Vol. 21 Issue 1, pp 30-45

Primary sources

  • Nathaniel Crouch, The English Empire in America: or a Prospect of His Majesties Dominions in the West-Indies (London, 1685)

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