Were The Seeds Of Britain’s Later Imperial Greatness Sown During The Reign Of Elizabeth I

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During the Elizabethan period colonisation in the full sense of the term received only intermittent interest on the part of the English government. It was not central to the development of English overseas enterprise and only became one of the leading themes in the Jacobean period. Nonetheless, the period did bear witness to a great number of expeditions funded by varyingly by merchants, privateers and looters and by the Crown. Much attention was paid towards North America.

There were many attempts to establish colonies and bases along the eastern coast. In the north, around Newfoundland, these were established as bases for the exploitation of the huge cod reserves just off the coast. Further south, in places such as Carolina, the island of Roanoke and Virginia (named after the chaste Queen), colonies were established to take advantage of the temperate climate and as such were ideal locations for the growing of crops such as tobacco.

Key to the colonial successes of the age and of subsequent generations was the piracy and privateering (piracy granted by licence as a means to exact revenge for the previous loss of goods to pirates of a foreign nation) which accompanied many of the colonial expeditions. This provided a source of income, which lured sailors to join an expedition and provided a greater incentive to investors to invest in the founding of new colonies. A profit could be made just through a single expedition rather than having to wait years before a colony could begin to make a profit for itself.

Whether or not any success was achieved in locating a good place for forming a colony, there was a good chance that the ships would return with booty taken at sea. This was more often that not taken from Spanish ships regularly travelling to and from the Americas. Piracy also provided a sound knowledge of the West Indies, which became important when the first colonies were founded there in the 1620s at St. Kitts, Nevis and Barbados. It was in this period that England first effected a strong hold over Ireland.

England was running out of wood and Irish timber provided a good source for naval refitting and construction. Lands were assigned to English noblemen and certain Irish clans, such as the O’Connor and O’More, were permitted to keep their domains only on condition that they adopt an English style of dress and teach their children English. This marked the genesis of a colony in the proper sense of the word, differing from the trade bases of elsewhere.

In the late seventies the colonisation zeal was invigorated under the spur of nationalistic hostility to Spain. In the years of rising from 1577 to 1585 England’s chief minister, Walsingham, used his influence to encourage, to assist and to some extent direct a new wave of expansionist projects of exploration, plunder, colonisation and trade. Few of these were implemented and fewer still achieved anything of note, the Turkey trade being the most valuable result in both political and commercial terms.

The late 80s and 90s saw also the abandonment of former colonising efforts by Roanoke and Davis on the eastern seaboard of the North American continent. Also, attempts to eastern trade by sea failed disastrously one after the other. In spite of the failure of these efforts in discovery for trade and new potential colonies, they were important in developing English knowledge of the wider world and in fostering a desire to establish colonies to rival the great powers such as Spain and Portugal.

It was these results that later proved far more important than the lack practical results generated by these colonial efforts. Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign another colonial spurt occurred from which an empire could finally be seen to emerge. It began with the creation of the East India Company in 1600, the stimulus to which came not so much from within as from without, in the sense that the Dutch merchants set the pace and the Londoners could not afford to be left behind.

But in the years 1602-4 the English took the initiative on several fronts at once: in the West Indies they moved into the contraband trade on a large scale; in Guiana Leigh, after reconnoitring the coast in 1602, set up his Wiapoco colony in 1604; in 1602 began the two series of voyages – to southern and northern Virginia respectively – which led to the birth of the Virginia Company in 1606; and in 1602 also Waymouth pointed the way into the strait which Hudson finally traversed eight years later.

It was England’s chief minister Sir Robert Cecil, later earl of Salisbury, who was behind many of these colonial expeditions. Though, he was largely aided by the fact that both Nottingham and Ralegh, themselves fervent supporters of overseas expansion, also stood at the centre of power.

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