Empire in the Americas, British

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Empire in the Americas, British

The English Empire created in the Americas can rightly be referred to as the first British empire. More than a century before British power was consolidated in India, Australasia, and Africa, colonies were settled throughout the Western hemisphere, contributing toward a mercantalist system that propelled Britain's economic status to the forefront of the world.


Though England would come to be a dominant imperial power by the mid-eighteenth century, in the sixteenth century it lagged significantly behind Spain, Portugal, and France in seeing the potential that overseas colonies offered. While Spain was building colonies in Asia and conquering the Aztecs and Incas, Portugal was settling on the coasts of Brazil and Africa and establishing trading posts in the Indian Ocean and China Sea. The French, meanwhile, were making their first attempts to settle in North America. During this period of activity, the English were nowhere to be seen.

John Cabot's (1450–1499) voyage in the service of Henry VII (1457–1509), to Labrador in 1497 was not the start of regular transatlantic ventures by the English. The failure to find the Northwest Passage and the generally inhospitable climate of the high Arctic led to a waning of interest in London. Domestic distractions such as the Reformation meant that English attention did not return to overseas exploration until the accession of Elizabeth I (1533–1603) in 1558.

England's North American colonies
1606The London company was granted a charter for Virginia
The Plymouth company was granted a charter
1624Virginia was made a royal colony
1629The Governor and Company of Massachusetts Bay was granted a charter
1631The Earl of Warwick was granted a charter for the Connecticut River Valley
1632Calvert was granted a charter for Maryland
1636Roger Williams settled at Providence
1662Connecticut received a charter
1663Eight proprietors were granted a charter for Carolina
1664The Duke of York was granted a charter to the former New Netherland, now New York
1667The proprietors of Carolina were granted a charter for the Bahamas
1680New Hampshire was separated from Massachusetts by a royal charter
1681Penn was granted a charter for Pennsylvania
1691Massachusetts Bay was granted a new charter
1702New Jersey united as a crown colony
1733James Oglethrope and associates granted a charter to Georgia

From the mid-1560s onward, English sailors and adventurers rapidly improved their knowledge of the Atlantic World as they raided Spanish treasure ships that were returning from the silver and gold mines of Latin America. The first serious colonization attempt took place in 1585 at Roanoke Island in modern day North Carolina. It was conceived originally as a privateer base from which to attack Spanish ships; only secondarily was it to have an economic purpose of its own. The ultimate failure of the Roanoke colony, however, was stark evidence of England's inability to sustain an overseas venture with its mainland being under threat from the Spanish Armada.

After the accession of James I (1566–1625) in 1603 brought peace with Spain the following year, English merchants turned once again to the idea of an American colony. The Virginia Company was formed in 1606 by two groups of merchants, adventurers, and nobles based in London and Plymouth. The charter they received from James I allowed them to settle almost anywhere on the eastern seaboard of North America, though the London Company's first settlement was directed toward the Chesapeake Bay—a safe, deep water anchorage first discovered by the English in 1586. At the same time that the English were returning to colonizing efforts in the Americas, the Dutch were also mounting a significant challenge to the Iberian monopoly in the New World. In the 1620s the Dutch occupied a large part of northeastern Brazil, and their experiments with sugar production would eventually influence the development of the English sugar islands in the Caribbean.

The first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia was plagued by weak leadership, terrible mortality rates, and poor relations with local Powhatans. It only survived by continuous migration from England of young men intent on making their fortune. The economic salvation of the colony turned out to be tobacco, not the wines, fruits, and silks fancifully imagined as being the main export commodities by initial propagandists.

The vast profits to be made from tobacco accelerated the migration of ordinary farmers, laborers, and traders from England. But the society they created was land-hungry, often violent, and temporary because many desired to return home once their fortune had been made. Even with more women migrating to the Chesapeake after 1618, Virginia remained heavily dependent on immigration for most of the seventeenth century.

New England was the site of the other major early seventeenth-century settlement on the North American mainland. English migrants came to the region to escape religious persecution in England. The Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth in 1620 had spent the previous twelve years living in Holland hoping it would prove to be the safe haven they desired. The Puritans who established Boston in 1630 also wanted to worship freely and, in addition, prove to the world that a truly religious society could be a Christian utopia.

In contrast to the young men who settled in the Chesapeake, most migrants to New England traveled in family groups and helped reestablish old-world traditional communities in America. The highly regulated and moralistic societies formed in New England did not meet with universal support. Some migrants hoped for economic opportunities in New England rather than religious ones, and Puritans often were intolerant of other religious groups such as Baptists and Quakers.

Ultimately the close-knit communities of the earliest settlers gave way to more diverse settlements because Puritan authorities were unable to prevent continued immigration from non religious people. Over time the religious utopia began to fall apart. The children of original settlers did not defend religious orthodoxy as rigorously as their parents had done, and gradually became more interested in commerce and trade.

Away from the mainland, Bermuda had been included as part of the Virginia Company's territory in 1612. Soon after, the English became established at St. Kitts (1623), Barbados (1625), and Nevis (1628). These tiny islands attracted vast numbers of migrants. By the mid-seventeenth century they were home to more than half of the English people in the Americas. The migrants were attracted by a tropical climate that the Spanish and Dutch already demonstrated was able to support tobacco, coffee, and sugar—highly marketable commodities in England. In terms of their contribution toward the English economy, the West Indies were far more valuable than the mainland colonies in the seventeenth century.


By the middle of the seventeenth century the American colonies were becoming more important to the geopolitical situation as England struggled to establish itself among competing colonial powers. Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) pursued an aggressive colonial policy between the death of Charles I in 1649 and the accession of Charles II in 1660, envisaging a Protestant alliance with the Dutch to strip Spain of its Caribbean possessions. This "Grand Design" would have weakened Spain and Catholicism, while bringing wealth, resources, and prestige to the Protestant nations. However, the only lasting success of Cromwell's "Grand Design" was the conquest of Jamaica in 1655. The restored Charles II (1630–1685) continued imperial expansion with the conquest of New York in 1664, and the granting of proprietorial charters for the settlement of the Carolinas and Pennsylvania. By the time of Charles II's death in 1685, English control extended from Maine to Charles-Town, South Carolina.

The second half of the seventeenth century was witness to the introduction of the first imperial economic policies through the Navigation Acts, which limited what, and with whom, the colonies could trade. This period of imperial consolidation came to an end with James II's (1633–1701) attempt to create the Dominion of New England in the 1680s. The Glorious Revolution (1688) that overthrew James II in England led to the reestablishment of the individual colonial governments in America, though many of these were now crown colonies and subject to a greater degree of control from London than had been the case before 1680.

The accession of William of Orange (1650–1702) as William III drew England into a succession of European wars against the French that often spilled over into the colonies. During the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714), the British successfully attacked Acadia, renaming it Nova Scotia, and were able to fend off a Spanish attack on the new colony of Georgia in 1742 with relative ease.

The last great imperial war fought in America was the French and Indian War (1754–1763), which began in the Ohio valley and would determine whether the French settlements in Canada and Louisiana would link up to prevent the westward expansion of English colonies. Despite initial setbacks, British victories at the Plains of Abraham in 1759 and Montreal in 1760 effectively destroyed French Canada. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 saw that all of North America west of the Mississippi was ceded to Britain as well as Grenada, Tobago, and St. Vincent.

While the British were slowly consolidating control over the mainland, their colonies also had been developing and growing. Increased migration from Scotland, Ireland, and mainland Europe altered the ethnic makeup of the colonies, making them less English and more cosmopolitan. The continued development of the tobacco plantation system in Virginia, and its adoption in South Carolina for the growing of rice and indigo, encouraged a shift toward enslaved African labor.

The same type of shift toward enslaved labor occurred a century before in the West Indies, resulting in overwhelming black populations that were held in bondage by brutally repressive regimes. On the mainland, white majorities were predominant except in South Carolina, which, of all the mainland colonies, most closely resembled the Caribbean in terms of its social and economic structure. Plantation staples such as rice, sugar, indigo, and tobacco made an immense contribution toward the British economy, and made some planters fantastically rich. Non-plantation economies contributed timber, furs, and grain to a thriving imperial commerce.


The empire reached its zenith in 1763. Britain's navy ruled the Atlantic, its colonies were contributing to national prosperity, and, with the French defeated, there was no reason to think that this could not be maintained. However, the addition of a massive area of land in Canada and Trans-Appalachia created new problems. The new land was administered in London, and had turned the Board of Trade from a body that did exactly what its name said—regulate trade—into a colonial government.

At the same time, the debts incurred fighting the French and Indian War needed to be repaid, and British ministers felt Americans should contribute toward the costs of a war that had benefited them so much. Both of these developments were regarded with suspicion by most of the mainland colonies. Attempts to tax them without their consent were seen to be absolutist measures that violated the traditional rights of Englishmen, whereas the governmental structures put in place for Quebec in 1774—with no representative assembly and safeguards for the French Catholics who remained there—were thought to be blueprints for the future government of all colonies.

The thirteen colonies that broke away in 1776 to form the United States were not always a distinct area and certainly not a united, coherent whole. While the most recent colonial additions of west and east Florida, along with Quebec, remained loyal to the British Crown, and the oldest settlements of Virginia and Massachusetts led the struggle for independence, Nova Scotia would not join in any rebellion and there was no guarantee that Georgia, for instance, would participate in one either. Loyalist sentiment in Georgia was stronger than in many other colonies. It was the only rebel colony to have British civil government restored following the British invasion in 1778.

However, Charles Cornwallis's (1738–1805) surrender at Yorktown severely weakened Britain's willingness to continue the war, and the Peace of Paris in 1783 saw the independence of the thirteen colonies recognized as the United States, with Florida returning to Spain, but Canada remaining in British hands.


The loss of the thirteen colonies wounded British imperial pride, but the consequences were not as bad as they might have been. The West Indies were economically more important to Britain than mainland America. They remained loyal largely because their white populations were small, they retained close cultural and familial ties to Britain, and because they relied on British military protection from France.

After 1783 many of the economic ties between Britain and its former colonies were re-established. American merchants and planters knew the British market was still the best one for their goods, and it was easier to trade with familiar contacts who spoke the same language than form new trading networks with Europeans.

British imperial ambitions gradually shifted east in the late eighteenth century with the consolidation of power in India through the passing of the East India Act in 1784, the settlement of Australia in 1788, and the first takeover of the Cape Colony in 1795. Lingering interest in expansion in the Americas remained also. Trinidad was added to the empire in 1793, as was Guyana in 1796, and the Falkland Islands in 1833, but following the abolition of slavery throughout the empire in the 1830s, the Caribbean islands became far less important to Britain than they had been in their eighteenth-century heyday. Canada, however, remained an important part of the empire, and it would become the first colony to be granted self-government in 1867.

see also African Slavery in the Americas; Colonization and Companies; Empire in the Americas, French; Empire in the Americas, Spanish.


Dunn, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713. New York: Norton, 1973.

Lenman, Bruce P. Britain's Colonial Wars, 1688–1783. London: Longman, 2001.

McFarlane, Anthony. The British in the Americas, 1480–1815. London: Longman, 1992.

Speck, W.A., Mary Greiter. Colonial America: From Jamestown to Yorktown. London: Palgrave, 2002.