The English overseas possessions, also known as the English colonial empire, comprised a variety of overseas territories that were colonized, conquered, or otherwise acquired by the former Kingdom of England during the centuries before the Acts of Union of 1707 between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland created the Kingdom of Great Britain. The many English possessions then became the foundation of the British Empire and its fast-growing naval and mercantile power, which until then had yet to overtake those of the Dutch Republic, the Kingdom of Portugal, and the Kingdom of Spain.
- The first English overseas colonies
- Early claims
- The first overseas settlements
- Council of Trade and Foreign Plantations
- List of English possessions in North America
- List of English possessions in the West Indies
- List of English possessions in Central and South America
- English possessions in India and the East Indies
- English possessions in Africa
- Gibraltar 1704
- Transformation into British Empire
- North America and the West Indies
The first English overseas settlements were established in Ireland, quickly followed by others in North America, Bermuda, and the West Indies, and by trading posts called "factories" in the East Indies, such as Bantam, and in the Indian subcontinent, beginning with Surat. In 1639, a series of English fortresses on the Indian coast was initiated with Fort St George. In 1661, the marriage of King Charles II to Catherine of Braganza brought him as part of her dowry new possessions which until then had been Portuguese, including Tangier in North Africa and Bombay in India.
In North America, Newfoundland and Virginia were the first centres of English colonization. As the 17th century wore on, Maine, Plymouth, New Hampshire, Salem, Massachusetts Bay, New Scotland, Connecticut, New Haven, Maryland, and Rhode Island and Providence were settled. In 1664, New Netherland and New Sweden were taken from the Dutch, becoming New York, New Jersey, and parts of Delaware and Pennsylvania.
The Kingdom of England is generally dated from the rule of Æthelstan from 927. During the rule of the House of Knýtlinga, from 1013 to 1014 and 1016 to 1042, England was part of a personal union that included domains in Scandinavia. In 1066, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, conquered England, making the Duchy a Crown land of the English throne. Through the remainder of the Middle Ages the kings of England held extensive territories in France, based on their history in this Duchy. Under the Angevin Empire, England formed part of a collection of lands in the British Isles and France held by the Plantagenet dynasty. The collapse of this dynasty led to the Hundred Years' War between England and France. At the outset of the war the Kings of England ruled almost all of France, but by the end of it in 1453 only the Pale of Calais remained to them. Calais was eventually lost to the French in 1558. The Channel Islands, as the remnants of the Duchy of Normandy, retain their link to the Crown to the present day,
Other early English expansion occurred within the British Isles. As early as 1169, the Norman invasion of Ireland began to establish English possessions in Ireland, with thousands of English and Welsh settlers arriving in Ireland. As a result of this the Lordship of Ireland was held for centuries by the English monarch, although it was not until the early 17th century that the Plantation of Ulster began. English control of Ireland fluctuated for centuries until Ireland was incorporated into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801.
The voyages of Christopher Columbus began in 1492, and he sighted land in the West Indies on 12 October that year. In 1496, excited by the successes in overseas exploration of the Portuguese and the Spanish, King Henry VII of England commissioned John Cabot to lead a voyage to find a route from the Atlantic to the Spice Islands of Asia, subsequently known as the search for the North West Passage. Cabot sailed in 1497, successfully making landfall on the coast of Newfoundland. There, he believed he had reached Asia and made no attempt to found a permanent colony. He led another voyage to the Americas the following year, but nothing was heard of him or his ships again.
The Reformation had made enemies of England and Spain, and in 1562 Elizabeth sanctioned the privateers Hawkins and Drake to attack Spanish ships off the coast of West Africa. Later, as the Anglo-Spanish Wars intensified, Elizabeth approved further raids against Spanish ports in the Americas and against shipping returning to Europe with treasure from the New World. Meanwhile, the influential writers Richard Hakluyt and John Dee were beginning to press for the establishment of England's own overseas empire. Spain was well established in the Americas, while Portugal had built up a network of trading posts and fortresses on the coasts of Africa, Brazil, and China, and the French had already begun to settle the Saint Lawrence River, which later became New France.
The first English overseas colonies
The first serious attempts to establish English colonies overseas were made in the last quarter of the 16th century, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The 1580s saw the first attempt at permanent English settlements in North America, a generation before the Plantation of Ulster. Soon there was an explosion of English colonial activity, driven by men seeking new land, by the pursuit of trade, and by the search for religious freedom. In the 17th century, the destination of most English people making a new life overseas was in the West Indies rather than in North America.
Financed by the Muscovy Company, Martin Frobisher set sail on 7 June 1576, from Blackwall, London, seeking the North West Passage. In August 1576 he landed at Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island and this was marked by the first Church of England service recorded on North American soil. Frobisher returned to Frobisher Bay in 1577, solemnly taking possession of the south side of it in Queen Elizabeth's name. In a third voyage, in 1578, he reached the shores of Greenland and also made an unsuccessful attempt at founding a settlement in Frobisher Bay. While on the coast of Greenland, he also claimed that for England.
At the same time, between 1577 and 1580, Sir Francis Drake was circumnavigating the globe. He claimed Elizabeth Island off Cape Horn for his queen, and on 24 August 1578 claimed another Elizabeth Island, in the Straits of Magellan. In 1579, he landed on the north coast of California, claiming the area for Elizabeth as "New Albion". However, these claims were not followed up by settlements.
In 1578, while Drake was away on his circumnavigation, Queen Elizabeth granted a patent for overseas exploration to his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert, and that year Gilbert sailed for the West Indies to engage in piracy and to establish a colony in North America. However, the expedition was abandoned before the Atlantic had been crossed. In 1583, Gilbert sailed to Newfoundland, where in a formal ceremony he took possession of the harbour of St John's together with all land within two hundred leagues to the north and south of it, although he left no settlers behind him. He did not survive the return journey to England.
The first overseas settlements
On 25 March 1584, Queen Elizabeth I (the "Virgin Queen") granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter for the colonization of an area of North America which was to be called, in her honour, Virginia. This charter specified that Raleigh had seven years in which to establish a settlement, or else lose his right to do so. Raleigh and Elizabeth intended that the venture should provide riches from the New World and a base from which to send privateers on raids against the treasure fleets of Spain. Raleigh himself never visited North America, although he led expeditions in 1595 and 1617 to the Orinoco River basin in South America in search of the golden city of El Dorado. Instead, he sent others to found the Roanoke Colony, later known as the "Lost Colony".
On 31 December 1600, Elizabeth gave a charter to the East India Company, under the name "The Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies". The Company soon established its first trading post in the East Indies, at Bantam on the island of Java, and others, beginning with Surat, on the coasts of what is now India and Bangladesh.
Most of the new English colonies established in North America and the West Indies, whether successfully or otherwise, were proprietary colonies with Proprietors, appointed to found and govern settlements under mercantile charters granted to joint stock companies. Early examples of these are the Virginia Company, which created the first successful English overseas settlements at Jamestown in 1607 and Bermuda, unofficially in 1609 and officially in 1612, its spin-off, the Somers Isles Company, to which Bermuda (also known as the Somers Isles) was transferred in 1615, and the Newfoundland Company which settled Cuper's Cove near St John's, Newfoundland in 1610. Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts Bay were also charter colonies.
Bermuda, today the oldest-remaining British Overseas Territory, was settled and claimed by England as a result of the shipwreck there in 1609 of the Virginia Company's flagship Sea Venture. The town of St George's, founded in Bermuda in 1612, remains the oldest continuously-inhabited English settlement in the New World. Some historians state that with its formation predating the conversion of "James Fort" into "Jamestown" in 1619, St George's was actually the first successful town the English established in the New World. Bermuda and Bermudians have played important, sometimes pivotal, roles in the shaping of the English and British trans-Atlantic empires. These include roles in maritime commerce, settlement of the continent and of the West Indies, and the projection of naval power via the colony's privateers, among others.
Between 1640 and 1660, the West Indies were the destination of more than two-thirds of English emigrants to the New World. By 1650, there were 44,000 English people in the Caribbean, compared to 12,000 on the Chesapeake and 23,000 in New England. The most substantial English settlement in that period was at Barbados.
In 1660, King Charles II established the Royal African Company, essentially a trading company dealing in slaves, led by his brother James, Duke of York. In 1661, Charles's marriage to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza brought him the ports of Tangier in Africa and Bombay in India as part of her dowry. Tangier proved very expensive to hold and was abandoned in 1684.
After the Dutch surrender of Fort Amsterdam to English control in 1664, England took over the Dutch colony of New Netherland, including New Amsterdam. Formalized in 1667, this contributed to the Second Anglo–Dutch War. In 1664, New Netherland was renamed the Province of New York. At the same time, the English also came to control the former New Sweden, in the present-day US state of Delaware, which had also been a Dutch possession and later became part of Pennsylvania. In 1673, the Dutch regained New Netherland, but they gave it up again under the Treaty of Westminster of 1674.
Council of Trade and Foreign Plantations
In 1621, following a downturn in overseas trade which had created financial problems for the Exchequer, King James instructed his Privy Council to establish an ad hoc committee of inquiry to look into the causes of the decline. This was called The Lords of the Committee of the Privy Council appointed for the consideration of all matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations. Intended to be a temporary creation, the committee, later called a 'Council', became the origin of the Board of Trade which has had an almost continuous existence since 1621. The Committee quickly took a hand in promoting the more profitable enterprises of the English possessions, and in particular the production of tobacco and sugar.
List of English possessions in North America
List of English possessions in the West Indies
List of English possessions in Central and South America
English possessions in India and the East Indies
English possessions in Africa
Capture of Gibraltar. In 1704 Gibraltar was captured for England by an Anglo-Dutch fleet, becoming the country's first European overseas possession since the sale of Dunkirk to France in 1662. The Naval operation was commanded by George Rooke. Gibraltar later became a strategic naval base for the Royal Navy and was officially ceded to Great Britain in 1713.
Transformation into British Empire
The Treaty of Union of 1706, which with effect from 1707 combined England and Scotland into a new sovereign state called Great Britain, provided for the subjects of the new state to "have full freedom and intercourse of trade and navigation to and from any port or place within the said united kingdom and the Dominions and Plantations thereunto belonging". While the Treaty of Union also provided for the winding up of the Scottish African and Indian Company, it made no such provision for the English companies or colonies. In effect, with the Union they became British colonies.