European Colonization of North America

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How did the English colonization experience in Ireland shape their expectations for colonizing America?

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The English experiences of colonizing Ireland affected their colonization of America by making them see the Native Americans as a threat and as culturally inferior. The English colonial experience of Ireland shaped their expectations about America by encouraging them to see it as a land fit for exploitation and control.

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English colonization in Ireland set an unfortunate precedent for English colonization in America. The Anglo-Normans (descendants of the Normans who conquered England itself in 1066) arrived in Ireland in 1169 at the request of an Irish king. The king needed help in one of his ongoing conflicts, but he soon discovered that he had made a huge mistake in reaching out to England.

English King Henry II quickly decided that Ireland would make an excellent addition to his realm, and he moved in and took over, annexing Ireland into the English empire. Henry began handing out Irish land to his supporters, and other Englishmen followed suit, seizing more and more land and forcing the now-colonized Irish firmly into the status of second-class (or third-class or fourth-class) citizens and often into poverty. English leaders were busy elsewhere and ignored the situation. The Irish were inferior anyway, they believed, and didn't merit assistance or respect.

The situation worsened when England became Protestant. The Irish held fast to their Catholicism, tensions increased dramatically, and violence often exploded. When English King Charles I began imposing heavy taxes on Ireland, the Irish were furious, because English citizens were not experiencing the same taxation. The burden fell on Ireland, which was already suffering greatly under English rule. Charles's successor, Puritan Oliver Cromwell, destroyed the remainder of the Irish Catholic landholders through his harsh policies of confiscation.

Much of this should sound familiar, for many of the same principles, attitudes, and actions apply to the English colonization of America. When settlers first arrived on the East Coast, they claimed the land for themselves. Never mind the people already settled there, they thought, for the Native Americans were merely heathens and certainly inferior. The English could take their land without a second thought, just like they did in Ireland, and force the former occupants off. Tensions, of course, rose, and violence broke out. The English had not learned the lesson of Ireland.

Of course, the tables soon turned on the English colonists when their king and Parliament started placing the burden of heavy taxes on their shoulders, just as they had in Ireland. The colonies, after all, were for the benefit of the empire, not the other way around, and leaders believed that they could exploit them without any explanation, just as they had done in Ireland.

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The first English colonists of America brought with them a number of prejudices and preconceptions they'd derived from centuries of colonizing Ireland. The English had been colonizing Ireland since the twelfth century, and this gave them a good deal of experience in founding and running new colonies in hostile lands.

For centuries, the English had looked down on the Irish, seeing them as culturally and racially inferior. This feeling of superiority only increased in the wake of the Reformation, when the Protestant English systematically repressed the overwhelmingly Catholic Irish.

For the English, the colonial project, especially as it had developed in Ireland, was about exploiting a foreign land for England's own benefit, be it strategically or economically. And the English carried this attitude with them when they first set sail for America.

The first settlers came to believe that the New World had been given to them by God and that they therefore had a divine right to take the land for themselves, even if it was already occupied. When English settlers inevitably ran into opposition from indigenous tribes, they treated them in much the same way that they'd treated the Irish: with repression, much of it exceptionally brutal.

The English believed that they were racially and culturally superior to Native Americans, exactly the same attitude that they had towards the Irish. Inevitably, this led to the development of a master–servant relationship between the English colonists and Indigenous people. And as the English conquered more and more land, they became ever more convinced that, as with their Irish colonies, the extensive tracts of land that they'd now acquired were a sign of divine favor.

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The English colonial experience in Ireland, which began around 1162, intensified under Henry VIII, from the House of Tudor, in the 1500s. In 1542, he created the title King of Ireland, and under the Tudors, English law was imposed in Ireland. In the 1600s, wars to intensify English control of Ireland caused death and destruction, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Irish people. Henry VIII had become Protestant in 1533 after separating himself from the Roman Catholic church, and the religious divide between England and Ireland intensified their conflict (particularly after the Test Act of 1762 barred Catholics from holding public office). Over time, English law denied Catholics rights and land ownership.

This type of colonial administration shaped the expectations of the English towards their settlement in America. It made English settlers regard the Native Americans as inferior heathens, much as the English regarded the Irish as heathen. In addition, the English were accustomed to using mass slaughter as a method to enforce their political and legal authority, and English settlers in America turned to the same techniques in their treatment of Native Americans. Just as the English insisted on Protestantism in Ireland and were unwilling to accept any form of syncretism (or blending of Irish and English religions and traditions), so did English settlers in the New World also try to enforce their religion and culture on Native Americans without regard to existing Native American traditions. English settlers tried to enslave Native Americans, but when they found that Native Americans died in captivity or resisted captivity, the English in the Americans turned to enslaving Africans. Their experience in Ireland taught the English to enforce their sense of superiority on other peoples, using force to subjugate others. 

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English colonization of Ireland, which stretched as far back as 1100, intensified many of their beliefs about themselves and about "the other." In particular, Ireland provided them with a model for expropriating land, and a justification for doing so. The English argued that the Irish did not improve their land through the type of cultivation that was becoming dominant in England, so they claimed that they were justified in taking it.

Over time, Anglo-Norman Irish political leaders grew restless, and the series of wars, beginning in the sixteenth century, demonstrated to the English that they could subdue a hostile people, and discipline them as a labor force, if they were willing to use enough force. Cromwell's actions against Ireland demonstrate the lengths to which the English were willing to go.

As thousands of English settlers streamed into Ireland, the English developed a model of exploitation that would be transported to its colonies in America. Colonies could serve as both markets for English goods and suppliers of raw materials. Native cultures could be destroyed or subjugated, and colonies could be profitable.

The Irish experience also convinced Englishmen of their own superiority over people that did not live as they did. Many of the tropes used to describe "savages" in the New World had been used for years to describe the Irish.

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