Desktop version

Home arrow History

English colonies

Poor and distracted by local conflicts, the best the English could do to get into the exploration game was to send out a stand-in. A captain the English called John Cabot (1497) (even though he was really an Italian named Giovanni Caboto) sailed along the coast of what's now Canada. (Such

national stand-ins were not unusual: Columbus was an Italian sailing for Spain. Magellan, also representing Spain, was actually Portuguese.) The Cabot exploration received funding from British businessmen eager to make a profit trading with the Spice Islands. When Cabot didn't come back from his second voyage, England decided to delay any further excursions for a while.

Spain and Portugal had a 100-year head start in colonizing Mexico and South America, but in the 1500s, not a lot was happening in the area that would eventually become the U.S. The Spanish sent out major expeditions led by Ponce de Leon, Francisco Coronado, and Hernando de Soto, but did not find gold or silver. Then, at almost the same time and still without finding gold themselves, other European nations joined in. In the end, these three nations had established permanent footholds in three corners of North America:

- The French built a fur-trading post at Quebec, Canada (1608).

- The Spanish built a mission at Santa Fe, New Mexico (1610).

- The English established their first permanent colony at Jamestown, Virginia (1607).

(Note: Germany and Italy didn't start colonies in the New World because these nations didn't even exist until the late 1800s.)

Jamestown wasn't England's first experience in New World colonization:

- Sir Francis Drake (1580) had done so well as a pirate in the Caribbean that Queen Elizabeth I knighted him as a way of saying thanks for all the Spanish gold he brought back.

- Sir Walter Raleigh (1585) founded a short-lived colony of 100 men and women on Roanoke Island. The colony survived long enough for the birth of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World. When a ship carrying supplies arrived after a three-year absence, the crew found everybody gone, with houses and fortifications neatly removed. The only clue was the word Croatoan carved into a remaining post of the fort and Cro carved into a nearby tree. The survivors of the colony may have gone to live with a nearby friendly tribe of Croatoan Indians and intermarried.

The latter point, if true, represents the last major occurrence of intermarriage between the English colonists and the native population because, unlike the Spanish, the English brought their wives with them to America. In the 50 years leading up to 1600, the population of England increased by one third. At the same time, a change from growing crops to growing sheep displaced a lot of English farmers. People were looking for a place to go, and settling in America seemed like an ideal solution.

The settlement of Jamestown, Virginia

The English went to Jamestown for the same reasons the Spanish came to the New World a hundred years earlier. Their privately financed joint-stock Virginia Company wanted to find gold or at least a passage to the rich Spice Islands of Asia. The colonists were under pressure to produce riches; if they didn't, they could be abandoned in the wilderness.


Question: Who owned Jamestown?

Answer: The colony was owned by a joint-stock company eager for profits.

Jamestown was named after then-ruling English King James I. The territory's name, Virginia, honored the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I.

The Charter of the Virginia Company guaranteed the colonists basic rights as Englishmen. The colony had about 100 settlers to start, all of them men. In the first years, they were too busy looking for gold to gather much food, so many died from hunger and the diseases that go with it.

In 1608, Captain John Smith took over and whipped the surviving colonists into shape with a simple rule: "He who shall not work shall not eat." Earlier, Smith had been saved by the American Indian princess Pocahontas, who went on to marry another settler, helped protect the colony, and visited England to meet the king.

Still, times were tough: Of the 400 settlers who had gone to Jamestown, only 60 survived the "starving time" winter of 1609. Twelve hundred English people lived in Virginia by 1625, but an additional 6,000 died trying to live on this edge of the New World wilderness.

Forming and breaking alliances with the American Indians

Pocahontas tried to keep the peace, but after she died during her trip to England, the colonists and American Indians started to fight wars. By 1650, the Chesapeake tribe had been banished from all the land around Jamestown. By 1685, only a few American Indians remained anywhere near the settlements. This pattern was repeated as English colonies came in contact with American Indians across North America: first cooperation, then conflict, and finally removal and severe population decline for the American Indians. As outlined in Chapter 6, disease brought by the explorers often destroyed native people and their cultures before the native people ever saw a European settler.

American Indian tribes moved, made and broke alliances, and fought wars with one another for thousands of years before the Europeans came. The arrival of the settlers made an already complicated system of alliances and land control even more complex. Looking for land to live on, tribes moved hundreds of miles and fought other Indians. For some American Indians, this migration was good; they got guns from settlers and made profits delivering furs and acting as scouts for the Europeans. But competition for shrinking hunting grounds led to increased violence between tribes.

Lots of American Indians moved west toward the Great Plains as English settlements spread out from the East. Tribes like the Sioux, who previously led quiet lives on the edge of the forest, learned to ride escaped Spanish horses and became Great Plains buffalo hunters and raiders. The Iroquois Confederation in the northern colonies benefited from alliances and trades with settlers and actually grew in power for 100 years. But for most American Indians, the arrival of Europeans was an unmitigated disaster. In a world governed by survival of the strongest, the concept of human rights was still a long way off.

Setting up offshore sugar plantations

As the first wave of settlers left Britain, twice as many English pioneers opted to go to the West Indies rather than come to the rocky, swampy shores of North America. They chose the West Indies because there, they could grow sugar, one of the two big money-makers of the New World. Although English settlers in Virginia could grow tobacco in their backyards, sugar cane required large plantations and thousands of workers.

New World slavery really got its start in the West Indies. While small farmers were working their own land in the mainland colonies during the late 1600s, West Indies plantation owners were busy importing more than 250,000 enslaved people from Africa. Before long, blacks outnumbered their white overseers in the West Indies four to one.

The inhuman Barbados slave code (1661) required that slave owners give their slaves clothes to wear (about the only thing it required) and denied slaves even the most basic right guaranteed under English common law: the right to life. The code allowed slaveholders to do whatever they wanted to their slaves, including mutilating and burning them alive for punishment.

The big plantation owners in the West Indies squeezed out most of the small farmers who grew food for the islands. These farmers, in turn, moved to the North American colonies, bringing a few slaves and the slave code with them.

The different approaches to colonization

The English settlements along the American east coast grew because they had more settlers who came to stay. The French were either happy at home in France or would have left the New World settlements, but as in the case of Protestants, the French king forbade them to go. The Spanish and Portuguese viewed the New World as more of a money-making enterprise than a place to start a new life. While the English began to settle down and build some permanent family homes in the New World, the Spanish colonial administrators just sent money back to the central government in Europe. Whereas English colonies were mostly self-governing in politics and religion, Spanish colonies were ruled centrally from the mother country.


Question: What were some differences between the Spanish and English colonies?

Answer: The English operated politics and religion locally (instead of reporting back to the central mother country like Spain) and used their New World settlements to build personal wealth rather than sending all payments back to Europe.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics