English connections with the North American continent are somewhat longer than most people realise. It is not clear when West Country fishermen discovered the extremely rich fishing grounds off of the North American continent but it did not take them long to exploit the resource once they were known about. John Cabot, in the service of Henry VII had set out to try and find the fabled North West Passage to India and the Orient. He was only to find Newfoundland and the barren windswept lands to the North. No route was discovered, but England's formal interest in the continent had at least been expressed.
The reign of Henry VIII saw Britain turn back in on itself as it dealt with European and religious issues. It was not until the reign of Elizabeth that England's interest returned once more across the Atlantic. Attempts to muscle in on Spanish trade in Central and Southern America were rebuffed by the Catholic Kingdom and so England resorted to piracy and raiding to gain their share of the resources of the Caribbean and South America.
More attempts were made to discover the North West Passage notably under the command of Martin Frobisher. However, he failed in finding a route through the frozen Arctic Seas nor did he succeed in setting up viable prospecting colonies - due to the fact that there was no gold, despite his claims to the contrary.
Sir Francis Drake set about trying to discover the North West Passage from the Pacific Ocean after having become the first Englishman to pass through the Straits of Magellan. It is not known precisely how far North he travelled up the coast of America but he claimed an area on the North-West Coast as Nova Albion on behalf of Queen Elizabeth. Three years later, Sir Humphrey Gilbert set off on his own voyage to discover a route to the Orient. He met with similar failure but did at least formally claim Newfoundland as England's first overseas colony in 1583. Unfortunately, he died at sea on his return voyage and the colony could not hope to prosper without serious investment.
The first attempt to set up a colony on the mainland was at Roanoke, in Virginia by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585. It was an attempt to set up a base to be used to raid Spanish possessions more efficiently whilst hoping that gold or silver might be located and extracted in emulation of the Spaniards further South. It would never achieve its initial aims. The Spanish sought to find and destroy the colony before it could take root. Although the Spanish bases in Florida were themselves attacked by Sir Francis Drake to try and help the fledgeling colony survive. The failure of this colony was due to a combination of the unpreparedness of the English settlers, the unpredictable response of local Indian tribes and lack of supply from Europe due to the threat of the Spanish which culminated in the Spanish Armada in 1588. By the time relief ships were finally sent to check on the fledgeling colony all that remained of the original settlers were abandoned houses and a mysterious 'CROATOAN' carved on a nearby tree.
In 1604, peace was finally signed between England and Spain. At a stroke, English energies, capital and ambition were released and could be fully directed at the North American continent. In 1606 America was divided into two by the English. The whole Atlantic sea-board was referred to as Virginia, North Virginia (soon to be New England) was reserved as a monopoly for merchants and fishermen from Plymouth in South West England. South Virginia, was set aside as a monopoly for investors and settlers from London. It was this second group that was to establish the first colony at Jamestown in 1607. They were to undergo severe privations (it was reported that one man even resorted to eating his wife!) as they found the wildlife and fauna to be more alien and unforgiving than they had anticipated. It was only the discovery of tobacco that saved South Virginia from economic disaster. This low weight, easy to harvest, high value, cash crop could help to pay for the ships bringing cloth and metalware from the mother country. However, the tobacco plant's tendency to exhaust the soil would introduce new problems as the settlers constantly had to search for new farmable land. This led to a deterioration in relations with the native Indian population.
Meanwhile, the Plymouth group quietly continued to use their concession for fishing. Invariably they would return to England at the onset of the harsh winters. However, in 1620, a group of resolute Protestants decided that they would take their chances in this wilderness. They had previously attempted to avoid religious persecution by fleeing to Holland. However, they were concerned that their children were losing their English roots and were worried at the growing power of Catholicism in the region. They therefore decided to take their chances in this 'New World'. Woefully underprepared, this group differed from the previous English settlers in that, before disembarking, they had agreed to form a 'civic body politic'. This 'Mayflower Compact' lay the foundations for the government of the colony, and ultimately the continent itself.
The Impact of the English Civil War
The Seventeenth Century was a turbulent one in English history. Protestants were continuously worried about a Catholic resurgence and counter-reformation. Matters were not helped by the Stuart monarchy that seemed to move closer and closer to the Catholic fold. As King Charles I increased his Catholicising process of the Anglican church, more and more religious refugees set off for New England. The King was more than happy to let them go on their way (and out of his hair) and he granted them a royal charter to formally establish the colony of Massachusetts. In the following decade up to twenty thousand people crossed to this colony. The one exception to this protestant colonisation process was that of the Calvert family. They set up a religiously tolerant, but largely Catholic, community in Maryland.
The English Civil War caused a great deal of disruption to trade between the Americas and Europe. Much of this slack was filled by Dutch traders from the Caribbean who were happy to find new markets and carry vital supplies. The American colonists themselves began to build their own ships in order to trade with the fledgeling English colonies in the Caribbean like Barbados and St. Kitts. These island economies were shifting all available land to sugar production but required foodstuffs in return which New Englanders in particular were keen to supply. The shift to sugar production also pushed out some of the smaller land holders in the Caribbean islands many of whom decided to move to the American colonies. Some 2,000 settlers moved from Barbados to Virginia alone in the 1640s many of whom brought their slaves and ideas on plantation economies with them.
There was a great deal of sympathy for Parliament's cause throughout the American colonies and especially in the New England protestant colonies. Virginia attempted to remain neutral and brought in a number of measures designed to avoid religious antagonism which paradoxically alienated some of the Puritans which encouraged them to move further North to find more like minded co-religionists. The execution of Charles I led to the governor declaring allegiance to his son Charles II as they feared that their charter was linked to the Royal family which had bestowed it. The English Parliament responded by establishing 'Navigation Acts' forbidding the use of foreign (ie Dutch) ships to carry trade between England and the colonies (or between English colonies). Also, they sent a fleet out to restore rebellious Royalist Caribbean enclaves and Virginia. It arrived and blockaded the Virginian coastline in 1651/2. Parliament directly ruled Virginia throughout the 1650s but allowed the Virginian's to continue to continue to elect their own officeholders.
Return to the Crown
The direction of government was to take a sudden and unexpected change in 1660, when King Charles II was reinstated and crowned. While most of the colonies prudently adjusted to the change in government, Massachusetts fell into decades of dispute and discontent over the matter.
Unexpectedly, the new King was to prove himself more interested in colonial affairs than any of his predecessors. He renewed the Navigation Acts which gave the colonies a monopoly for their tobacco and exports to England in return for exclusively using English ships. He went further by implying that England would be willing and able to defend the colonies from other European nations. This was the first guarantee of security for the North American colonies.
This proclamation was well timed, as war did break out with Holland shortly after in 1664. In general, the war did not go well for the English but the impact on the colonies was that the English acquired the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam at the mouth of the River Hudson in return for handing over their settlements in Surinam to the Dutch. It was to be renamed New York in honour of Charles II's son the Duke of York.
The King would use his newly acquired lands to reward loyal Cavalier families or to help settle his debts. The most obvious example of settling debts was shown by his willingness to give a substantial grant of land to William Penn to establish his colony for religious tolerance.
When James II succeeded Charles II, the New England colonies renewed their antagonism with the Crown. James II was much more overtly Catholic than his brother had been. He also suggested combining New England into one large Dominion under the pretext of making defence against the French easier. However, his 'Dominion' had no elected assembly and looked far more like the authoritarian models of empire used by France and Spain. Fortunately for the colonists, the authoritarian experiment was short-lived. James II's Catholic leanings proved too much for the population back home. In 1688, he was replaced by the staunchly protestant William of Orange. The Dominion of New England was promptly broken up and their original charters were restored to them.
By the 1690s most of the colonies' borders had been defined. The only exception being Georgia which was not established until the 1730s. This colony was to play a particular role as a place for debtors to restart their lives in the New World.
Economics of Empire
The thirteen colonies in the Eighteenth century were probably the places with the highest standard of living in the world. Cheap land and abundant natural resources allowed settlers opportunities they could only dream of back in Britain.
Surprisingly, the colonies traded little with each other. Most of the goods and services they required were produced back in Britain. This lack of colony trade enabled each of the colonies to remain quite distinctive from one other - socially and economically. It meant that Pennsylvania could become a prosperous, tolerant society, whereas Massachusetts could remain mired in religious intolerance and superstition. The religious beliefs of New Englanders would allow them to remain much more equitably balanced whilst those states further south, set up by Cavaliers on behalf of the Crown, would transplant the entire English heirarchical social system across the Atlantic. Indeed, it was this philosophy of master and servant relationships, combined with labour intensive cash crops, that allowed the Southern states to become such staunch users and defenders of slavery.
Defence and Dissension
Relationships with Indians were tense at the best of times. The settlers insatiable demand for land was a constant threat to relations, but any differences could usually be settled by negotiation. There were exceptions to this, in both Virginia and Massachusetts there were serious struggles in the 1670s, but essentially, the Indians were not too concerned with losing rights to land, as long as there was more land further West for them to use in its place. In fact, invariably, the warring nature of many Indian tribes was actually harnessed by the colonies themselves as they waged frontier wars with the real threat to eighteenth century British America: The French.
The French were spreading from both the North and South. In the North, they had long lived and hunted along the St. Lawrence River. From the South, they advanced up the Mississippi River. In either case, it was not hard for the colonists to feel threatened by Britain's historical (and Catholic) enemy.
Between 1739 and 1763 fully fledged wars broke out all along the frontier; stretching from Canada to New Orleans. American colonists were keen to join the regular British Army in a series of battles along the wilderness frontier. It was the world wide fighting of the Seven Years War (1756 - 63) that finally put the nail in French ambitions in North America. General Wolfe's capture of Quebec in 1759 was to lay all the French possessions at the mercy of the British. The French duly withdrew from the entire St. Lawrence River area and the Eastern board of the Mississippi. However, this emphatic victory was to be achieved at a significant financial cost given the distances and time scales involved.
The dominance of the one power concerned many of the Indian tribes in the area - many of which had fought on the side of the French anyway. Several tribes organised themselves into what has become known as 'Pontiac's conspiracy'. They attacked the British but were repulsed by the regular British army. Nevertheless, the Indians had demonstrated what they could be capable of doing. The British government negotiated and drew up a Proclamation Line in 1763. This line stretched roughly along the Appalachian Mountains and guaranteed to the Indians that no British settler would be allowed to transgress upon their lands. This should have guaranteed the 13 colonies' defences for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, it had an unintendedly dire consequence for the British authorities. Settlers fumed at not being able to take advantage of the victories against both the French and Indians. Some settlers deliberately ignored the proclamation line and took Indian land regardless and when they were attacked by the Indians, the British authorities were left in the difficult position of having to choose between their treaty obligations with the Indians or the lives of the settlers. The only way the British could attempt to control the situation was by increasing the number of soldiers and forts along the frontier. This in turn increased the strain on colonial finances. With well-meant intentions, the British had accidentally set themselves on course for Revolution.
In 1765, the British government imposed a stamp duty on all official documents in the colonies. The idea was to help pay for the rising defence costs of the colonies - the majority of which was still being borne by the British government. The 13 disparate colonies suddenly found a common voice in their antipathy towards this taxation. They argued that they did not need to pay direct taxation for defence as they already contributed to their defensive costs by submitting to the Navigation Acts. The furore was abated when the government withdrew the Stamp Acts but was further ignited in 1768 when new indirect taxes were introduced. These also were hastily withdrawn when the depth of feeling was demonstrated to the government.
Revolutionary feelings may well have subsided but for the fact that the East India Company had been experiencing financial problems. To help ease their financial burdens, the government agreed to break their own Navigation Acts and allow the company to sell their tea direct to America. This should have made tea attractively inexpensive in the thirteen colonies; despite the fact that the colonists would have to pay a small duty there. Unfortunately, the British misread the mood of the colonists who were not prepared to have the principle of taxation imposed on them in any form whatsoever. The so-called 'Boston Tea Party' ensued as angry opponents of the tax boarded three ships on Boston harbour and threw their chests of tea into the water.
Britain's response deeply concerned all of the other colonies; heavy fines were imposed and the port was to remain closed until the tea had been paid for. Many colonists deduced that their rights could not be safe guarded against the whims of a British government and they prepared themselves for war as they declared themselves independent in 1776.
It was not easy to conduct a war three thousand miles away against an extremely prosperous people, even if only a third of them were actively hostile. An attempt by the British to recapture the populous areas of the North was eventually scuppered when a British army was surrounded at Saratoga. Matters were not helped by French intervention. Their old sparring partner was keen to see Britain receive a bloody nose and offered considerable support in the form of military supplies and particularly in Naval power. The British diverted their attentions to the South with some considerable success initially. However, a combination of American soldiers surrounding Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown and a large French fleet blockading the coast that led to their final humiliating surrender in 1781. The First British Empire came to an end, but British interests would still remain in the continent as Canada received a huge influx of loyalists fleeing Revolutionary America which would allow it to consolidate and expand its own borders.