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English Colonization

English Colonization

From the 18th century onward, the British Empire became one:

on which the sun never sets.”1

This phrase describes the sheer vastness of its colonial possessions around the world, including North America, India, the Caribbean, Africa, and beyond. These possessions had different administrative statuses, such as colonies, dominions, and protectorates. In the 20th century, most colonies gained independence, but some retained the symbolic connection to Britain as part of its Commonwealth of Nations. In this way, the British monarch is still considered the Canadian head of state despite Canadian independence.

English Colonization, Fig. 1 - Robert Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, by Francis Hayman, ca. 1760, StudySmarter.

Fig. 1 - Robert Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, by Francis Hayman, ca. 1760, shows the events leading to the expansion of the British East India Company into South Asia.

English Colonization: Summary

English colonization occurred during the Age of Discovery and Conquest, which began in the late 15th century. England and other European powers, including Spain, Portugal, France, and the Netherlands established colonial settlements outside the Old World. Their motivations ranged from missionary work and the acquisition of resources to control of land and maritime trade routes and scientific inquiry. Britain turned out to be the most successful of all colonial powers in the long run and its Empire—the vastest.

Reasons for English Colonization in the New World

England generally shared its reasons for colonizing the New World with other European powers.

Political Reasons for English Colonization

The British crown sought to establish colonies abroad in order to extract financial benefits from them ranging from trade arrangements to access to raw materials. The king was also motivated by the prestige that colonial acquisition would bring.

The Difference between Spanish and English Colonization

There were many similarities and differences between Spanish and English colonization.

SimilaritiesDifferences
  • Search for new territories to settle
  • Control over trade and trade routes
  • Slavery
  • Access and acquisition of raw materials
  • Exploration and scientific discovery
  • Claiming territories for the crown
  • The Catholic Church was more aggressively engaged in missionary pursuits among the indigenous populations than the English. In part, this was because the Catholic Church was more unified and powerful. In contrast, there were many Protestant denominations, some of which fled the Church of England as religious refugees themselves (for example, the Pilgrims and the Quackers).
  • The Spanish colonists directly served their country's monarchy. In contrast, Britain used different administrative structures for its colonies, some of which enjoyed relative autonomy.

English Colonies

English colonization began in the 16th century. A hundred years later, the settlements stretched from the east coast of North America to Barbados in the Caribbean along with initiating trade in India. Britain used different methods for colonization. These methods included encouraging commercial ventures such as:

  • the Virginia Company of London
  • Hudson’s Bay Company
  • East India Company

to develop trade, settlements, and even govern through charters granted by the crown.

Some colonies participated in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

  • In North America, southern colonies like Georgia relied on labor by the enslaved in plantation farming. In the British Caribbean, slavery became a central component of the region’s economy farming sugarcane. Up to a quarter of all enslaved people from the African continent sent to the New World ended up in the West Indies, specifically. Ultimately, the institution of slavery in the British colonies came to an end in 1833. In comparison, the French also used labor by the enslaved in the Caribbean and North America. However, enslaved individuals in Quebec were a symbol of social status rather than being used for farm labor.

English Colonization, Fig. 2 - A Linen Market with a Linen-stall and Vegetable Seller in the West Indies, Agostino Brunias, 1780, StudySmarter.

Fig. 2 - A Linen Market with a Linen-stall and Vegetable Seller in the West Indies, Agostino Brunias, 1780.

The relationships with the Indigenous people of each region were complex and, at times, prone to conflict.

For instance, the Virginia settlement began on reasonably peaceful terms with the local Indigenous population. However, territorial disputes led to the Massacre of 1622 (Jamestown Massacre) in which hundreds of settlers were killed.

In the north, the Indigenous tribes and the settlers both in New France and the English colonies engaged in the fur trade. On other occasions, different Indigenous tribes allied with the colonists in military conflicts.

Such was the case with the French and Indian War (1754-1763), in which the British received support from the Iroquois, whereas the French were aided by the Algonquin.

English Colonization of America

By the early 1600s, the English began settling in present-day Virginia with the help of the Virginia Company of London. They established Jamestown (1606-1607)—the original permanent English settlement in the area. Initially, the crown used different types of administrations, such as:

As time went on, however, Britain began to centralize power and converted most of the settlements to royal colonies. They have also organized geographically:

  • New England
  • Middle, and
  • Southern Colonies

By the middle of the 18th century, there were Thirteen Colonies in total, which formed the United States after the American Revolution (1776):

  • Virginia (1607)
  • Connecticut (1636)
  • Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1636)
  • New Hampshire (1638)
  • New York (1664)
  • Massachusetts Bay (1620)
  • New Jersey (1664)
  • Pennsylvania (1681)
  • Colony (1664)
  • Maryland (1632)
  • North Carolina (1663)
  • South Carolina (1663)
  • Georgia (1732)

English Colonization, Thirteen Colonies in 1774, Mcconnell Map Co., 1919, StudySmarter.

Fig. 3 - Thirteen Colonies in 1774, Mcconnell Map Co., 1919.

The colonies were populated by a diverse group of people: English settlers, post-Reformation-era religious refugees—from the English Puritans to the German-speaking Anabaptists—as well as African slaves and various Indigenous tribes.

Britain participated in several wars in the 18th century, such as the French and Indian War in North America and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) in Europe. As a result, the crown incurred war debts. The crown’s solution was to progressively tax its North American colonies through such measures as the Currency Act (1764) and the Stamp Act (1765). Taxation without representation in the British Parliament was one of the contributing factors to the growing dissent in the American colonies. This unrest led to the declaration of American independence from Britain.

"Taxation without representation" refers to the fact that the American colonists paid taxes to the British crown but had no voice in Britain's Parliament. This issue was one of the catalysts for the American Revolution.

In present-day Canada up north, Britain used the Hudson’s Bay Company to dominate the lucrative fur trade in the region. Starting from the early 1600s, the French settled this area and established New France centered around the city of Quebec. However, Britain maintained a near-monopoly in this industry. As a result of a drawn-out colonial conflict between France and Britain, the latter gradually acquired the former French colonies east of the Mississippi River through the Treaty of Paris (1763). The British crown was now in charge of the 60,000 French most of whom lived in what became Canada in 1867.

Central and South America

English colonization of Central America focused on such areas as present-day Belize. Initially gaining access to this part of the world through the Treaty of Versailles (1783) from Spain, the British turned this territory into a crown colony in 1840 calling it British Honduras. However, conflicts between Spain and Britain continued until the end of the 18th century. Belize only became independent from Britain in the late 20th century.

Did you know?

The ongoing land claims of the Indigenous people, the Maya, go back to the time of British colonialism.

The Rest of the World

While colonizing the Americas, Britain also made inroads into the rest of the world. The British East India Company controlled up to half of the world’s trade by the middle of the 18th century. Its strategy involved colonizing and extracting resources from parts of Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent and later—Hong Kong.

By the mid-to-late 17th century, English colonies already existed in the Caribbean as well. These colonies included Jamaica and Barbados and were used to produce sugar along with cacao and indigo.

  • In Africa, Britain acquired Sierra Leone in 1787. However, the Europeans already used this region for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In 1821, Sierra Leone became part of British West Africa also comprising present-day Nigeria, Ghana, and The Gambia. At the same time, British-led Boers and British accessed present-day South Africa in 1806.

English Colonization of Ireland

Some historians trace the beginning of the English colonization of Ireland to the Medieval period.

For example, in 1167, the Normans made their way into Ireland from England.

Overall, however, the English only occupied small parts of Ireland until the late 15th century. It was the Tudors that began to solidify their hold politically, legally, and militarily. Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell oversaw the lordship of Ireland.

Did you know?

The first English chief governor of Ireland was Sir Edward Poynings starting in 1494.

Other historians argue that the true colonization of Ireland began with the Cromwellian War (1649–1653). Oliver Cromwell's invasion of Ireland was accompanied by the murder of civilians and the suppression of Catholicism. Ultimately, Catholicism was banned, and English settlers appropriated Catholic-owned land. However, it was not until 1801 that the Act of Union joined England, Ireland, and Scotland as the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

English Colonization, Map of Ireland (1653) after Catholic lands were confiscated, 1870, StudySmarter.

Fig. 4 - Map of Ireland (1653) after Catholic lands were confiscated, 1870.

Colonial Rivalry

The colonial rivalry was part and parcel of imperialist expansion into the New World. Europe’s great powers competed for favorable access to maritime and land trade routes, land for settlements, and the rich resources of their colonial conquests.

  • In North America, France was Britain's greatest competitor
  • Britain's greatest maritime rival was the Netherlands

Sometimes colonial competition translated into military conflicts such as:

  • The French and Indian War (1754-1763)
  • The four Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th-18th centuries

Ultimately, Britain was successful in these conflicts. Starting from the 18th century, it became the largest empire in the world.

English Colonization - Key Takeaways

  • English colonial expansion began in the 16th century. In the 18th century, the British Empire was the largest formation of its kind in the world.
  • At one time or another, England controlled parts of the Americas, Africa, South Asia, and beyond. Its interests included trade and maritime routes, territorial expansion, access to raw materials, exploration, slavery, and glory.
  • Compared to other colonial powers, some of the British settlements in North America, the Thirteen Colonies, enjoyed relative autonomy.

References

  1. The popularization of the phrase is sometimes attributed to the 19th-century Scottish author John Wilson. See: John Wilson, “Noctes Ambrosianae No. 42,” Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine XXV (cli) (April 1829): p. 527.
  2. Fig. 3 - Thirteen Colonies in 1774, Mcconnell Map Co, and James McConnell. McConnell's Historical maps of the United States. [Chicago, Ill.: McConnell Map Co, 1919] Map. (https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3701sm.gct00482/?sp=15) digitized by the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division), published before 1922 U.S. copyright protection.

Frequently Asked Questions about English Colonization

The British ruled America between 1607 and 1783from settling in Virginia to the end of the American Revolutionary War.

English colonization lasted between 1607 and 1783 in the present-day United States. However, British-ruled Canada gained statehood in 1867.

England colonized America by establishing settlements (the Thirteen Colonies), protecting them militarily, and engaging in trade through large companies, such as the Hudson's Bay and the Virginia Company.

The first permanent English settlement in America was Jamestown, Virginia (1606-1607). They continued to colonize America into the 18th century.

The British colonized America for several reasons, including resources, territorial expansion, and control of trade routes.

Final English Colonization Quiz

Question

Which European power became the Empire “on which the sun never sets” from the 18th century onward?

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Answer

Britain

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Question

What company established Jamestown in North America?

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Answer

Virginia Company of London

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Question

Which country was Britain’s greatest rival in North America in the 17-18th centuries?

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Answer

France

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Question

TRUE OR FALSE: Britain colonized West Africa.

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Answer

True

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Question

Which country was Britain’s greatest maritime rival in the 17th-18th centuries?

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Answer

The Netherlands

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Question

What is the association of former British colonies called today?

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Answer

The Commonwealth of Nations

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Question

Why was the Treaty of Paris (1763) important?

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Answer

The Treaty of Paris (1763) effectively marked the end of New France in North America and established the British monopoly on the continent.

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Question

INSERT THE RIGHT WORD: ____ dominated the fur trade in North America.

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Answer

Hudson’s Bay Company

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Question

When did Britain abolish slavery?

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Answer

1833

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Question

Which was the final of the Thirteen Colonies to be established by Britain?

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Answer

Georgia

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Question

How did England colonize Ireland in the 17th century?

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Answer

England pushed out Catholics from their lands in Ireland, appropriated it, and banned Catholicism. This tactic combined imperialism and religious intolerance. 

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