England makes tentative first steps towards establishing a presence beyond the ocean in the same decade as Spain and Portugal, the 1490s. In 1497 Henry VII sends John Cabot on an expedition across the Atlantic to look for a trade route to China. The explorer probably reaches Newfoundland, but his journey provides no lasting result (apart from a theoretical claim to Canada, and news of the rich fishing potential in north Atlantic waters).
During the 16th century, when English seamen are honing their skills, Drake and his colleagues find it more profitable to raid the Spanish main as privateers than to go to the expense of transporting colonists across the Atlantic.
The exception is Walter Raleigh, who sponsors two attempts to settle a colony on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now north Carolina. Both are disastrous. The colonists left there in 1585 are soon desperate to return, and are brought back to England by Drake in 1586.
Another group of settlers is brought to the island in 1587, a year which sees the first child born in America to English parents. She is called Virginia Dare (Virginia, in honour of England’s virgin queen, is the name given to the colony). But when an English ship next visits the island, in 1590, no trace remains of any member of this pioneering community.
The next attempt to establish English colonies in America comes in 1606, with the founding of two companies for the purpose.
Meanwhile England is also considering a more active role in European adventures to the east. At the very end of the century an initiative is taken which will lead, through the activities of the East India Company, to the longest of Britain’s colonial enterprises.
English trade in the east: 17th century AD
On the last day of the year 1600 Elizabeth I grants a charter to a ‘Company of Merchants trading into the East Indies’. Early voyages prove successful; by 1614 the East India Company owns twenty-four ships. But competition with the Dutch in the spice islands leads to violence, culminating in a massacre of English merchants at Amboina by their Dutch rivals in 1623.
This disaster causes the company to concentrate on its interests in India. In 1613 a factory (meaning a secure warehouse for the accumulation of Indian textiles, spices and indigo) has been formally established on the west coast, at Surat. The first English vessel with a cargo of these Indian goods sails from Surat in 1615.
Surat remains the English headquarters on the west coast until it is gradually replaced, between 1672 and 1687, by Bombay (given to Charles II in 1661 as part of the dowry of his Portuguese bride, Catherine of Braganza, and leased by him to the company in 1668).
Meanwhile the English are establishing secure footholds on the east coast. Fort St George is begun at Madras in 1640 and is completed in 1644. Calcutta is eventually selected, in 1690, as the best site for a trading station in the Ganges delta; it is fortified, as Fort William, in 1696. By the end of the 17th century the three English presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta are securely established.
Virginia: AD 1607-1644
In 1606 James I supports new English efforts (the first since Raleigh) to establish colonies along the coast of America, north of the Spanish-held territory in Florida. A charter for the southern section is given to a company of London merchants (called the London Company, until its successful colony causes it be known as the Virginia Company). A company based in Plymouth is granted a similar charter for the northern part of this long coastline, which as yet has no European settlers.
The Plymouth Company achieves little (and has no connection with the Pilgrim Fathers who establish a new Plymouth in America in 1620). The London Company succeeds in planting the first permanent English settlement overseas – but only after the most appalling difficulties.
In April 1607 three ships sent out by the London Company sail into Chesapeake Bay. They continue up a broad waterway, which they name the James river in honour of their king, and a few weeks later they select an island to settle on. They call their settlement Jamestown. But to the territory itself they give a more romantic name, honouring England’s late virgin queen – Virginia.
More than 100 English settlers attempt to make their home in 1607 on the island of Jamestown. A year later disease, privation, hunger and attacks by local Indians have reduced their number to less than forty. But the hardship has produced the first notable leader in British colonial history.
John Smith is one of seven men appointed by the London company to serve on the colony’s council. His energy, his resourcefulness and his skill in negotiating with the Indians soon establish him as the leader of the community.
Smith soon becomes involved in a famously romantic scene (or so he claims many years later, in a book of 1624). He is captured by Indians and is about to be executed when Pocahontas, the 13-year-old daughter of the tribal chieftain, throws herself between victim and executioner (or so Smith claims, many years later). Smith is initiated into the tribe and returns to Jamestown – where Pocahontas becomes a frequent visitor, often bringing valuable information about the Indians’ intentions.
Four more ships reach Jamestown in 1609. The number of settlers is up to 500 when Smith is injured, later that year, and has to sail home to England. During the next winter, in his absence, there is appalling famine – the 500 are reduced to 60. They are joined by another group (survivors of a shipwreck in Bermuda), but only after further reinforcements arrive, in 1610, is it finally decided to persevere with this difficult attempt at colonization.
The town of Williamsburg, first called Middle Plantation, is founded in 1633. By mid-century (in spite of an Indian attack in 1644 which kills 500 colonists) Virginia is at last secure. Ten or more counties, on the English pattern, have their own sheriff, constable and justices.
Pilgrim Fathers: AD 1620-1621
The most famous boatload of immigrants in north American history leaves Plymouth in September 1620. Thirty-five of about 102 passengers in the Mayflower have sailed once before from England to live according to their Christian consciences in a freer land. They were part of a Puritan group which moved in 1608 from Licolnshire to Holland, famous at the time for religious toleration. Now, in spite of the dangers involved, they want to be even more free in a place of their own.
Their sights are set on New England, the coast of which has been explored in 1614 by John Smith, the leader of the Jamestown settlers. His book A Description of New England, naming and describing the region, has been published in 1616.
The journey lasts eight weeks before they make their first landfall, on the tip of Cape Cod. It is not until mid-December that the little group selects a coastal site suitable for their village. They name it Plymouth, echoing their port of departure from the old world. To their surprise there appear to be no Indians in the vicinity.
New England winters are notoriously severe and the pilgrims have, in a phrase of the time, ‘all things to doe, as in the beginning of the world’. Only half the group survive that first winter and spring. Of eighteen married women, just five are alive when the first harvest is reaped in 1621.
The survivors thank the Lord for nature’s bounty in the ceremony of Thanksgiving, with the local Indians sharing in this first annual celebration. A large indigenous fowl, the turkey, makes an admirable centrepiece. The settlers have found it living wild in the forests of New England.
These pioneering families become known to their contemporaries as the Old Comers (they are first referred to as Pilgrim Fathers in 1799, and are more often known now in the USA simply as the Pilgrims). The ritual of Thanksgiving is not the only great tradition which the pilgrims bequeath to modern America. Their example of self-reliance becomes a central strand in the American ideal. It will be fully maintained by other English communities establishing themselves, just ten years later, further north in Massachusetts.