The First British Empire
‘By 1615 the British Isles had been an economically unremarkable, politically fractious and strategically second-class entity. Two hundred years later Great Britain had acquired the largest empire the world had ever seen, encompassing forty-three colonies in five continents. … They had robbed the Spaniards, copied the Dutch, beaten the French and plundered the Indians. Now they ruled supreme.’This is the historian Niall Ferguson's take on the situation of Britain in 1815. But the road to this position of power was often a bumpy ride accompanied with defeats as well as victories. The period of what is known as the 'first British Empire' begins modestly in the 17th century and ends with defeat in America in 1783. The 'second British Empire' was forged in the wars with France between 1793 and 1815.
Go here for an excellent overview of the history of the British Empire.
In the European race for empire, the English were late beginners. It was only in 1655 that it acquired Jamaica. This was 150 years after
Elizabeth's astrologer, John Dee seems to have been the first to write about a ‘
In the second half of the 18th century the term ‘British Empire’ acquired its now accepted meaning: a collection of territories and peoples ruled by
‘Regions Caesar never knew/Thy posterity shall sway’.The term ‘British’ was a recognition of the role the Scots played in the Empire. The 'plantation of Ulster was a common ‘British’ venture. In the later 17th century enclaves of Scots and Irish settlers established themselves in predominantly English colonies in North America or the
Imperialism was a means of defending the Revolution Settlement by building a strong navy and by creating satellites that gave Britain a measure of independence from powerful European neighbours. Most of those who used the term saw it in extremely belligerent terms: it was an empire that rested on commerce and naval power over Britain’s rivals (France, Spain, the Netherlands). Colonial and trade wars were popular, land wars on the continent not. Pride in Britain’s maritime prowess and hatred of foreigners formed an important element in the British people’s sense of national identity.
Maritime wars became wars of expansion, especially in the thought of Pitt the Elder, even though territorial empire was not the explicit objective of such wars.
The Empire before 1756
The British experience of colonization in America was to be very different from that of the Spaniards and Portuguese. The majority of Spanish and Portuguese colonists were single men, who took sexual partners from the indigenous or slave populations. The result within a few generations was a substantial mixed-race population of mestizos and mulattos. British settlers brought their wives and children and preserved their culture more or less intact. John Rolf's marriage to Pocahontas did not set a precedent.
In 1497 Henry VII had sponsored John Cabot’s voyage and discovery of Newfoundland. In 1583 Newfoundland became the first English possession in the New World though Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s formal act of possession made little difference to the fishermen who were already spending half the year there.
The two original nuclei of colonization further south were the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland and the New England colonies.
In 1606 the Virginia Company was founded at Jamestown under John Smith. His discovery in 1612 that tobacco could be grown in the Chesapeake Bay area led to an influx of settlers ready to brave the harsh conditions.
On 9 November 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Cape Cod on the shores of what Smith had christened New England. Not all were religious zealots in search of heaven on earth; for many the motive was ‘not God but cod' (Ferguson). The Massachusetts Bay Company was founded in 1629. You can see how the life of the Pilgrims is renacted today if you visit Plimouth, Massachusetts.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was founded in 1670 to trade in furs.
English settlement was achieved at the expense of the Native Americans. By 1700 their numbers had reduced from over half a million in 1500 to less than half that number in 1700. The near disappearance of the original proprietors meant that the land belonged to the king and the Stuart monarchs were very ready to grant land to favoured courtiers. In 1632 Charles I granted Maryland to the heirs of Lord Baltimore, Charles II gave New Amsterdam (renamed New York) to his brother James and Pennsylvania to William Penn. A grant from Charles II in 1663 created the Carolina settlement. By the beginning of the 18th century the population of English North America was about 265,000. The most important early 18th century colony was Georgia, founded by James Oglethorpe as a refuge for debtors.
The majority of British emigrants in the 17th century went not to North America but to the Caribbean. The first English West Indian settlements had been established early in the 17th century on Barbados and the Leeward Islands. Jamaica was conquered in 1655. Of the total population of some 145,000 at the beginning of the 18th century three quarters were black slaves largely employed in sugar cultivation.
(We will be returning to the Caribbean when we study the slave trade.)
In December 1600 Elizabeth gave a 15 year monopoly to the ‘Company of Merchants in London trading in the East Indies’ and in 1613 the Company established itself at Surat in north west India. But in 1602 the Dutch had established their own East India Company at Chinsura north of Calcutta. The inevitable tensions were among the causes of the three Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century. The Glorious Revolution can be seen in business terms as an ‘Anglo-Dutch merger’, which introduced the British to a number of crucial financial institutions that the Dutch had founded. It enabled the English to trade more freely in the East – Indonesia and the spice trade went to the Dutch, leaving the English to develop the newer Indian textiles trade. The textile trade proved enormously profitable, enabling the East India Company to outstrip its Dutch rival. Even before the Glorious Revolution, this had involved a relocation of trading bases. As Surat was gradually wound down Fort St George (Madras) was founded in 1639. Bombay was acquired in 1662 as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry. In 1690 the fort at Sutanuti on the Hugli was amalgamated with two other villages to form Calcutta.
The East India Company was a commercial monopoly. It was also a parasite on the periphery of the Mughal Empire, where power was centred on the Red Fort in Delhi. In 1700 the population of India was twenty times that of the United Kingdom and it has been estimated that India’s share of total world output was 24% (to Britain’s 3%). It was only with the Emperor’s permission that the EIC was allowed to trade at all. But by the 1740s the Empire was in decline. There were repeated invasions from the north and the provincial deputies (the nawabs) were carving out kingdoms for themselves. In order to protect themselves, the EIC began to raise its own regiments, equipping them with European weapons and subordinating them to English officers. The Company was beginning to acquire the characteristics of a state.