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. The 1580s saw the first attempt at permanent English settlements in North America, a generation before the Plantation of Ulster. 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. In the 17th century, the destination of most English people making a new life overseas was in the West Indies rather than in North America.
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.
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".
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". The Company soon established its first trading post in the East Indies, at Bantam on the island of Java, and others, beginning with Surat, on the coasts of what is now India and Bangladesh.
Bermuda, today the oldest-remaining British Overseas Territory, was settled and claimed by England as a result of the shipwreck there in 1609 of the Virginia Company's flagship Sea Venture. The town of St George's, founded in Bermuda in 1612, remains the oldest continuously-inhabited English settlement in the New World. Some historians state that with its formation predating the conversion of "James Fort" into "Jamestown" in 1619, St George's was actually the first successful town the English established in the New World. Bermuda and Bermudians have played important, sometimes pivotal, roles in the shaping of the English and British trans-Atlantic empires. These include roles in maritime commerce, settlement of the continent and of the West Indies, and the projection of naval power via the colony's privateers, among others.
Between 1640 and 1660, the West Indies were the destination of more than 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. The most substantial English settlement in that period was at Barbados.
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.
Roanoke Colony, in present-day North Carolina, was first founded in 1586 but was abandoned the next year. In 1587 a second attempt was made at establishing a settlement, but the colonists disappeared, leading to the name 'Lost Colony.' One of those lost was Virginia Dare.
Henricus, also called Henricopolis, Henrico Town, and Henrico, was founded by the London Virginia Company in 1611 as an alternative to the swampy Jamestown, but it was largely destroyed in the Indian massacre of 1622.
Barbados, first visited by an English ship, the Olive Blossom, in 1605, was not settled by England until 1625, soon becoming the third major English settlement in the Americas after Jamestown, Virginia, and the Plymouth Colony.
Saint Kitts was settled by the English in 1623, followed by the French in 1625. The English and French united to massacre the local Kalinago, pre-empting 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.
List of 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. 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.
Bantam: The English started to sail to the East Indies about the year 1600, which was the date of the foundation in the City of London of the East India Company ("the Governour and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies") and in 1602 a permanent "factory" was established 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.
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.
Gibraltar: In 1704, Gibraltar was captured for England by an Anglo-Dutch fleet, becoming the country's first European overseas possession since the sale of Dunkirk to France in 1662. The Naval operation was commanded by George Rooke. Gibraltar later became a strategic naval base for the Royal Navy and was officially ceded to Great Britain in 1713.
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.
List of English possessions which are still British Overseas Territories
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