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Colonies and Empires Index

15th Century 'Voyages of Discovery'
In the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries

European Settlement in North America

The Pilgrim Fathers
The Mayflower and the Mayflower Compact
Plymouth Settlement
The First Thanksgiving
Massachusetts
Other Colonies

The Origins of Canada

Introduction : New France
The Hudson Bay Company
France Claims the Mississippi River

The Struggle between France and Britain
for North America

Introduction
The Seven Years' War
The Fall of Quebec
The Treaty of Paris

The American War of Independence

Introduction
Britain Taxes its Colonies
The Boston Massacre
The "Boston Tea Party"
The First Continental Congress
The War for Independence Begins
The Second Continental Congress
American Victories
The Declaration of Independence

History Chapters Main Index

 

A poster from 1609 encouraging people to emigrate to Virginia.

A poster from 1609 encouraging people to emigrate to Virginia.

 

Captain John Smith

Captain John Smith

 

 

BRITAIN : ISLAND STATE TO EMPIRE

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Colonies and Empires

European Settlement in North America

 

Introduction

Compared to other parts of the world in 1600, North America had few attractions. There was nothing like the wealth of India or South America to be taken. The Spanish had made expeditions up from New Spain (Mexico) but had not found any gold or silver. Some explorers had hoped to find a north-west passage to India, but the search was not going very well.

Despite these disappointments, settlement in North America did take place after 1600 and, indeed, the settlements flourished. So successful were the British colonies that, finally, thirteen of them were able to confront Britain, the mother-country, in war and win their independence to become the United States of America.

 

Captain John Smith's map of New England (1616)

Captain John Smith's map of New England (1616)

 

Why did families risk such a dangerous voyage across the Atlantic to settle in North America and how was it that their colonies were so successful?

 

The First British Colony : Virginia

The first British attempt to settle in North America was made at the end of Elizabeth I's reign. It was made at Roanoke and ended in disaster in 1597. However, Virginia, where the attempt to form a colony had been made, was named after the "Virgin Queen" from then on.

A permanent settlement was made in 1607 and came to be known as Jamestown, after James I At first it was thought that America might provide what were called "naval stores". These were raw materials necessary for shipbuilding, such as timber, hemp (to make rope), flax (to make into linen for sails) and tar (to seal wooden hulls on ships). Other adventurers hoped to make money from dealing in furs. Either they would set traps themselves or they would negotiate with the Indians. This was how settlements around the Hudson Bay, in the far north, came into being. Still others hoped to fish for cod off the Newfoundland coast and sell the dried fish back in England.

 

An anti-smoking poster from the time of James I

An anti-smoking poster from the time of James I

 

The settlement at Jamestown, however, was profitable for a reason that nobody had foreseen. A strange plant was cultivated, its leaves dried out in the sun, rolled up and then squeezed into a pipe and smoked. The Indians had shown Europeans the pipe and tobacco. Virginian settlers found an immense market for this plant back in England.

More and more tobacco was cultivated in the early 17th century and more and more emigrants crossed the Atlantic to settle in Virginia. Some were noblemen, some artisans and some were rogues, escaping the law in England. The poorest came as indentured servants. They had their passage paid for the Atlantic crossing but, in return, they had to work for seven years for the master who had funded them.

Finally, in 1617, the first black slaves were brought to Virginia. They worked as labourers on the vast tobacco plantations, as artisans, or as servants in the magnificent mansions that the richest planters had built.

 

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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2017

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