England’s claim to territory in the New World was old before it was exploited. In 1497 Henry VII had sponsored John Cabot’s voyage and discovery of Newfoundland. The Grand Banks had been known to fishermen earlier, but Cabot’s enthusiastic reports opened the way for international rivalries over the region; early in the 16th century English, French, Basque, and Portuguese fishermen were contesting for catches. [It was probably Basque fishermen who named Cape Breton Island.] In 1536 Richard Hore sailed from Gravesend to Labrador, but was driven off by natives.
However, Spain and Portugal had got to America first, and in the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) Alexander VI had divided the New World along an imaginary north-south line which ran 370 leagues west of the Azores (about 46°30 west of the Greenwich meridian). This gave Portugal control over the established routes to the West Indies and enabled it to claim Brazil when it was discovered in 1500. Spain was able to claim possession of any discoveries made in North and South America west of modern Brazil. A rigid trade monopoly was enforced, and foreign merchants were forbidden to visit or engage in commerce with Spanish or Portuguese dominions. In 1580-3 Philip II conquered Portugal and annexed the Portuguese empire, making himself master of the western hemisphere.
In 1577 this hegemony was challenged when Elizabeth’s astrologer and mathematician, John Dee (right), claimed that by virtue of her descent from King Arthur and Prince Madoc, Elizabeth had a claim to the New World, and coined the term ‘British Empire’.
Dee’s claim was made against a background of licensed piracy. The Spanish and Portuguese monopoly seriously inconvenienced the colonists who went out from Spain and Portugal, for their own countrymen proved incapable of supplying them with all the goods they needed, and the temptation for foreign merchants to supply them was therefore considerable.
In the 1560s and 70s English privateers plied the slave trade between West Africa and the Spanish Indies, most notably the Plymouth seaman Sir John Hawkins (1532-95). His way of operating was to approach a port and claim the need to land for ship repairs. He would offer to sell his cargo and, met with a refusal from the Spanish, he would let his sailors loose on the town and after a day or two of this havoc, trade would commence, sometimes surreptitiously as the colonials attempted to avoid retribution from the royal governor. The Spanish colonials were vulnerable because they were being pulled in several directions: their need for slaves, the royal prohibition against trade with the English, and the desire to protect their property from Hawkins’ marauding crew.
In 1562 sailed to West Africa, bought about three hundred slaves and sailed to Hispaniola, receiving by way of exchange hides, gingers, sugars and pearls which he loaded into his own three ships. He then freighted two others with hides and other commodities and sent them to Spain He arrived back in England in September 1563.
In 1564 Hawkins set out on a second voyage, financed by (among others) the Earl of Pembroke and the queen's favourite, Lord Robert Dudley. The leading ship was the Jesus, partly kitted out by a loan from the queen on the understanding that she would be entitled to any share in the proceeds. The ships reached Sierra Leone, picked up slaves, but when they tried to trade them off the coast of South America they found the ports initially barred. Managing to sell the slaves at one port they sailed north to Florida looking for a place to water. However the homeward voyage was marred by contrary winds. They reached Padstow in September, bringing home quantities of jewellery, though the queen probably did not recoup her investment in the Jesus.
The relative success of these two voyages made Hawkins’ reputation. The Spaniards protested to the queen, who was compelled to put in an appearance of refusing to sanction further voyages. However, she may have assumed that Philip’s protest was merely token and that he was privately prepared to sanction some trade between England and his colonies. If so, she was mistaken, as Philip had no intention of allowing any infringement of his monopoly.
In 1567 Hawkins set out from Plymouth on his third voyage (the queen again lending the Jesus) in command of a small squadron of seven ships; one of the ships, the Judith, was commanded by his kinsman, Francis Drake (1540?-1596). As before he sailed to Sierra Leone, took part in native wars, and sailed for the West Indies with 500 Africans, managing to sell most of the slaves in the ports of South America.
In September 1568 (according to his account) his fleet was caught in a storm which eventually drove them into the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulúa. The next day a Spanish fleet appeared, bearing the new Viceroy of Mexico and a fierce encounter began a few days later. Several English ships were damaged, including the Jesus. Hawkins and some of his men managed to escape but others were taken prisoner and handed over to the Inquisition. The Spaniards took possession of bullion to the value of £100,000. The news was brought to England by Drake, who sailed home to Plymouth in the Judith. Hawkins eventually reached England with a mere fifteen sailors at the beginning of 1569, a temporarily discredited man (the queen had lost her ship!). (However he later became MP for Plymouth. In 1578 he was appointed treasurer of the navy; he undertook privateering voyages against Spain using his own and Elizabeth’s ships.)
After his inglorious return to Plymouth, Drake set about recovering his reputation. San Juan de Ulúa left him with an abiding sense of grievance because he believed the Spaniards had behaved treacherously. The son of a chaplain, he was a zealous Protestant with a firm belief that Providence was on his side. He had now abandoned all thoughts of trading with the Spaniards, preferring to prey on them instead. To the Spaniards he was a corsario (pirate) but he was inspired by religious zeal as well as greed. For him every attack on Spanish possessions was an assault on Rome.
In 1572, having obtained a privateering commission from the queen, he sailed to Panama and led a daring raid on the treasure house at Nombre de Dios, which was aborted only after his men lost heart when he was wounded in the leg. In the following year he successfully ambushed the mule train carrying silver from the mines of Peru across the Isthmus of Panama and his share of the profits amounted to £20,000 worth of bullion.
From Panama he had caught a glimpse of the Pacific from the top of a tall tree and prayed that God would give him leave
‘to sail once in an English ship on that sea’.But how would he get there?
Much of the New World was still unknown. Cosmographers speculated on the existence of a vast southern continent, Terra Australis Incognita and of the North-West Passage between Asia and America - the way to China and the wealth of the East. In 1576 Humphrey Gilbert said:
‘Any man of our country, that will give the attempt, may with small danger pass to Cathay’.He believed he would reach it by sailing past 'the island of America'.
Between 1567 and 1578 Martin Frobisher led three expeditions to find the North-West Passage and claimed Baffin Island (which he named Meta Incognita: the unknown boundary) for the queen. He returned to England with reports of possible gold mines, and obtained royal backing for two further expeditions to the same area. On the latter of these expeditions, he sailed up what was later called Hudson Strait, but then turned back to anchor at Frobisher Bay, where his attempts to establish a colony were unsuccessful.
On 13 December 1577 Drake set sail from Plymouth, carrying with him John Foxe’s Protestant martyrology, the Acts and Monuments (the woodcuts coloured in). The object of the venture was to conclude trading treaties with the people who lived south of the Spanish sphere of influence, and if possible to explore Terra Australis. The queen was a silent partner, though she claimed that Drake knew she would deny all knowledge if she had to! No royal ships or money were involved, but a clutch of courtiers and other grandees were among its backers: Walsingham, Hatton, Leicester, Lord Admiral Lincoln, but not the cautious and legalistic Burghley. In return for her assent, the queen was assured of a share in whatever profits the voyage yielded.
Drake’s squadron consisted of his own ship, the Pelican and four others, and 200 men. On 20 August 1578 they entered the Straits of Magellan, where Drake changed the name of his ship to the Golden Hind, in reference to the crest (left) of his patron, Sir Christopher Hatton. They were now in difficult and unknown territory, never before encountered by Englishmen. In the Straits, one ship, the Marigold, went down with all hands, and it took them sixteen days to reach the Pacific – Drake’s second sighting of the ocean. On cruising northward up South America’s Pacific coast, they robbed townships and seized vessels. On 1 March off Cape Francisco they fell in with a Spanish treasure ship, the Cacafuego, captured her and plundered her cargo (26 tons of silver and 80 pounds of gold as well as gold and precious stones), after which the Golden Hind was below her watermark. He sailed as far north as 48° N on a parallel with Vancouver to seek the North-West passage, but he was defeated by the bitterly cold water, and sailed south again. But he had become the first European to sight the western coast of Canada. Off the coast of what may have been California (possibly San Francisco), Drake accepted the sovereignty of a territory he called New Albion and was himself crowned by the Indians.
In July 1579 he sailed west across the Pacific, watering at the Philippines and then sailing to the Moluccas, where he appears to have concluded a trade treaty with the Sultan. In June 1580 he reached the Cape of Good Hope, in July Sierra Leone, and he arrived in England on 26 September, with gold and precious stones, cloves and spices, yielding a dividend of 4700 per cent for all the shareholders and something over for the queen. Of the five ships, only one completed the voyage, and of the 100 men on the Golden Hind only 56 of the original crew had survived.
When Elizabeth knighted Drake on 4 April 1581 (against Burghley’s wishes), it was a very public recognition that she had directly commissioned his plunder of Spanish property on his voyage. At the ceremony she declared that Philip had demanded Drake’s head; she had brought a gilded sword with which to strike it off. By now, relations with Spain, amicable enough when Drake sailed from Plymouth, had soured to a point where Elizabeth had no hesitation about a public challenge to Philip. Newsmongers, pamphleteers, and even politicians and diplomats were coming to speak of the naval war between Spain and England as if it were a personal duel between Philip and Drake.
Exploration and colonization cannot be separated as topics as much exploration was undertaken with a view to eventual colonization. However colonial advance was patchy and intermittent. In Africa nothing more than toeholds were obtained. More progress was made by the Portuguese in India. In 1497 Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) rounded the Cape of Good Hope. In May 1488 he reached Calicut in western India. In 1510 the Portuguese explorer Alfonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515) conquered the ancient Hindu city of Goa, which became the capital of the Portuguese empire in the east. (It was granted the same privileges as Lisbon, reaching its capacity between 1575 and 1600.) Its possession, which gave it control over much of the spice trade, enabled the Portuguese colonists to become rich with comparatively little effort – unlike toiling through the backlands of Brazil. It was also the centre of Christian missionary activity after the Jesuits arrived in 1542.
With the exception of the Dutch, northern European governments were slow to come round to the idea of colonization; support never advanced beyond a primitive urge to oppose Spain wherever she claimed to rule’, and for the land hungry classes in England Ireland offered better prospects. In these circumstances enthusiasm for colonization was generally confined to small groups of private individuals.
In England these were a close-knit group, nearly all West Country men, bound together by ties of neighbourhood, blood and marriage as well as by common Protestantism: Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539-83), his half brother Sir Walter Raleigh (?1552-1618), his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville (?1541-91), and Sir Martin Frobisher (c. 1535-1594). Many of them also had experience in Ireland. Gilbert had ruthlessly suppressed an uprising in Ireland, 1567-70, for which he was knighted, and he began to elaborate plans for the Protestant colonization of Munster. Their principal supporter in the government was Walsingham.
The first to plan and then lead a serious attempt at settlement was Gilbert. In 1578 Elizabeth granted him for six years the right to discover and plant
‘such remote, heathen and barbarous lands’as were still in no other Christian prince’s possession. In effect, this meant Newfoundland where the abundance of fish promised to provide a dependable source of food and an acceptable commodity for export to Europe. Straining his resources to the uttermost, he outfitted a seven-ship expedition and set sail on 19 November, but his ill-equipped, badly disciplined force broke up and by the spring of 1579 some of the ships had drifted to England, while others had turned to piracy.
Gilbert then set about organizing a more ambitious colonizing expedition - creating an empire in the West, with himself as overlord. His mentor was John Dee. In England Gilbert sold a vast paper empire of twenty million acres which he had never seen. One of the partners was Sir Philip Sidney, who purchased three million acres of land.
In June 1583 Gilbert sailed for the future New England (‘Norumbega’). Whatever the arguments about the North West Passage it was a proven fact that Newfoundland had an abundance of fish. On 3 August he arrived at St John’s Newfoundland, where he raised the royal arms and proclaimed himself governor, and issued a rough code of laws. This formal act of possession made little difference to the fishermen who were already spending half the year there, but no-one seriously disputed the English claim, and Newfoundland became the first English possession in the New World. Shortly after leaving Newfoundland, Gilbert was lost at sea upon his ship the Squirrel.
The Americas offered not only the chance of wealth but of a return to the lost Golden Age. In the spring of 1584 a patent from the queen transferred Gilbert’s rights in the New World to his half-brother, Raleigh, and the expedition left England at the end of April. It is well chronicled, as it was described in detail by Arthur Barlowe, the captain of the second ship.
They landed at what is now North Carolina, and took possession in the queen’s name of the land they believed was Wingandacoa. It seemed the perfect place for a colony – the land was fertile, the natives friendly. They remained anchored off Roanoke Island for about five weeks, searching for a place in which to plant a colony. They arrived back in England in September, bringing with them two Indians, tobacco and potatoes, and promptly began selling the new colony. Prospective investors were told that this was a land of magical wealth and boundless fertility offering all the commodities of the south and east, as well as the ‘health-giving’ herb tobacco. The Indians were represented as virtuous pagans already moving towards ‘civility and the embracing of true religion’.
The rationale for colonization was provided in the same year when the geographer Richard Hakluyt (c.1552-1616) dedicated a tract, The Discourse of Western Planting, to Philip Sidney urging the colonization of
‘those blessed countries from the point of Florida northward’still
‘unplanted by Christians’.The tract was dedicated to the queen and presented to her, but she was unwilling to commit herself to the expense or to risk the wrath of Spain. Her one contribution was to insist that Wingandacoa be renamed Virginia.
In 1585 a colony of 112 men was planted by Sir Richard Grenville, on his cousin Raleigh’s behalf, on Roanoke Island. But the enterprise was under-funded. Food supplies dwindled and the Indians began attacking. In 1586 the whole group returned to England with Drake. Two weeks later Grenville arrived at Roanoke with supplies, to find the colony deserted, and he left 15 men there to maintain England’s claim.
In 1587 Raleigh dispatched a second colony consisting of 150 settlers under the command of his friend, John White. They landed at Roanoke but found the 15 men vanished and the fort razed. The settlers built houses and on 18 August White’s grandchild, Virginia Dare, was born, the first English child to be born in America. For White's remarkable illustrations of the Indians, see here. White soon returned to England to obtain more supplies, but the threatened Armada invasion prevented him from obtaining a ship with which to relieve the colony. When he did return to Roanoke in 1590 the colony, including the child Virginia Dare, had disappeared almost without a trace, leaving no clue to their fate except the word ‘Croatoan’ carved on a tree. There are many hypotheses about the fate of the lost colony.
From the point of view of the Elizabethan explorers and would-be colonists, this was all very disappointing. No-one could have predicted in 1600 that the English were going to be the founders of a great empire.