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A 6 Pages Term Paper on English Colonization During the

16th and 17th Century

Historical explanations are much harder to address in terms of their "truth." Is it true, for example, that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because they felt that they were defending their interests against aggressive American foreign policy? This is at least one reason that modern historians have assigned for the raid, but there are others. In essence, the problem is that no historical event happens for just one reason, and the historian's assignment of greater or lesser weight to certain reasons or causes is a matter of scholarly plausibility, not truth or falsity.

Similarly, it will be too unwise to assign only one or two reasons namely “for profit” or “for possession” to the English colonization of the 16th and the 17th century. Yes, these were two major reasons, but were equally coupled with many other socio-politico-economic factors.

The European empire is said to have held sway over more than 85% of the rest of the globe by the time of the First World War, having consolidated its control over several centuries. The sheer extent and duration of the European empire and its disintegration after the Second World War have led to widespread interest in postcolonial literature and criticism in our own times. The list of former colonies of European powers is a long one. They are divided into settler (e.g. Australia, Canada) and non-settler countries (India, Jamaica, Nigeria, Senegal, Sri Lanka). Countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, which were partially settled by colonial populations, complicate even this simple division between settler and non-settler. For instance, the United States might also be described as a postcolonial country, but it is not perceived as such because of its position of power in world politics in the present, its displacement of native American populations, and its annexation of other parts of the world in what may be seen as a form of colonization.

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What we used to call the "Discovery of America" was really a "first contact" between two sets of civilizations and cultures. Indeed, European colonists in North America would not have survived without the aid of the Indian peoples who greeted and befriended them and taught them what crops to cultivate, what game to hunt, and how to build shelters.

There were some beneficial results of contact, however; Europeans introduced new technologies, crops, and domestic animals to the Americas, and Indian peoples absorbed these innovations into their own cultures and economies. And, even though Spanish authorities insisted on supplanting (often by forcible conversion) indigenous religions with Roman Catholicism, the Roman Catholic clergy soon emerged as powerful advocates for justice for native peoples. Ultimately, however, Europeans received the great majority of the benefits of American colonization.

The story of English colonization of the 16th and 17th century is more than the story of contact between Europeans and Indians. It is also the story of the Europeans' attempts to found colonies in the Americas -- some as bases for exploration, conquest, and exploitation; others as permanent colonies.

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Factors/Motivations for the English would-be colonizers

Before we examine the differing motivations that European nations had to come to the Americas, we should analyze the factors they had in common. All the European nations were beginning to experience a massive growth in population, recovering from the terrible depredations of the Black Death of the fourteenth century. Population growth brought in its wake the growth of national economies, the growth of consumer demand (including demand for exotic products), and the development of advances in shipbuilding and navigation, so that mariners could compete more effectively in the mercantile traffic of fifteenth-century and sixteenth-century Europe. The resurgence of commerce also gave a powerful impetus to the forces of centralization and nationalism, building powerful new monarchic nations whose leaders were intent on consolidating their claims to power by cultivating and fostering the economic development of their nations. Finally, European nations, fascinated by and hungry for increased trade with the wealthy nations of Asia (and inspired by the popular accounts of travelers such as the Venetian merchant Marco Polo), sought better and more effective routes of transportation and trade -- which, in turn, drove these governments to encourage advances in shipbuilding and navigation, and then voyages of exploration. As Joainie Lipke mentions in Cultural Collisions

http://parallel.park.uga.edu/~lisaboyd/102M/f97/102msamp/sampe1jl.html

Perhaps the greatest cultural collision in the history of the world is that of the English versus the Native Americans during the colonization of the New World. This story is the classic tale of "how the west was won," or rather, "how the west was lost.

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The Spanish and the Portuguese came to the Americas to pursue dreams of empire, both secular and religious. Although the Portuguese acquired Brazil under the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), the Spanish were the principal Iberian power in the Americas. The French also came to the Americas for wealth and power, but their methods were different. They did not seek to conquer the regions they explored and laid claim to -- only to repel the competing claims of rival powers like Spain and England and to establish a foothold for themselves in the American continents.

The English were laggards in the race for the Americas, but, because they ultimately changed their understanding of the nature and purpose of colonies, the English colonies eventually were among the most successful in the Americas. At first, English explorers sought the same kinds of benefits that animated the Spanish, Portuguese, and French enterprises -- discovery of gold, jewels, and other valuable goods for trade and commerce. Gradually, the English shifted their emphasis to include the plant planting of self-maintaining colonies that, due to the structure of English government, politics, and political theory, acquired a measure of self-governance. As a result, traditional accounts of the English explorations and colonizations are remarkably benign, emphasizing the ideas that the founders of the colonies planted "seeds of democracy" in the "New World."

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What drove the English to reconceptualize the nature and purpose of colonies? One factor was the disastrous Roanoke experiment of 1584. That colony, founded on the traditional model by Sir Walter Ralegh, disappeared without a trace within three years. The change in the nature of English colonies also grew out of a combination of economic factors. The growing demand for wool, which led many landowners to enclose their lands as pasturage for sheep, deprived many English families of farmland that they had used for subsistence farming. The growing number of landless poor, combined with a dramatic population growth (from three million in 1485 to four million by 1603), posed a major problem that, English officials became convinced, could be solved by exporting the "surplus population" to colonies in North America (Lloyd 1996).

Finally at the same time that the English were grappling with the challenges posed by the Americas, they also were struggling with the crises of religious divisions and sectarian rivalry. It therefore seemed a useful expedient to permit members of difficult religious minorities -- the most famous examples are the Pilgrims in 1620 and the Puritans in 1630 -- to leave England for America. The mother country would be safely insulated from these dissenting religious colonies by distance and the hardship of travel; mother country and colonies could thus leave one another alone.

By the close of this period, the Europeans had only the most dim and uncertain ideas of how the new societies they had planted in the Americas would develop. The "voyages of discovery and exploration" set the stage for a reconceptualization of the European world. No longer would Europeans be limited to the European continent -- they would now occupy the land on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, creating what later scholars would call the Atlantic civilization. As Francis Bacon puts it in “Of Plantations”

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http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/bacon/bacon003.html

Planting of countries is like planting of woods; for you must make account to lose almost twenty years' profit, and expect your recompense in the end: for the principal thing that hath been the destruction of most plantations hath been the base and hasty drawing of profit in. the first years. It is true, speedy profit is not to be neglected as far as may stand with the good of the plantation, but no further. It is a shameful and unblessed thing to take the scum of people and wicked condemned men to be the people with whom you plant; and not only so, but it spoileth the plantation; for they will ever live like rogues, and not fall to work, but be lazy, and do mischief, and spend victuals, and be quickly weary, and then certify over to their country to the discredit of the plantation.

The colonies were the first "new" societies in thousands of years of European history. The colonists who came to the Americas knew that they were taking part in the founding of new societies, the success of which was not foreordained by any stretch of the imagination. They remembered the Roanoke experiment (1584) in present-day North Carolina, and several other, less famous failed colonial ventures. They knew about the appalling loss of life in the first years of the Jamestown colony (1607) and the Plymouth colony (1620).
The colonies' political structures were likewise new, and their fragility helped exacerbate the contentiousness of colonial politics throughout the period. The problem of "newness" is further illustrated by the development of the colonies of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut. Originally, there were two settlements in Massachusetts -- Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth -- and two settlements in Connecticut -- Connecticut and New Haven. By 1700, Massachusetts Bay had swallowed up Plymouth, and Connecticut had absorbed New Haven.

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The English colonies were monarchic societies, acknowledging the sovereignty of the English Crown (except for the Commonwealth period, 1649-1660, following the execution of Charles I, when the colonies acknowledged the sovereignty first of the Commonwealth, and then of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector). This monarchic context had important consequences for the internal social and political structures of the colonies. Although classes in the colonies were neither so fixed nor so complex as the English social system, there were important distinctions between gentlemen and ordinary people.

These distinctions mattered most in colonial politics. These distinctions in social rank were not ironclad -- for example, in 1706 Benjamin Franklin was born the youngest son of an "ordinary" printer in Boston; within forty years, on his retirement from the printing business, he had established himself as a gentleman in Philadelphia. Still, it would be almost inconceivable in the seventeenth-century colonial world, and extremely difficult in the eighteenth-century colonial world, for someone like Bill Clinton to aspire to high (or, indeed, any) political office.

The British North American colonies coexisted uneasily with a remarkable range of neighbors. First, of course, there were the several Indian nations, whom the colonists sometimes esteemed as friends, sometimes valued as trading partners, and sometimes feared as savage enemies. Second, there were the rival colonies founded by other European nations -- the Spanish to the south and west, the French in Canada and the Ohio Valley, the Dutch and Swedes in the mid-Atlantic coastal region. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the colonies of British North America periodically lived in fear of their conquest or annihilation by the French and their Indian allies, and throughout this period the colonists and their British governors and military protectors labored to establish defensive alliances with friendly or neutral Indian nations.

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Although modern Americans may view the colonial past as the central drama of the period, the colonists were seen at the time, and for the most part saw themselves, as marginal to the great drama of the period -- the struggle for pre-eminence in world affairs among Britain, France, and their European allies. Moreover, because the colonists were on the cultural margins of the Atlantic civilization, until the middle of the eighteenth century they tended to be regarded by inhabitants of the mother country as backward, parochial, and almost as savage as the Indians who shared the continent with them.

The colonies of British North America were founded by different people and groups, at different times, and for different reasons. There was no "master plan" to create a large, organized political entity called British North America; it just evolved that way. This diversity was not just political, although there were several types of colonies; it was also religious, ethnic, and cultural. To be sure, the diversity of colonial life may look like various kinds of vanilla to a citizen of the United States but it was considerable and remarkable in the view of any European visitor to the American colonies. Politically, the colonies fall into three broad categories: Charter colonies, were organized either by groups of economic speculators and investors or by those seeking to found a polity where they could follow their own religious practices and beliefs. They were granted a document, called a charter, by the Crown; this document represented a partial and conditional grant of sovereign power over an area of North America where the grantees could found a colony. Charter colonies include Virginia and Massachusetts Bay. Proprietary colonies, were organized by one powerful individual who received authority from the Crown to found and administer a colony; he and his descendants were known as "proprietors." Pennsylvania was the principal proprietary colony. Crown colonies, were organized as direct possessions of the monarch -- although some of these colonies had charters as well. Sometimes they were founded from scratch (North Carolina); just as often, they were conquered territories that had been founded by another nation (New York, formerly Nieuw Netherland).

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Although the old conventional wisdom has it that the religious dissenters came to America to seek religious liberty, the newer conventional wisdom notes, correctly, that the dissenters sought that liberty for themselves and were at times notably harsh on those who wanted religious liberty for views differing from those of the majority religious group. At the same time, some colonies (Rhode Island, New York, and Pennsylvania) practiced religious toleration, under which the majority chose to stay its hand rather than slapping down dissident minorities. Religious toleration was thus a very different thing from religious liberty, which recognizes the right to hold different opinions on religious questions. In “Outline of American Literature” Kathryn Van Spanckeren mentions under “Early American and Colonial Period to 1776” http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/LIT/bradford.htm

Puritans disapproved of such secular amusements as dancing and card playing, which were associated with ungodly aristocrats and immoral living. Reading or writing "light" books also fell into this category. Puritan minds poured their tremendous energies into nonfiction and pious genres: poetry, sermons, theological tracts, and histories. Their intimate diaries and meditations record the rich inner lives of this introspective and intense people.  

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Although the colonies were not founded on any "master plan," and usually regarded one another with wariness and suspicion, pressures from outside often-prompted efforts to forge intercolonial unions. In 1643, the New England Confederation was a notable success in coordinating colonial efforts in the seventeenth-century "Indian wars." But it broke up when Massachusetts Bay absorbed Plymouth and Connecticut swallowed New Haven. In 1685, the English sought to impose union from above and outside -- the Dominion of New England abrogated colonial charters, dissolved colonial legislatures, and created one unified administration for New England and New York. The colonists finally rebelled against the Dominion government, as the American counterpart to the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689. Finally, in 1754, delegates from most of the colonies, meeting in Albany, New York, crafted the Albany Plan of Union -- which, unfortunately, was rejected both by England (which resented its proposed cession of powers to an intercolonial government and legislature) and the individual colonies (which resented their loss of local sovereignty). Jack P. Greene in his masterpiece “Pursuits of Happiness” (1990) opines:

By the revolutionary era New England held no primacy and the Puritan-derived idea of America as 'sacred space' was largely confined there. If Americans saw themselves as a chosen people, they did so because of their material advance and their successful pursuit of happiness.

At the close of the Seven Years' War (or the French and Indian War), fewer British subjects were more loyal to the Crown and more proud to be Britons than the inhabitants of British North America. The colonists had fought side-by-side with British forces against the French and their Indian allies, and had contributed to a tremendous victory that reshaped the power balance of the Atlantic world. It was thus all the more stunning that, within five years, divisions between the colonies and the mother country first erupted, inaugurating more than a decade of polemical argument and then popular violence that culminated in the first colonial revolution of modern times, and the first successful colonial revolution in history.

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Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. Of Plantations. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on September 20, 2001
           http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/bacon/bacon003.html

Greene, Jack P. Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture. University of North Carolina Press. 1990

Kathryn Van Spanckeren. Outline of American Literature: Early American and Colonial Period to 1776. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on September 20, 2001 http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/LIT/bradford.htm

Lloyd, T. O. (1996). The British Empire, 1558-1995 Chapters 1 & 2.
Retrieved from the World Wide Web on September, 22, 2001 http://parallel.park.uga.edu/~lisaboyd/102M/f97/102msamp/sampe1jl.html

 
 


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