In 1603, King James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne and in 1604 negotiated the Treaty of London, ending hostilities with Spain. Now at peace with its main rival, English attention shifted from preying on other nations’ colonial infrastructure to the business of establishing its own overseas colonies. Although its beginnings were hit-and-miss, the British Empire began to take shape during the early 17th century, with the English settlement of North America and the smaller islands of the Caribbean, and the establishment of a private company, the English East India Company, to trade with Asia. This period, until the loss of the Thirteen Colonies after the United States Declaration of Independence towards the end of the 18th century, has subsequently been referred to as the “First British Empire”.
The Caribbean initially provided England’s most important and lucrative colonies, but not before several attempts at colonisation failed. The colonies soon adopted the system of sugar plantations successfully used by the Portuguese in Brazil, which depended on slave labour, and—at first—Dutch ships, to sell the slaves and buy the sugar. To ensure that the increasingly healthy profits of this trade remained in English hands, Parliament decreed in 1651 that only English ships would be able to ply their trade in English colonies. This led to hostilities with the United Dutch Provinces—a series of Anglo-Dutch Wars—which would eventually strengthen England’s position in the Americas at the expense of the Dutch. In 1655 England annexed the island of Jamaica from the Spanish, and in 1666 succeeded in colonising the Bahamas.
England’s first permanent overseas settlement was founded in 1607 in Jamestown, led by Captain John Smith and managed by the Virginia Company, an offshoot of which established a colony on Bermuda, which had been discovered in 1609. The Company’s charter was revoked in 1624 and direct control was assumed by the crown, thereby founding the Colony of Virginia. The Newfoundland Company was created in 1610 with the aim of creating a permanent settlement on Newfoundland, but was largely unsuccessful. In 1620, Plymouth was founded as a haven for puritan religious separatists, later known as the Pilgrims. Fleeing from religious persecution would become the motive of many English would-be colonists to risk the arduous trans-Atlantic voyage: Maryland was founded as a haven for Roman Catholics (1634), Rhode Island (1636) as a colony tolerant of all religions and Connecticut (1639) for congregationalists. The Province of Carolina was founded in 1663. In 1664, England gained control of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (renamed New York) via negotiations following the Second Anglo-Dutch War, in exchange for Suriname. In 1681, the colony of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn.
In 1695 the Scottish parliament granted a charter to the Company of Scotland, which proceeded in 1698 to establish a settlement on the isthmus of Panama, with a view to building a canal there. Besieged by neighbouring Spanish colonists of New Granada, and afflicted by malaria, the colony was abandoned two years later. The Darien scheme was a financial disaster for Scotland as a quarter of Scottish capital was lost in the enterprise. This episode is viewed as a major factor in persuading the Scottish Parliament to negotiate the terms of the Treaty of Union as the new United Kingdom of Great Britain would take responsibility for some of Scotland’s debts.
The American colonies, which provided tobacco, cotton, and rice in the south and naval materiel and furs in the north, were less financially successful than those of the Caribbean, but had large areas of good agricultural land and attracted far larger numbers of English emigrants who preferred their temperate climates. The American Revolution resulted in de-facto self-government by 1775 for the Thirteen Colonies, who then declared their independence in 1776 creating the United States of America. Between 20 and 30% of the population remained loyal to the British Crown. The new nation was forced to defend that declaration against Britain in the American War of Independence, with victory on the battlefield resulting in recognition of independence in the Treaty of Paris (1783). In the end, this became the first successful colonial war of independence.
From the outset, slavery was a vital economic component of the British Empire in the Americas. Until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Britain was responsible for the transportation of 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, a third of all slaves transported across the Atlantic. To facilitate this trade, forts were established on the coast of West Africa, such as James Island, Accra and Bunce Island. In the British Caribbean, the percentage of the population comprising blacks rose from 25% in 1650 to around 80% in 1780, and in the Thirteen Colonies from 10% to 40% over the same period (the majority in the south). For the slave traders, the trade was extremely profitable, and became a major economic mainstay for such western British cities as Bristol and Liverpool, which formed the third corner of the so-called triangular trade with Africa and the Americas. However, for the transportees, harsh and unhygienic conditions on the slaving ships and poor diets meant that the average mortality rate during the middle passage was one in seven. The profits of the slave trade and of West Indian plantations amounted to 5% of the British economy at the time of the Industrial Revolution.
At the end of the 16th century, England and the Netherlands began to challenge Portugal’s monopoly of trade with Asia, forming private joint-stock companies to finance the voyages—the English (later British) and Dutch East India Companies, chartered in 1600 and 1602 respectively. The primary aim of these companies was to tap into the lucrative spice trade, and they focused their efforts on the source, the Indonesian archipelago, and an important hub in the trade network, India. The close proximity of London and Amsterdam across the North Sea and intense rivalry between England and the Netherlands inevitably led to conflict between the two companies, with the Dutch gaining the upper hand in the Moluccas (previously a Portuguese stronghold) after the withdrawal of the English in 1622, and the English enjoying more success in India, at Surat, after the establishment of a factory in 1613. Though England would ultimately eclipse the Netherlands as a colonial power, in the short term the Netherlands’s more advanced financial system and the three Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century left it with a stronger position in Asia. Hostilities ceased after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the Dutch William of Orange ascended the English throne, bringing peace between the Netherlands and England. A deal between the two nations left the spice trade of the Indonesian archipelago to the Netherlands and the textiles industry of India to England, but textiles soon overtook spices in terms of profitability, and by 1720, in terms of sales, the English company had overtaken the Dutch. The English East India Company shifted its focus from Surat—a hub of the spice trade network—to Fort St George (later to become Madras), Bombay (ceded by the Portuguese to Charles II of England in 1661 as dowry for Catherine de Braganza) and Sutanuti (which would merge with two other villages to form Calcutta).
Global struggles with France
Peace between England and the Netherlands in 1688 meant that the two countries entered the Nine Years’ War as allies, but the conflict—waged in Europe and overseas between France, Spain and the Anglo-Dutch alliance—left the English a stronger colonial power than the Dutch, who were forced to devote a larger proportion of their military budget on the costly land war in Europe. The 18th century would see England (after 1707, Britain) rise to be the world’s dominant colonial power, and France becoming its main rival on the imperial stage.
The death of Charles II of Spain in 1700 and his bequeathal of Spain and its colonial empire to Philippe of Anjou, a grandson of the King of France, raised the prospect of the unification of France, Spain and their respective colonies, an unacceptable state of affairs for Britain and the other powers of Europe. In 1701, Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands sided with the Holy Roman Empire against Spain and France in the War of the Spanish Succession. The conflict, which France and Spain were to lose, lasted until 1714. At the concluding peace Treaty of Utrecht, Philip renounced his and his descendants’ right to the French throne. Spain lost its empire in Europe, and though it kept its empire in the Americas and the Philippines, it was irreversibly weakened as a power. The British Empire was territorially enlarged: from France, Britain gained Newfoundland and Acadia, and from Spain, Gibraltar and Minorca. Gibraltar, which is still a British overseas territory to this day, became a critical naval base and allowed Britain to control the Atlantic entry and exit point to the Mediterranean. Minorca was returned to Spain at the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, after changing hands twice. Spain also ceded the rights to the lucrative asiento (permission to sell slaves in Spanish America) to Britain.
The Seven Years’ War, which began in 1756, was the first war waged on a global scale, fought in Europe, India, North America, the Caribbean, the Philippines and coastal Africa. The signing of the Treaty of Paris (1763) had important consequences for Britain and its empire. In North America, France’s future as a colonial power there was effectively ended with the ceding of New France to Britain (leaving a sizeable French-speaking population under British control) and Louisiana to Spain. Spain ceded Florida to Britain. In India, the Carnatic War had left France still in control of its enclaves but with military restrictions and an obligation to support British client states, effectively leaving the future of India to Britain. The British victory over France in the Seven Years’ War therefore left Britain as the world’s dominant colonial power.[