The beginnings of the European colonialist movement and the commencement of the British Empire

A background to England and Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, just prior to their age of discovery.

1400 A snap shot of Europe and the rest of the world into which English and other European travellers were about to enter.
The world at this time could be divided into two, those who had learnt to plough the land and those who had not. (A division invented by the English c.1600 allegedly based on the Bible). Actually it went much father than this. Those who were still hunter gatherers or marginal and occasional farmers had not discovered the wheel, metal tools, gunpowder or horses or other domesticated animals other than dogs and the others. In other words much of the world was still populated by stoneage peoples. This applied to lands not yet known to Euro-Asians such as the Americas, Australasia and central and southern Africa. To further drive this divide home, half the world were still using bows and arrows with stone tips while the other half had access to hardened steel swords and gun powder and cannons used in various manifestations including hand held (Match Lock pistols). As noted elsewhere on this site, only Europe, following Roman Christian rules, were monogamous, elsewhere men “enjoyed” four wives or more which classed them as uncivilised.

In the so called civilised part of he world the leading nation was China with a population already over 100 million. Next in line was the Indian subcontinent and in third place we have Europe who had stood still for the 1000 years following the fall of the Roman Empire. The population of England was between 4 and 5 million and France some 20 million. All of Europe had suffered regularly from bouts of the Bubonic Plague and also the Black Death of 1348. Even with these regular bouts of population reducing diseases plus regular wars, Europeans were, on the whole, always short of cultivated land and food. As well as internal wars, Europeans, rather than expanding their territories, were regularly being attacked by outsiders, the most persistent being the Muslins from the south and east. In 1453 the Muslim Ottoman Turks eventually took the last outpost of the Christian Roman Empire and headquarters of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church in Constantinople (Istanbul), not to mention almost taking Vienna.

1400 Most Historians give this date as the end of the European Middle Ages and for the commencement of an increase of standards of living, advances in science (Astronomy for example), a rediscovery of art (The Renaissance), the invention of printing and then a religious rebellion (The Reformation). The leaders in all these with the exception of the latter two, were the Italians. (Italy at this time was not a country but a series of self ruling relatively sophisticated city states eg Venice, Genoa, Florence). The English by contrast were in the middle of a hundred years war with France in an attempt to get back the lands in France they had ruled under Henry 2nd in 1150. By 1415 following the battle of Agincourt (still fought with swords and bows and arrows) England had recovered all their lands but failed to consolidate and with the help of a young girl, “Joan of Arc, the French troops rallied and the English gains were annulled. Peace was struck with France. For England there immediately followed a 30 year civil war (Wars of the Roses) ending in 1485 with the victory by Henry 7th or Henry Tudor and relative peace at last, permitting domestic economic and social improvements.

The commencement of European exploration as a prelude to expansion. 1400-1650

THE PORTUGUESE are the first

The first was a Portuguese prince, Henry the Navigator (1394-1460). Initially a military man he won a decisive victory in North Africa and realising the importance of ships set up a School of Navigation in the Algarve 1419. He inspired and sponsored colonising trips in the Atlantic to Madeira, the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands plus trips south down the coast of Africa as far as Sierra Leone setting up numerous trading posts. This inspired a series of Portuguese adventurers to extend his tracks as follows:

  • 1487 Bartolomeu Dias sails south along the West African coast and rounding the Cape of Good Hope, enters the Indian Ocean.
  • 1497-99 Vasco da Gama follows Dias and reaches southern India (Calicut)
  • 1500 Pedro Alvares Cabral sails to Brazil. Probably by mistake. He eventually makes the west coast of India.
  • 1516 The Portuguese have now reached China (Macao) via Malaya. They all set up trading posts and watering stops.
  • 1557 The Portuguese got as far as southern Japan (Nagasaki).

By 1600 the Portuguese had a good grip on the sea routes to the Spice (pepper etc) territories (India and Indonesia) and for silk and china (porcelain) via their trading post in Chinese Macao. En route they set up the following trading posts and watering ports all manned by Portuguese settlers.
African coast:

  • Guinea-(Elmina) Black slaves to export to the plantations in the Americas
  • Angola for gold and slaves
  • Sofala Gold.
  • Mozambique
  • Zanzibar
  • Mombassa

India and beyond:

  • India, Goa and Cochin and Colombo Sri Lanka (Spices)
  • Malaya, Malacca
  • Ternate, Indonesian Spice Islands.
  • China, Macao.

Obviously a good basis for an Empire with a chain of some 50 ports and factories and a near monopoly of the spice trace financed with African Slaves and Gold. By 1530 the Portuguese had sugar plantations on the east of South America and were becoming rich with their early domination of the following trades. Spices, Silks, Porcelain, Gold, Slaves and Sugar.


1450 Up to this date European traders, notably Italians and particular from the city states of Venice and Genoa had navigated their tiny merchant sailing ships via Alexandria (Egypt) then to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean onwards to the Spice Islands of Indonesia and to China for pepper and nutmeg and silk and porcelain. Indeed Venice was the richest and most sophisticated town in Europe after Constantinople. In 1453 the dreaded Muslim Ottomans captured Constantinople (and renamed it Istanbul) and the Christian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean disappeared. Muslims now blocked the trade routes east to all Christian shipping. Vital spices for making the food consumed by the European wealthy, tasty, disappeared. Entrepreneurs from the shipping state of Genoa who were now locked into the Islamic Mediterranean travelled to the Atlantic based Western European Countries to find backers to seek other sea routes to China. The state of Venice started a slow decline.

Notable amongst the Italians were two Genoan navigators:

Christopher Columbus; Hired by the Spanish Christian fundamentalist fanatics, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Noted for their cruelty in the Spanish Inquisition. (Christians exterminating Jews). Columbus made four trips west looking for the coast of India which he thought he had discovered on his first trip, so the locals became known as Indians. Actually what he discovered was.

  1. 1492 The Bahamas and Hispaniola (now split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic)
  2. 1493-96 Guadeloupe, Porto Rico and Jamaica.
  3. 1498-1500 Trinidad and mainland South America.
  4. 1502-04 He returned ill.

John Cabot. (actually Giovanni Caboto). Fleeing the Islamic Mediterranean he settled in England in 1484 where he was hired by the first Tudor King, Henry 7th in 1497. Henry told him to go west like Columbus but keep out of the way of the then powerful Spanish hence go further north. John Cabot discovered Newfoundland. By this time the rumour that the Spanish had discovered hordes of gold and silver in their new territories across the Atlantic had reached England and Henry hoped for the same. John Cabot found no mineral riches but a fortune in Cod Fish and firs (timber) for building houses and ships.

Also an Italian but this time from Florence, rather than Genoa, we have; Amerigo Vespucci. Born into a rich banking family in 1454, his hobby as a boy was maths and astronomy. In 1494 he travelled to Spain on behalf of his families bank where he headed up a shipping company. At his first opportunity, 1499, he acted as navigator on one of the handful of ships which were now following Columbus across the Atlantic. In all he made four trips visiting the Caribbean and more importantly the coast of South America almost to the southern tip. He was the first to calculate how far west the American coast was and the first to realise it was not India or China but a hitherto unknown continent. His calculations were based on the changes in sightings of the Moon and Mars as he travelled west. Vespucci also wrote extensively about the native “Indians” in this new land pointing out their many wives, their techniques in childbirth, their sexual habits, clothes and diet. The recent invention of the printing press enabled his letters to be published all over Europe where in Germany a priest and amateur cartographer (Martin Waltseemuller) was building a new world map to show these new lands for the first time and labelled them America after Vespucci. The name stuck.


The two most famous “Spanish” maritime expeditions were manned by foreigners:

  • Columbus (Christopher) who as we have seen was Italian and
  • Magellan (Ferdinand) was a Portuguese.

Both sailed under the Spanish flag.

Columbus (1451-1506) gave Spain the knowledge of the New World to be called the Americas after the Italian Amerigo Vespucci, and Magellan (1480-1521) who was the first to circumnavigate the world by sailing south round the tip of South America into and across the Pacific to discover the sort after new route to the Muslim ruled Spice Islands (Moluccas, now part of Indonesia) where he was killed. The expedition continued under Elcano to arrive back in Spain via India and the Southern tip of Africa.

By 1500 some 6000 blood thirsty, religiously motivated, Spaniards (Conquistadores) were in the Americas in search of gold. By 1533 they had annihilated the “civilisations” in both Mexico and Peru. The local people had already mined the wealth in gold and silver the Spanish needed for their barbaric colonisation program which concentrated on searches for more gold and silver and converting the natives to Roman Catholic Christianity. This was generally possible only at the point of a sword which they used liberally. It should be remembered that at this time the Spanish were still celebrating, with religious fever, the removal of the Muslims (1492) and the brutal extermination of Jews (1492) in their homeland. Neither of the Southern American civilisations, the Aztec and Incas had developed beyond stone age and were therefore in no position to stand up to hardened steel, razor sharp swords and the occasional hand held cannon. (Flint-lock pistols). By 1650 the Spanish controlled all the lands on the Pacific side of the Americas from the south of present day Chile through Central America and Mexico and already had their barbaric missionaries and gold seeking colonizers north of the Rio Grande. Settlements, farming and living at peace with the natives was not in their psyche.


Following Henry 7th ‘s initiative with John Cabot, England had to wait 50 years before acquiring a King with the imagination and resolve to support maritime exploration. In fact it was a woman not a man, the great Queen Elizabeth 1st (1558-1603) who encouraged a spate of maritime expansion to;

  • Defend Protestant England against the Catholics of Europe and
  • Pirate Spanish ships loaded with silver and gold.
  • Explore west over the Atlantic
  • After the effective elimination by the English under Drake, of the huge Catholic Spanish invading Fleet, “Armada” off the south coast of England, to trade directly with India and the Spice Islands.

A north western Atlantic route was chosen for two reasons;

  1. To find a northerly route to China over what we now know as Northern Canada as the Spanish and Portuguese still dominated the southerly routes.
  2. To keep well away from any lands already being conquered and plundered by the much stronger Spanish.

So some 50 years after John Cabot’s discovery of Newfoundland in 1497 Queen Elizabeth 1st encouraged a number of English sailors or better privateers or even pirates to look for commercial opportunities in the brave new western world. Being at least 50 years behind the Spanish the initial easy pickings were supplying the slave trade and hi-jacking the Spanish ships laden with gold. Some of the well known characters were:

  • Willoughby and Chancellor 1553 Looking for an arctic route to the East they sailed north over Norway and ended up in Russia where they set up a successful trading post.
  • John Hawkings 1562 Commenced as a naval commander but found pirating and slave trading more profitable particularly in the company of Sir Francis Drake. After he assisted Drake to victory over the Spanish navy Armada in 1588, English ships could sail more freely and in 1602 Sir John Hawkins’ son Sir Richard Hawkings led an expedition to India and the Spice Islands were he set up trading posts for the British East India Company. (And plundered freely en route, it has to be said).
  • Frobisher and Gilbert 1567 and 1576,77,78. Made three trips to the north of Canada to find the elusive North West Passage and gave his name to Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island which he reported as a straight and possibly the North West Passage. He was wrong. Frobisher also served in the Armada and afterwards became a pirate.
  • Drake 1578 A relation of Sir John Hawkings. With the backing of Elizabeth 1st sailed through the Magellan Straight to attack Spanish possessions in Peru. On the way back he got lost and ended up circumnavigating the globe and on arrival back home was knighted by Elizabeth. Drake as Admiral of the English fleet, is best known for defeating the huge Spanish naval Catholic invasion fleet (Armada) off Plymouth in 1588.
  • Davis 1585 Explored Greenland and the Artic
  • Lancaster 1594 One of the main figures responsible for setting up trading posts in the East Indies
  • Raleigh 1584-9 A favourite of Queen Elizabeth 1st who was the first Englishman to set up a colony on the east coast of North America where he called the area Virginia after his Virgin Queen. (Now North Carolina) Also famous for bringing back tobacco, and the potato which he grew successfully in is estates in Ireland. His first colonialists in Virginia died mainly because of the malaria in the area.
  • Hudson 1607-11 Henry Hudson made four trips in search of the North West passage during this period both under the English and Dutch flags. He has the Hudson River (New York) and the Hudson Bay (Canada) named after him

The English were therefore set up for future trading posts for spices and silk, plus fishing, farming, Lumber and Firs on the North American east coast from Newfoundland to Virginia and in the far north of Canada plus East in India, the East Indies and China.


The French explorers initially concentrated west as did the English and looked for the elusive Northwest Passage to China. In 1534 Jacques Cartier explored the north east coast of North America and in the following year sailed down the St Lawrence as far as what is now called Montreal. This trip set the scene for many French to follow in search of trade in furs and the eventual domination of the area by who we know now as French Canadians. Over 100 years later in 1664, under the patronage of King Louis 14th the French founded the French East India company set up to compete with the hated English and Dutch equivalents that had a good 50 years start on them.


Between 1500 and 1650 the Dutch who were Protestant similar to the English and in the 16th century had a larger fleet than the English, set up trading posts or small colonies on:

  • The East Coast of North America in the Hudson River and on the south tip of Manhattan Island which is now New York but then was New Amsterdam.
  • In the East Indies, where early in the 17th century, they easily took the spice trade and many watering posts en-route, away from the Portuguese. The Dutch East India Company became the largest trading company in Europe at this time.
  • In South Africa where as the English were to do in Boston North America some Dutch Calvinist fundamentalists farmers set up in a land where no white man would appear for another 200 years. (To become known as the Boers)