British Empire: 1485-1800

In 1485 Henry VII inherited a kingdom that was smaller than it had been for over 400 years. For the first time since the 11th century the realm did not include one French province. The only part of France still held by the English was the Marches of Calais, a strip of territory around the town of Calais. He held the title of "Lord of Ireland" since the 12th century, but effectively governed only an area that was roughly a semi-circle forty miles deep around Dublin.

Henry was warned about the success being achieved by Spain and Portugal. His advisers were especially concerned about the discovery of America in 1492. In 1495 John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) an Italian explorer who had got into financial trouble over one of his expeditions, visited England. The following year he was commissioned to lead a voyage to discover a route to Asia via the North Atlantic. Cabot sailed in 1497, and although he successfully made landfall on the coast of Newfoundland there was no attempt to found a colony. On his return he was rewarded with a pension of £20 (equivalent to about four years' pay for a craftsman). He set sail for another voyage in 1498 but he was never heard of again. (2)

It was not until the reign of Elizabeth I that the idea of obtaining an empire was revived. In 1563 Francis Drake joined his cousin, John Hawkins, on a voyage to Africa. The two men started capturing people in Sierra Leone and selling them as slaves to Spanish settlers in the Caribbean. As it was illegal for the settlers to buy from foreigners, Hawkins and Drake soon came into conflict with the Spanish authorities. (3)

In 1567 when Drake took part in a successful attack on Spanish ships in the port of San Juan de Ulua. He returned to Plymouth with a great deal of gold and silver. Drake, a committed Protestant, saw himself as an instrument of God in his crusade against Philip II and the Spanish Empire. This was followed by voyages to the West Indies and in 1572 he seized gold and silver in the Americas and the Atlantic Ocean. It is estimated to have amounted to about £20,000 - £600,000 in modern values. (4)

Drake was introduced to Sir Francis Walsingham, and this association led to a plan for him to take a fleet into the Pacific and raid Spanish settlements there. Investors included the Queen and Walsingham. The journey began in November 1577. By the end of the following month six Spanish and Portuguese ships were taken, then looted and eventually set free. (5)

On 5th February 1579 he arrived on the north coast of Chile and captured a merchant ship carrying thirty or forty bars of silver. Sailing along the coast of Mexico, Drake took a few more ships and raided several more ports. On 17th June 1579 Drake landed in a bay on the the coast of California. Most historians believe that Drake had stopped in a bay on the Point Reyes peninsula (now known as Drake's Bay). (6)

A local group of Miwok brought him a present of a bunch of feathers and tobacco leaves in a basket. John Sugden, the author of Sir Francis Drake (1990) has argued: "It appeared to the English that the Indians regarded them as gods; they were impervious to English attempts to explain who they were, but at least they remained friendly, and when they had received clothing and other gifts the natives returned happily and noisily to their village." John Drake claims that when they "saw the Englishmen they wept and scratched their faces with their nails until they drew blood, as though this was an act of homage or adoration." (7)

Drake now claimed the land for Queen Elizabeth. When Drake arrived in Plymouth on 26th September 1580, he became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world. Drake return to England as a very wealthy man and he was able to purchase the Buckland Abbey estate. In 1581 Queen Elizabeth knighted Drake and later that year he was elected to the House of Commons.

Walter Raleigh and the Americas

According to Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, Queen Elizabeth first encountered Walter Raleigh in the streets of the city. "One day Elizabeth was passing along the streets, and the people as usual came crowding to see her. Among them was Sir Walter Raleigh. The Queen stepped from her coach and, followed by her ladies, was about to cross the road. But in those days the streets were very badly kept, and Elizabeth stopped before a puddle of mud. She was grandly dressed, and how to cross the muddy road, without soiling her dainty shoes and skirts, she did not know. As she paused Sir Walter sprang forward. He, too, was finely dressed and he was wearing a beautiful new cloak. This he quickly pulled off and, bowing low, threw upon the ground before the Queen. Elizabeth was very pleased, and, as she passed on, she smiled at the handsome young man who had ruined his beautiful cloak to save her dainty shoes, and ordered him to attend her at court." (8)

Anna Whitelock, the author of Elizabeth's Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen's Court (2013) has pointed out: "Raleigh, then around thirty years of age... was strikingly attractive, six foot tall with a trimmed beard and piercing blue eyes and a love of extravagant clothes, jewels and pearls. His boldness, blatant ambition, vanity, and self-confidence all greatly appealed to the Queen... In 1583, Elizabeth granted him one of her favourite palaces, the handsome London dwelling Durham Place on the Strand.. Raleigh wooed her with poetry and they spent increasing amounts of time together, talking, playing cards and riding out. He was frequently in the Privy Chamber by day and night, and would often be at the door of the bedchamber, waiting for Elizabeth to emerge in the morning." (9)

It is claimed that it was Walter Raleigh who first put forward the idea of a British Empire. He argued that for this to be successful it would be important to gain control of the seas: "Whoever commands the sea commands the trade, whoever commands the trade commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself." (10)

Raleigh suggested that he should be allowed to take charge of the project. In 1584 Walter Raleigh obtained a patent for the formation of an American colony. (11) Raleigh sought practical advice from Thomas Harriot, the mathematician and astronomer, and Richard Hakluyt, a lecturer in geography at Christ College. In 1585 Raleigh sent out an expedition of four ships and two pinnaces, with 600 men, under Sir Richard Grenvill. Although Raleigh himself never went to Virginia, he was the mastermind behind this expedition. (12)

A settlement was established on Roanoke Island. Grenvill returned to England to obtain supplies for the colonists. During this period the colonists relied heavily upon a local Algonquian tribe. However, after a raid led by Ralph Lane, this food source came to an end. This created serious problems for the colonists and many died from starvation. (13)

Sir Francis Drake arrived at Roanoke on 9th June 1586. He discovered that there were only 105 colonists left alive: "Lane's men were largely soldiers, not artisans and farmers. They were interested in exploring, but lacked the skills and knowledge to form a sustainable community, and to provide for themselves they badgered the natives for food... Understandably, the Indians had begun to resent the colonists." Drake agreed to take the colonists back to England. (14)

The East India Company was established in 1600 to challenge the Dutch-Portuguese monopoly of the spice trade. With the approval of local Indian rulers, the company established trading posts in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta and dealt in cottons, silks, indigo, saltpeter and tea. (15) Queen Elizabeth granted the company monopoly rights to bring goods from India. It was argued that this "monopoly was both just and necessary, because of the expenses in the way of forts, establishments, and armaments". (16)

North America

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. The colonies soon adopted the system of sugar plantations, which depended on slave labour. 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. (17)

England's first permanent settlement in the Americas was founded in 1607 in Jamestown, led by Captain John Smith and managed by the Virginia Company. In 1620, Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts was founded as a haven for Puritan religious separatists. Fleeing from religious persecution would become the motive of many English colonists. 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 American colonies 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. (18)

In 1670, Charles II incorporated by royal charter the Hudson's Bay Company, granting it a monopoly on the fur trade throughout North America. Two years later, the king gave the Royal African Company the monopoly of the trade to supply slaves to the British colonies for the next 1,000 years. Over the next 20 years the company exported over 90,000 slaves to the Americas. (19)

Seven Years War

France emerged as the biggest danger to the growing British Empire. Conflict broke out in 1754–1756 when the British attacked disputed French positions in North America and seized hundreds of French merchant ships. The Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which the British, led by Robert Clive, defeated the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies, left the British East India Company as the major military and political power in India. (20)

These conflicts resulted in the Seven Years' War, between France and Britain. France was eventually defeated and the signing of the Treaty of Paris (1763) had important consequences for the future of the British Empire. In North America, France's future as a colonial power came to an end. England also kept all her conquests in India and Canada. Along with its victory over France in India, Britain was the world's most powerful maritime power. (21)

Although the war ended with vast colonial conquests, it left a vast national debt. New taxes were imposed on beer, spirits and custom duties. The British government also decided to impose taxes on the colonists to cover part of the cost of the army and navy still kept in America. The colonists complained and raised the old slogan, "No taxation without representation".

The colonists also had other complaints. Their most valuable products produced in the Americas (tobacco of Virginia, the rice of the Carolinas, the sugar of the West Indies, and the tar and timber of New England), could only be exported to Britain. The economic organisation of the British Empire in the 18th century, embodied in the Navigation Acts, had as "its object the utilisation of the trade and wealth of the colonies for the exclusive benefit of the English ruling class". (22)

American Revolution

The American Revolution began with rejection of Parliamentary authority and moves towards self-government. In response Britain sent troops to reimpose direct rule, leading to the outbreak of war in 1775. The following year, in 1776, the United States declared independence. They gained the support of reformers in Britain including people such as Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, Thomas Bentley and Erasmus Darwin. (23) Price wrote that he saw the events in America as "a revolution which opens a new prospect in human affairs, and begins a new era in the history of mankind." (24)

In 1776 Thomas Paine, the English writer, who was living in Philadelphia, published Common Sense, a pamphlet that attacked the British Monarchy and argued for American independence. It became an immediate success, quickly spreading 100,000 copies in three months to the two million residents of the 13 colonies. In all about 500,000 copies total including unauthorized editions were sold during the war. Paine also travelled to France in 1781 to raise money for the American cause. (25)

The first years of the war saw a number of English successes. In October 1777 the Americans won their first great victory when General John Burgoyne and his 5,000 soldiers were forced to surrender at Saratoga. Following the defeat, France recognised the United States and entered the war on 6th February 1778, transforming it into a global conflict. Spain also joined in on the side of the Americans. After a decisive defeat at Yorktown in 1781, Britain began negotiating peace terms. American independence was acknowledged at the Peace of Paris in 1783. (26)

Growth of the British Empire

On average the British had been transporting a thousand convicts a year to America since 1718. The discovery of Australia by James Cook in 1770 provided an alternative. In 1787 the first shipment of convicts set sail, arriving in 1788. Britain continued to transport convicts to New South Wales for the next 50 years. The value of Australia increased with the discovery of gold in the colony of Victoria, making its capital Melbourne for a time the richest city in the world and the second largest city (after London) in the British Empire. (27)

The East India Company continued to expand its control over India and continued to pay a high dividend to his shareholders. India in the 18th century was in a state of exceptional weakness and confusion. The immense superiority of the British forces made it possible for them to intervene in the local wars of native rulers with decisive effect. This allowed them to set up puppet princes whom the company could control.

Trading monopolies in important commodities like salt, opium and tobacco yielded immense fortunes. According to A. L. Morton, the author of A People's History of England (1938): "In 1769 and 1770 the English created a famine over wide areas by cornering rice and refusing to sell it except at exorbitant prices. Clive himself amassed one of the largest fortunes known up to that time by taking bribes and 'presents' from native rulers." (28)

The British government became jealous of the large fortunes being made in India and in 1767 they insisted on taking a direct share of the plunder, and the company was forced to pay £400,000 a year into the Exchequer. This was followed by the Regulating Act of 1773 and the East India Company Act 1784 that secured the government a partial control over the administration of the conquered provinces. (29)

As Morton points out this legislation was "to systematise the exploitation of India, which was now too profitable to be allowed to continue in private hands" and it "marks the beginning of the transition from the first stage of British penetration, in which India was a source of certain valuable commodities which could not be produced at home, to the second stage in which it became an important market for British manufactured goods, especially cotton textiles." (30)

Primary Sources

(1) Harry Kelsey, Sir Francis Drake : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

Among Devon's merchant seamen piracy was not the only part-time business. The slave trade was also common, and members of the Hawkins family made a good deal of money in this noxious enterprise. As early as 1560 Francis Drake sailed on one of the Hawkins slave ships, and in 1562 he went to sea with them again. John Hawkins commanded the four-ship fleet, which paused for a time in Tenerife, where the family had friends and business associates. From there he sailed on to Cape Verde and down the Guinea coast to Sierra Leone, where he loaded his ships with slaves bought from the Portuguese, stolen from other slavers, or captured in fierce battles at native villages. He took so many that he had to commandeer a Portuguese vessel to carry the slaves he could not cram into his own holds. Trading thus far had been so successful that Hawkins sent a small vessel home with the profits, Francis Drake apparently being one of the crew. The other ships continued to the West Indies for a round of trading at the ports of La Española.

Astonished at the profits made in the voyage of 1562–3, Hawkins hurried through the preparations for a return trip, which began in October 1564, with young Francis Drake sailing again as a seaman on one of his four ships. The fleet stopped once more in the Canaries, but met with somewhat less cordiality than before. The Englishmen captured a load of slaves in Sierra Leone, then sailed to the West Indies and the coast of South America, where the slaves and trade goods were sold at a substantial profit. This time the Spanish king had forbidden his subjects to trade with the foreigners, so Hawkins pretended to attack the colonial ports, after which the people surrendered to his demand and bought his cargo at good prices.

(2) Walter Raleigh, The History of the World (c. 1610)

He that will happily perform a fight at sea must believe that there is more belonging to a good man of war upon the waters than great daring, and must know there is a great deal of difference between fighting loose and grappling. To clap ships together without consideration belongs rather to a madman than to a ship of war; for by such an ignorant bravery was Peter Strozzi lost at the Azores when he fought against the Marquis of Santa Cruz. In like sort had the Lord Charles Howard, Admiral of England, been lost in the year 1588 if he had not been better advised than a great many malignant fools were who found fault with his behaviour.

Student Activities

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Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner? (Answer Commentary)

Hans Holbein's Art and Religious Propaganda (Answer Commentary)

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(1) S. J. Gunn, Henry VII : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) James A. Williamson, The Cabot Voyages (1962) page 220-223

(3) Harry Kelsey, Sir John Hawkins: Queen Elizabeth's Slave Trader (2003) pages 14-17

(4) George Malcolm Thomson, Sir Francis Drake (1990) page 93

(5) Harry Kelsey, Francis Drake : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(6) George Malcolm Thomson, Sir Francis Drake (1990) pages 140-141

(7) John Sugden, Sir Francis Drake (1990) pages 135-137

(8) Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, An Island Story: A History of England for Boys and Girls (1876) page 431

(9) Anna Whitelock, Elizabeth's Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen's Court (2013) page 220

(10) Christopher Bayly, Atlas of the British Empire (1989) page 18

(11) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 118

(12) Mark Nicholls, Walter Rayleigh : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(13) Alan Shaw Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001) page 124

(14) John Sugden, Sir Francis Drake (1990) page 198

(15) John Guy, Tudor England (1988) page 351

(16) George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 215

(17) Trevor Owen Lloyd, The British Empire 1558–1995 (1996) page 32

(18) Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (2004) pages 72-73

(19) Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (1997) page 202

(20) Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (2001) page 58

(21) Paul Monard, Imperial Island: A History of Britain and Its Empire (2009) page 201

(22) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 267

(23) Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men (2002) page 258

(24) Brian Dolan, Josiah Wedgwood: Entrepreneur to the Enlightenment (2004) page 293

(25) Mark Philp, Thomas Paine : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(26) Jeremy Black, British Foreign Policy in an Age of Revolutions, 1783–1793 (1994) pages 11–20

(27) David Fieldhouse, The West and the Third World: Trade, Colonialism, Dependence, and Development (1999) pages 145-149

(28) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 262

(29) John Keay, The Honourable Company. A History of the English East India Company (1991) page 390

(30) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 263