Forces behind English overseas colonization in the late 16th and 17th centuries

At its peak, the British Empire covered one-fifth of the globe and ruled 400 million subjects belonging to various religious and ethnic groups. It acted as the “centre of the world” for trade, communications, migrations and naval-military power. In other words, it had become the Empire on which “the sun never set”. 1 The foundation for such exploits was laid in the early modern period, especially late 16th and 17th centuries. The dynamics within the Empire continually evolved throughout the early modern period. It was also subject to external pressures, such as foreign rivals, wars, revolts and economic change. This essay explores the forces and interests that existed in those times.

The precedent

The history of British Empire building has its roots in the individual evolutions of the Three Kingdoms – England, Ireland and Scotland. Both England and Scotland were composite monarchies that applied “colonialist principles of settlement, acculturation and economic dependency to civilize its territorial margins and their inhabitants”. They also exhorted overseas adventures into the Atlantic during the early modern period.2

England’s reign over diverse annexes of territories during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries provides the first example of empire formation. The inhabitants of these lands were discriminated against and treated to military aggression. Even the indigenous pagan people, considered as barbarians, were coerced to convert to Christianity. So there is sufficient precedence to the British imperialistic endeavors that peaked during the 18th and 19th centuries.

To conquer the world, the English first needed a vision of themselves as an imperial nation. This self-image as an independent and omni-competent country, as well as one with the potential to control other countries and regions of the world, had to precede the acquisition of an empire and so the English needed an imperial ideology before they could begin to construct an empire in deed.3

Trade and Intra European Competition

In early modern Europe, the nature of relations between states was very volatile indeed. Reducing dependence and dominance over neighboring states were seen as essential. This meant that imperialism was considered a logical and legitimate policy.

It is surprising then that British-occupied territory during this period were usually ports, which acted as trade facilities rather than strategic vantage points. In fact, Asian, American and African peoples continued to hold major expanses of land. Expertise in maritime commerce as opposed to territorial acquisitions, directly translated into power. The Dutch cleverly recognized this and rose in dominance in-spite of being land-poor. So, maritime expansion offered new opportunities for traditionally weaker political entities like the Dutch and changed the orientation of power within Europe. The subsequent decline in Dutch influence on oceans during mid-seventeenth century coincided with British mastery of it. This is in large due to adoption by Britain the policy to separate military and commercial operations. It meant military expenditures no longer had to depend on commercial revenues. This policy proved significant in later British forays into Asian territory.4

Britain mixed caution with imperial ambition as is evident from its stand of neutrality during the Thirty Years’ War (1619-1648). Nevertheless, its relations with Spain soured when the latter’s ships carrying gold and silver necessary to finance its armies were looted by English pirates.

The chartering of navigational routes across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, further increased the intra-European competition. It soon opened the Newfoundland fishery to Europeans which was one of many contested prizes.

In short, transoceanic trade and colonization created significant new international conflicts and constellations of power outside existing arrangements. The insistence by the Netherlands, England, and France that Spain and Portugal could not claim sovereignty over the oceans necessitated state-to-state negotiations about the terms of interaction in this non-state arena. The international community needed some consensus about where sovereign, territorial waters ended and the international zone began. Likewise, the control of subjects on the high seas, particularly pirates, required new laws and agreements, and the need to police trade and to suppress piracy demanded state-supported navies.5

This strengthening of navy made territorial expansion across the ocean less difficult.  Government expenditures in England accordingly rose during the seventeenth century, with naval expenditures accounting for a large portion of the increase. Britain was in constant sea-borne strife with other European states, especially Netherlands, France, Spain and Portugal, almost the whole of seventeenth century. The institutional enhancements that were made to consolidate trade, were later to act as instruments for colonizing.

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