Imperial England and the New World
Imperial England and the New World
Religious Struggles. While Portugal and Spain claimed Roman Catholicism as the one true faith, the English, like the French, engaged in a bitter national debate over state religion and religious toleration. Moreover, the rulers of Europe regarded the Tudor family that ruled England for much of the fifteenth century as uncouth pretenders to the throne. Henry VIII, however, made the Tudors’ mark on the international scene when in 1534 he broke away from the Pope and initiated the English Reformation. The issue of the official faith, however, was far from settled because Mary Queen of Scots, wife of Philip II of Spain, reigned between 1553 and 1558 and restored Catholicism as the established church of England. Upon the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558, the Crown reestablished Protestantism, and the Queen entered into a protracted war with King Philip of Spain. After the defeat of his armada in 1588, Elizabeth I assumed the mantle of protector of Protestantism, and she looked to the New World as a battleground where the forces of her faith could do battle with those of the Pope and of Spain.
The Voyage of John Cabot. Following on the heels of Christopher Columbus’s three voyages to the New World, the English decided to get involved in the Age of Discovery in order to find a quick route to the Spice Islands. In 1497 the Venetian seaman John Cabot sailed the Mathew due west in search of the “Northwest Passage” to Asia. He reached Newfoundland, saw snares and fishing nets on the island’s shore, and was struck by the abundance of cod, but he did not find a shortcut to Asia.
The Northeast. A long period of inactivity followed Cabot’s voyage. Sebastian Cabot, his son, scouted the icy Arctic Sea, and John Rut returned to explore Newfoundland in 1527, but their findings stirred little interest at home. Not until 1576 did the English regain their interest in the New World, when Martin Frobisher set out to find the Northwest Passage. Like Cabot he failed in his original goal, but he returned with samples of shiny gold rocks that English geologists declared to be gold. After a second fruitless search for the passage, he brought back more of the golden mineral, which was on a second test deemed to be iron pyrite, or “fool’s gold.” Investment in subsequent voyages plummeted, but the Crown grew interested in building colonies to provide markets for England’s burgeoning industrial economy and a home for the country’s booming population. Sir Humphrey Gilbert led the first of the new colonizing expeditions, and
he offered tracts of land in North America, sight unseen. He claimed Newfoundland for England in 1583, but his ship disappeared shortly thereafter, and nothing came of the speculative enterprise.
The Southeast. Having read in several published volumes about the Spanish and the French search for a passage to Asia, the English figured that the elusive route must lay somewhere between the Florida peninsula and the St. Lawrence River. According to leading English geographers the Chesapeake Bay marked the way to the Orient as well as to the legendary land of Chicora. In 1584 Queen Elizabeth granted Sir Walter Raleigh, Humphrey Gilbert’s half brother, title to any lands he might claim in the region “not actually possessed of any Christian prince, nor inhabited by Christian people.” Within a month Raleigh sent Arthur Barlowe to explore the coast and to select a site for a colony. After two months Barlowe reached the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina and reported to Raleigh that the land was “the most plentifull, sweete, fruitful and wholsome of all the world.” In addition to his glowing reports he brought back to England two Indians, Manteo and Wanchese.
Paul E. Hoffman, A New Andalucia and a Way to the Orient: The American Southeast during the Sixteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990);
Donald W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 1: Atlantic America, 1492–1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).