European Colonization of North America

Start Free Trial

Why were the British more successful than the French and Dutch in colonizing North America?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The British were ultimately more successful than the Dutch and French in colonizing North America because of sheer numbers. From the start, the British came to the continent with the intent of settling it. By contrast, the Dutch and French saw the region as more of a source for resources to be sent back to Europe.

Most of the French and Dutch in North America had little intention of setting up a permanent and large colony. They had established a few cities, such as Montreal and New Amsterdam, but few ventured far beyond these. Those that did were mostly concerned with finding resources to obtain, namely furs and pelts.

The rulers back in Europe actually made it very difficult for French and Dutch settlers to obtain and manage land. They tended to be stuck on the old European model of feudal land management. In many cases, only nobility could officially hold on to land in the New World. Since most Dutch and French nobility were quite comfortable back in Europe, there was little desire to take the risk of trying to establish a new fiefdom in the relative wilderness that was North America at the time.

By contrast, the British encouraged migration to their colonies. Almost anyone could settle the land. All they had to do was establish a use for the land. The English policy of vacuum domicilium meant that any land that appeared to be underutilized could be settled by an Englishman with a serious intent to utilize it for profit.

Settlement in the English colonies was also encouraged by the rather hands-off approach of the British government. Unlike France and the Netherlands, who tried to directly control and manage their overseas holdings, British authorities were happy enough to let their colonists manage their own affairs.

This was an attractive arrangement for the many British citizens who were unhappy at home. Religious dissidents, such as the Puritans, and the impoverished came to North America in great numbers to seek a better life. Eventually, non-British colonists were allowed to settle in some of the English colonies, further bolstering the population.

In short, since there were always very few French and Dutch colonists in North America compared to British colonists, they were never able to truly compete for hegemony in the region.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The reasons that the British achieved more success in colonizing North America involved their motivations, the geographies of the lands that they claimed, and the numbers of colonists that left Europe to settle in the "New World."

For instance, the Dutch were primarily traders, and the few settlements that they established in North America were considered a source of mercantile income. Because they were mostly interested in business, they did not bother with developing Native American alliances and were not concerned with religious conversion. As a result, they established a few outposts along the Delaware and Hudson Rivers, and their presence in North America lasted only about 40 years.

Being far to the north, the French had access to the continental interior only through the St. Lawrence River and the water systems of the Great Lakes. They were also primarily interested in trade—particularly the fur trade—and they also imported Jesuit priests to convert tribes in their territory to Catholicism. However, they did not settle North America as families. As a result, in 1640, when thousands of English settlers had emigrated to Maryland, Virginia, and New England, there were only about 300 settlers in all of the vast French North American territories.

The British eventually overwhelmed the Dutch and the French by their imperial vision and by their sheer force of numbers. Not only did they establish beachheads on several points along the North American coast, but their populations burgeoned due to waves of new settlers willing to move to the colonies due to crises at home. Many British colonists were former prisoners, indentured servants, and religious exiles. They took a chance on relocation due to unemployment, economic depression, bad harvests, and persecution. These tens of thousands of new settlers arriving with their families made the difference in the success of British colonization efforts.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There were reasons why the British had more success than the French and the Dutch in establishing colonies in North America. The Dutch were very cautious people, and many people were very hesitant to leave the familiarity of their homeland. Also, political, religious, and economic conditions were good in the Netherlands. As a result, many people had no reason to leave the Netherlands and come to North America.

French policies did not encourage people to come to North America. Only the nobles could own land, and only Catholics were allowed to come and settle in North America. The French offered few freedoms for those came to North America. As a result, their settlements grew slowly.

The British made it more attractive for settlers to come to North America. Land ownership was allowed. In some colonies, there was religious freedom. The people had their own legislatures in the colonies. There were more rights for the colonists, such as the right to a jury trial and the right to bring complaints to the King. As a result, the British colonies grew quicker and were more successful than the colonies established by the Dutch and the French.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Dutch were unable to succeed because they tried to recreate feudal manors in their colony of New Netherlands.  This failed because very few people were interested in coming to the New World to be serfs on the estate of a patroon.

The French failed largely because they tried to be too centralized.  They tried to keep very close control of their colonies.  They did not allow people from other European countries to come to their colonies and they did not allow dissenting French people (like the Huguenots) to come over either.

By contrast, the British allowed essentially anyone to come to their colonies.  There were many different colonies and they were allowed to have a large degree of self-government.  These things attracted many colonists to the British colonies while the French and Dutch had relatively few.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial