Overview of English Exploration

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Overview of English Exploration


Until the mid-sixteenth century Spain and Portugal were the two main European seapowers; the English had little interest in overseas exploration. Yet, by the end of the seventeenth century, England had become a powerful presence on the seas with a sphere of influence that had expanded to include settlements in North America, the West Indies, and India. While individual motives for exploration were mixed, the main impetus was economic—the search for riches. The English were not interested in discovery for its own sake, but sought the opportunities for trade that were opened up by new markets and new routes to existing markets. Accordingly, English merchants, not the British crown, were the driving force behind many of England's overseas ventures. English exploration, however, was also shaped by political considerations and was often proposed and supported under the guise of religious motives.


European demand for goods from the East spurred the first voyages of discovery. Imports of silk from China, cotton cloth from India, and "spices," which referred to dyes and perfumes as well as condiments such as pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, and ginger, were highly prized. Europe had been trading with the East for these items since medieval times, but the trade had been conducted through the merchants of the Ottoman Empire. European merchants wanted to improve their profits by eliminating the middlemen and trading directly with the Orient. Portugal found a route to the Indian Ocean by sailing around Africa that enabled them to trade directly with the East; Spain's attempt to reach Asia from the West resulted instead in the their dominance of Central and South America.

English merchants and explorers sought their own sea routes to Asia via the northeast and the northwest. The first of these set sail In 1497, when John Cabot (c. 1450-c. 1500) set out to discover a Northwest Passage, similar to Christopher Columbus's quest a few years earlier. He reached Newfoundland, but believed that he had arrived in northeast Asia. (His mistake was soon corrected.) England's interest in exploration waned during the rule of Henry VIII (1491-1547), and resumed in earnest during the 1550s, thanks, ironically, to Spanish support.Philip II of Spain (1527-1598), husband of England's Queen Mary I (1516-1558), arranged for Stephen Borough (1525-1584) to be trained in Atlantic navigation at the Spanish maritime academy at Seville, and he taught his newly acquired skills to other English sailors.

Because English exploration focused on the north, they contributed greatly to Europe's emerging knowledge of world geography. Although they didn't reach the Orient, English westward forays established trade interests and settlements in the West Indies and along the east coast of North America in the early seventeenth century. English merchants remained interested in Asia, as well. In 1600 the English East India Company was formed as Portuguese dominance of Asian trade began to decline. After the Dutch won the struggle for the East Indies and their spices, the English shifted their focus to China and India. Their presence on the subcontinent allowed them to increase their presence in India when the ruling Mughal Empire began to collapse in 1707.

Profit was not the only motive for exploration. Religious goals—particularly the desire to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity—often prompted those who planned or advocated voyages. English explorers and adventurers, however, were generally more interested in trading with the people they encountered than in converting them. Following England's religious reformation in the sixteenth century, the desire to export Protestantism through overseas exploration was mainly a consequence of rivalry with Catholic Spain and Portugal.

Still another motive for exploration and expansion was an emerging sense of national pride and interest. In particular, Francis Drake's (c. 1540-1596) circumnavigation of the globe (1577-1580) fueled English confidence in the quest for mastery of the seas both to the East and the West. Influential individuals, notably John Dee (1527-1609) and Richard Hakluyt (c. 1552-1616), began to envision a vast sea-based empire as the nation's destiny. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 further reinforced England's sense of national pride in seafaring.

English voyages of exploration were strongly influenced by the crown's diplomatic policies toward other European powers, and those policies increasingly recognized the importance of trade. The prevailing economic philosophy of the era, called mercantilism, encouraged this. According to this doctrine, the world's store of wealth (such as precious metals) was finite and measurable; the expansion of one nation's trade volume was thought invariably to diminish that of other nations. Therefore, power and trade were inextricably linked, with nations jealously guarding their own trade routes and bases while trying to encroach upon or diminish those of others.

This was particularly evident in England's Atlantic ventures. When the crown wanted to appease Spain, exploration through Spanish territory was curtailed. After relations with Spain deteriorated, however, territorial claims were ignored: English buccaneers, such as Francis Drake, preyed on Spanish ships and seized their cargo in a literal trade war. These raiders also helped to pave the way for English colonization of the West Indies in the 1620s by undermining Spanish control of the region.


English overseas ventures had a significant economic effect. During this period, merchants organized and financed voyages. The crown granted them licenses to explore and trade, and benefited by taxing the profits. By the latter half of the sixteenth century, however, voyages became too complex for one individual or even a small group to finance. To obtain the necessary resources a new type of organization emerged: the joint-stock company, which allowed many investors to pool their resources. The first of these ventures was formed in 1553, when a group of merchants funded an expedition to search for a Northeast Passage to China. Although one of the group's two ships was lost, the other managed to reach Russia, and set up trade with Moscow. Two years later the group formed the Muscovy Company, and was given sole rights to trade with Russia.

At the beginning of this period England's manufacture and export of woolen cloth to Europe dominated the economy, and foreign merchants controlled much of England's trade. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, England increasingly exploited the new resources made available by exploration, particularly tobacco and sugar.

First cultivated in the Caribbean in the sixteenth century, tobacco farming in Virginia began in 1612. The crop was produced and exported back to England in such quantities that by the mid-seventeenth century it became significantly cheaper. What had formerly been expensive indulgence of the wealthy became a widespread habit.

The development of sugar production followed a similar route. Following its introduction to Barbados around 1640, sugar grown on British plantations in the West Indies quickly became the dominant crop. British colonials, many of them loyalists fleeing the civil war in England, bought large tracts of land and established huge sugar farms. So many workers were needed to man the growing plantations that a slave society was soon in place, vastly outnumbering the whites who owned and worked them. This transition to a slave- and sugar-based economy is known as the sugar revolution.

English merchants, investors, and colonists reaped the benefits of England's tobacco and sugar trade, importing them from North America and the West Indies, and selling them to the rest of Europe. The government benefited from customs duties on this trade, and the overseas settlements themselves were a growing market for goods produced in England.

Exploration and subsequent colonization also enabled religious dissidents to emigrate and establish settlements where they could live and worship according to their beliefs. New England was settled by Protestants in the early seventeenth century, and Maryland welcomed many persecuted Catholics and other Christians after its charter was granted in 1632. While emigration for religious freedom was not a new concept, previous dissidents had gone to other parts of Europe. By establishing themselves in North America they were able to retain their English culture while achieving a measure of self-governance. This relative independence made England's colonies unique; other European powers preferred to retain much more direct control over their colonies.

English colonization and the introduction of new crops took place alongside a wider process now termed the Columbian exchange, the exchange of plants, animals, microbes, and people between Europe and the Americas. The process transformed the diets, economies, and cultures of both continents. One especially devastating effect of this exchange, unfortunately, was the ravaging of America's indigenous populations by new diseases, particularly smallpox.

While England's overseas ventures need to be seen in the context of European discovery as a whole, its specific contribution was in northern exploration, part of a commercial enterprise to reach the wealthy markets of the Orient. Although these voyages failed to discover a passage to the East, the English focused instead on new opportunities for trade and colonization in the Americas. In addition, their unsuccessful bid to gain control of the spice trade in the East in the seventeenth century resulted in their entry into India instead. Ironically, these "failures" enabled England to emerge as a major European seapower by the end of this period.


Further Reading

Andrews, Kenneth R. Trade, Plunder and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire 1480-1630. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Crosby, Alfred W. Jr. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972.

James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. London: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.

Lloyd, T.O. The British Empire 1558-1995. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Scammell, G.V. The First Imperial Age: European Overseas Expansion c.1400-1715. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

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