Spain had a one-hundred year head start on New World colonization and a jealous England eyed the enormous wealth that Spain gleaned from the new World. The Protestant Reformation had shaken England but Elizabeth I assumed the English crown in 1558 and oversaw the expansion of trade and exploration–and the literary achievements of Shakespeare and Marlowe–during England’s so-called “golden age.” English mercantilism, a state-assisted manufacturing and trading system, created and maintained markets, ensured a steady supply of consumers and laborers, stimulated economic expansion, and increased English wealth.
However, wrenching social and economic changes unsettled the English population. The island’s population increased from fewer than three million in 1500 to over five million by the middle of the seventeenth century. The skyrocketing cost of land coincided with plummeting farming income. Rents and prices rose but wages stagnated. Moreover, the so-called “enclosure” movement–sparked by the transition of English landholders from agriculture to livestock-raising–evicted tenants from the land and created hordes of landless, jobless peasants that haunted the cities and countryside. One-quarter to one-half of the population lived in extreme poverty.
New World colonization won support in England amid a time of rising English fortunes among the wealthy, a tense Spanish rivalry, and mounting internal social unrest. But English colonization supporters always touted more than economic gains and mere national self-interest. They claimed to be doing God’s work.
Many cited spiritual concerns and argued that colonization would glorify God, England, and Protestantism by Christianizing the New World’s pagan peoples. Advocates such as Richard Hakluyt the Younger and John Dee, for instance, drew upon The History of the Kings of Britain, written by the twelfth century monk Geoffrey of Monmouth, and its mythical account of King Arthur’s conquest and Christianization of pagan lands to justify American conquest. Moreover, promoters promised that the conversion of New World Indians would satisfy God and glorify England’s “Virgin Queen,” Elizabeth I, who was verging on a near-divine image among the English. The English—and other European Protestant colonizers—imagined themselves superior to the Spanish, who still bore the Black Legend of inhuman cruelty. English colonization, supporters argued, would prove that superiority.
In his 1584 “Discourse on Western Planting,” Richard Hakluyt amassed the supposed religious, moral, and exceptional economic benefits of colonization. He repeated the “Black Legend” of Spanish New World terrorism and attacked the sins of Catholic Spain. He promised that English colonization could strike a blow against Spanish heresy and bring Protestant religion to the New World. English interference, Hakluyt suggested, may provide the only salvation from Catholic rule in the New World. The New World, too, he said, offered obvious economic advantages. Trade and resource extraction would enrich the English treasury. England, for instance, could find plentiful materials to outfit a world-class navy. Moreover, he said, the New World could provide an escape for England’s vast armies of landless “vagabonds.” Expanded trade, he argued, would not only bring profit, but also provide work for England’s jobless poor. A Christian enterprise, a blow against Spain, an economic stimulus, and a social safety valve all beckoned the English toward a commitment to colonization.
This noble rhetoric veiled the coarse economic motives that brought England to the New World. New economic structures and a new merchant class paved the way for colonization. England’s merchants lacked estates but they had new plans to build wealth. By collaborating with new government-sponsored trading monopolies and employing financial innovations such as joint-stock companies, England’s merchants sought to improve on the Dutch economic system. Spain was extracting enormous material wealth from the New World; why shouldn’t England? Joint-stock companies, the ancestors of the modern corporations, became the initial instruments of colonization. With government monopolies, shared profits, and managed risks, these money-making ventures could attract and manage the vast capital needed for colonization. In 1606 James I approved the formation of the Virginia Company (named after Elizabeth, the “Virgin Queen”).
Rather than formal colonization, however, the most successful early English ventures in the New World were a form of state-sponsored piracy known as privateering. Queen Elizabeth sponsored sailors, or “Sea Dogges,” such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake, to plunder Spanish ships and towns in the Americas. Privateers earned a substantial profit both for themselves and for the English crown. England practiced piracy on a scale, one historian wrote, “that transforms crime into politics.” Francis Drake harried Spanish ships throughout the Western Hemisphere and raided Spanish caravans as far away as the coast of Peru on the Pacific Ocean. In 1580 Elizabeth rewarded her skilled pirate with knighthood. But Elizabeth walked a fine line. Protestant-Catholic tensions already running high, English privateering provoked Spain. Tensions worsened after the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic. In 1588, King Philip II of Spain unleashed the fabled Armada. With 130 Ships, 8,000 sailors, and 18,000 soldiers, Spain launched the largest invasion in history to destroy the British navy and depose Elizabeth.
An island nation, England depended upon a robust navy for trade and territorial expansion. England had fewer ships than Spain but they were smaller and swifter. They successfully harassed the Armada, forcing it to retreat to the Netherlands for reinforcements. But then a fluke storm, celebrated in England as the “divine wind,” annihilated the remainder of the fleet. The destruction of the Armada changed the course of world history. It not only saved England and secured English Protestantism, but it also opened the seas to English expansion and paved the way for England’s colonial future. By 1600, England stood ready to embark upon its dominance over North America.
English colonization would look very different from Spanish or French colonization, as was indicated by early experiences with the Irish. England had long been trying to conquer Catholic Ireland. The English used a model of forcible segregation with the Irish that would mirror their future relationships with Native Americans. Rather than integrating with the Irish and trying to convert them to Protestantism, England more often simply seized land through violence and pushed out the former inhabitants, leaving them to move elsewhere or to die.
English colonization, however, began haltingly. Sir Humphrey Gilbert labored throughout the late-sixteenth century to establish a colony in New Foundland but failed. In 1587, with a predominantly male cohort of 150 English colonizers, John White reestablished an abandoned settlement on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island. Supply shortages prompted White to return to England for additional support but the Spanish Armada and the mobilization of British naval efforts stranded him in Britain for several years. When he finally returned to Roanoke, he found the colony abandoned. What befell the failed colony? White found the word “Croatan,” the name of a nearby island and Indian people, carved into a tree or a post in the abandoned colony. Historians presume the colonists, short of food, may have fled for the nearby island and its settled native population. Others offer violence as an explanation. Regardless, the English colonists were never heard from again. When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, no Englishmen had yet established a permanent North American colony.
After King James made peace with Spain in 1604, privateering no longer held out the promise of cheap wealth. Colonization assumed a new urgency. The Virginia Company, established in 1606, drew inspiration from Cortes and the Spanish conquests. It hoped to find gold and silver as well as other valuable trading commodities in the New World: glass, iron, furs, pitch, tar, and anything else the country could supply. The Company planned to identify a navigable river with a deep harbor, away from the eyes of the Spanish. There they would find an Indian trading network and extract a fortune from the New World.