European Colonization of North America

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What motivated England to establish American colonies?

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The main impetus for English colonization of the New World was economic. Unlike Spanish or French colonial ventures, English colonization was driven by the private sector—by merchants and businessmen who saw the Americas as a boundless source of riches.

To be sure, these colonists had to gain official permission from...

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the English authorities before embarking on their missions, but successive English kings were only too happy to grant royal charters, which they believed would make them players on the international stage. For centuries, the English had been reluctant to become embroiled in Europe's internal squabbles. But at the same time, England aspired to great power status. Establishing colonies in the New World was seen as a way of achieving this goal without going to war with other European powers.

In addition to the enormous commercial benefits that the English saw in the Americas, they also looked upon the New World as giving them an opportunity to settle longstanding religious issues. For orthodox Anglicans, colonization became a useful way of getting rid of dissenting troublemakers. As for the dissenters themselves, the New World gave them a chance to start over, to establish a godly kingdom on earth free from state persecution and repression.

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There were a number of motivations for English colonization of the Americas. One of the earliest motivators was competition with Spain. Spain had been making significant inroads into the New World since the beginning of the sixteenth century. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the English felt that the time was right to enter the colonization game. Spain had been growing rich, profiting enormously off its colonies. Now that England had naval supremacy, many English felt that they should be taking advantage of the resources of the Americas too. It was now a good time for England to establish new colonies before the Spanish could regroup and make further inroads into the Caribbean and North America.

Another major prompt for colonization of the Americas was an attempt to address a major economic downturn that was plaguing England. At the start of the seventeenth century, the wool market had collapsed. The wool industry had been one of the major employers of the English rural lower classes. Without this source of income, many found themselves faced with poverty. To solve this crisis, Parliament started to encourage more Englishmen to head to the colonies under the auspices of joint-stock companies in order to bolster the home economy.

A third motivation was freedom of religious expression. Groups such as the Pilgrims and Puritans were chafing under the government-sanctioned practices of the Church of England. They wanted to reform the practices of the church, which they felt were too worldly. However, since the church and the state were one and the same, this put them at great risk. By heading off to the New World—namely the New England colonies—these groups were able to put enough distance between themselves and England to practice their religion as they wished.

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England was motivated to establish the American colonies for complex reasons. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries marked economic changes and the sudden increase in demand for woolen cloth. With the dawn of the Enclosure Acts, landowners could suddenly fence off their farms; this resulted in both an increase in the product of wool to be sold throughout Europe and the sudden uprooting of smaller farmers who had rented plots of land from larger farmers.

Faced with sudden poverty, these migrating farmers hopefully saw the New World as a place for possible re-establishment, while English leaders saw the potential colonization of the Americas as a way to resolve the displacement of these individuals and the poor.

Additionally, England believed that settling the colonies could prove to be profitable, desiring to take advantage the seemingly limitless and untouched natural resources that would be available there. These raw materials could be sent directly back to England so that the country would no longer have to purchase them from other countries. The colonies could then themselves act as a market for England's manufactured goods. 

Thus, out of these political and economic interests, the Virginia Company was granted its first chapter by King James I, giving permission for the joint-stock company to establish their first colonies in Virginia.

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Why did the British establish colonies in America?

The British had many reasons for establishing colonies in North America. One reason was to eventually find the Northwest Passage, a waterway to China. This never did materialize. The British also desired the raw materials from the New World. Britain was a latecomer to the colonization game, as France and Spain already had colonies in the Americas. Britain was able to benefit from American timber and foodstuffs to make their country one of the most dominant in Europe.

Britain also used the American continent as a dumping ground for its unwanted people. Britain had many religious dissenters, such as Quakers, Catholics, and Puritans. It also had a substantial population of poor people. Instead of persecuting these groups, it would be a lot simpler to send them to the New World. In the New World, they would hopefully grow and prosper. In time, they would also be an additional market for English goods. Of course, Britain also realized that some of them would die due to harsh conditions in the Americas, but Britain would be rid of these potential troublemakers anyway. This logic is why Britain ultimately came to possess the continent—its greatest export during the colonial era was its people.

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Why did Britain colonize the Americas?

The reasons why Britain sought to colonize the Americas were largely economic. In the early seventeenth century, England was recovering from a long period of economic downturns. The nation was also emerging as a dominant power in Europe after Spain and France had experienced a number of significant setbacks of their own. As such, Britain found itself poised to colonize the New World.

With Spain still recovering from the defeat of the Armada, Britain saw that it had little competition in North America. British economists and business leaders wanted to establish a foothold on the continent to use it as a base for finding and exploiting the resources of this land. In the Americas, the English found lands that could be exploited for their resources and subsequently enrich their nation. Profits from the timber of New England, the sugar of the Caribbean, and the tobacco of the Southern Colonies led to a boom in the economy of England.

Population growth and unemployment in Britain was another motivator of colonization. There was a concern that having too many idle workers around would lead to criminality and the erosion of society. England looked to the Americas as a place where out-of-work Englishmen could go and find opportunities.

There were also strategic military advantages to colonizing the Americas. With Spain on its heels, the English took advantage of this time to establish military bases in the New World. When Spain was eventually able to regroup from the defeat of the Armada, they found a powerful foe already well-entrenched in the Americas.

Finally, there were also religious motivations for colonizing the Americas. The British were concerned that the Spanish and the French could create a large Catholic hegemony in the New World. The British hoped that through colonization they could extend Protestantism to the Americas before Catholicism could take root throughout the hemisphere. There were also English religious minorities, particularly the Puritans, who left for the Americas in the hope of being able to practice their faith without the influence or interference of other religious sects, such as the Church of England. They wanted to establish a religious utopia in America.

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Why did the English want to colonize America?

English motivations were entirely different from those of Spain, which hoped to enrich itself, and France, which hoped to profit from the fur trade. Although the various groups who traveled to the Americas had separate motives, the basic reason for colonization was stated by Richard Hakluyt in his 1584 Discourse on Western Planting:

  • Extend the new Protestant Christianity to the New World.
  • Create a basis for expansion of trade.
  • Provide a source of raw materials
  • Provide military bases to assist in the war with Spain which was ongoing.
  • Increase revenue for the royal treasury.
  • Find the elusive Northwest Passage to the East.
  • Provide employment for the large number of Englishmen who were idled.

Wrote Hakluyt:

And where England now for certain hundreth years last passed, by the peculiar commodity of wools, and of later years by clothing of the same, hath raised itself from meaner state to greatr wealth and much highr honour, mighty and power than before, to the equaling of the princes of the same to the greatst potentates of this part of the world it cometh now so to passe, that by the great endeavour of the increase of the trade of wools in Spain and in the West Indies, now daily more and more multiplying that the wools of England, and the clothe made of the same, will become base, and every day more base then other; which, prudently weighed yet behoveth this realm if it mean not to return to former olde means and baseness but to stand in present and late former honour, glory, and force, and not negligently and sleepingly to slide into beggery, to foresee and to plant at Norumbega [New England] or some like place, were it not for any thing else but for the hope of the vent of our wool endraped, the principal and in effect the only enriching continuing natural commodity of this realm. And effectually pursuing that course, we shall not only find on that tract of land, and especially in that firm northward (to whom warm clothe shall be right welcome), an ample vent, but also shall, from the north side of that firm, find out known and unknown islands and dominions replenished with people that may fully vent the abundance of that our commodity, that else will in few years wax of none or of small value by foreign abundance &c.; so as by this enterprise we shall shun the imminent mischief hanging over our heads that else must needs fall upon the realm without breach of peace or sword drawn against this realm by any foreign state; and not offer our ancient riches to scornful neighbors at home, nor sell the same in effect for nothing, as we shall shortly, if presently it be not provided for. . . .

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Why did European colonists come to America?

European colonists came to America for a number of reasons. Many of them came because they wanted to get on in life. In Europe, societies tended to be quite hierarchical, and so it was difficult for people to rise in social status. America promised them the opportunity to start afresh, a chance to make their own way in the world unhampered by social prejudice.

Right from the start, America earned the reputation of being a land of opportunity, where everyone could become successful if only they were prepared to work hard. This proved an attractive proposition to many Europeans, who knew that no matter how hard they worked in their home countries, they would never be able to improve their lot. And so they turned their gaze towards America for hope and inspiration.

In those days, wealth was primarily conceived of in terms of land-ownership. But in small countries such as England, where land was in short supply, opportunities to own land were limited, to say the least. The New World, however, promised tens of thousands of acres of land on which potential settlers could build new lives for themselves and their families. That most of this land had been in the possession of Native-American tribes for centuries was not thought to be a problem. Nor was sufficient attention given to whether or not the land, even if it did become available, would be suitable for the settlers' needs. In any case, the land hunger among the settlers was so strong that such pressing concerns were either ignored or minimized, with often tragic consequences.

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Why did English colonists settle in North America?

English colonists had many reasons for settling in North America. The settlers of Jamestown came for riches and adventure. The early maps of Jamestown showed that there was a Northwest Passage near the colony, even though none existed. These men hoped to find a waterway to China and lots of gold. It took John Smith and tobacco to make Jamestown prosperous.

English colonists also came for religious freedom. The Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Quakers settled in Pennsylvania, and Catholics settled in Maryland. Each group practiced a religion that was harassed in England. England was able to use the New World as a place to dump religious dissenters, thus turning a liability into an asset as the colonists developed the New World and started to send raw materials back to the mother country.

Some English colonists arrived out of desperation. Some non-church members arrived with the Pilgrims in order to escape England. Many indentured servants came to the New World and paid for their passage with labor. The lucky ones who survived disease and various other hardships received land. James Oglethorpe established Georgia as a colony for the "deserving poor." Some people left for the New World in order to escape debts or criminal charges in England. While they did not make up the majority of the colonists, the New World would continue to be a place where one could reinvent oneself and try to make a better life.

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