In September 1498 Christopher Columbus, a Genoese in the service of Spain, became the first European to step on to the mainland of South America: 15 months earlier John Cabot, a Venetian in the service of King Henry VII of England, had become the first European since the Vikings to make a similar landing in North America. Yet, despite the proximity of the dates, what happened afterwards diverged widely.


Within 50 years the Spaniards had conquered three empires and were shipping previously unimaginable riches back to Iberia. Some 130 years later the English, facing no such opposition, had lost thousands of men while trying to hold on to a beachhead that comprised the lower banks of one river, the James, a small hill at Plymouth, Massachusetts and a few outstations in Newfoundland. Why the discrepancy?

The fortunes of England and Spain may have diverged, but the anticipated source of that fortune did not. Both nations shared one major obsession: gold. Whereas the Spaniards, discovering it in abundance, shipped it home in the holds of the annual treasure fleet, the English exported from Baffin Island and Virginia hundreds of tonnes of worthless aggregate that they convinced themselves was gold bearing. Once the lacklustre truth was out, there seemed little reason to invest in a land that was barren of such bounty.

Yet all was not lost, for the English soon discovered that a far easier way to fossick (search) for gold was to seize it from the conveniently slow-moving Spanish container ships. England was a pariah nation whose corsairs, unlike those operating today from harbours in Somalia, had the full backing of the government, which relied on its share of the pirated wealth to balance the books.

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Such easy pickings deflected ambitious entrepreneurs from risking their investment and the lives of others in far less certain returns from the American coastline. What’s more, for those who fancied establishing a plantation, land was available much nearer home through the confiscation and redistribution of Irish estates. The proponents of American settlement therefore had rival, seemingly less risky, attractions with which to contend.

There was, however, one initiative in which the English were prepared to take risks and that was in searching for a north-west passage to wealthy Cathay (China), thus avoiding the seas claimed by the Iberian nations. As mariner after mariner came to grief, trying to squeeze through cracks in the ever-constricting and thickening pavement of ice, their sponsors continued to see America as an obstructive bulwark to be bypassed rather than a promised land.

And, anyway, the land was promised. In 1496 Henry VII granted to Cabot and his heirs a licence, “to conquer, occupy, possess whatsoever towns, castles, cities and islands by them thus discovered... acquiring for us the dominion, title and jurisdiction of the same...” In other words, to invade.

This largesse in the granting of land that belonged to others was a feature of all subsequent royal charters. Thus, in 1584, Walter Ralegh was given overlordship of an area extending to 600 miles either side of his first settlement, which he sycophantically and sensibly named Virginia in honour of the holy state of Elizabeth his queen. Her successor, James I, in the first Virginia Company Charter of 1606, licensed the colonisation of a tract of land from 34° north to 45° north, a distance of 660 miles, while the later Virginia Charters extended the land grant from sea to shining sea, that is from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

The letters patent of the Newfoundland Company awarded them the whole of that island for their venture. Moreover, the grantees could sublet – and they did, awarding estates the size of English counties to those willing to invest.

But the English crown was not itself prepared to invest either men, material or money in such overseas enterprises. Henry VIII’s ambitions began and ended in France; the youthful Edward reigned for too short a time; Mary could not act so as to upset her Spanish husband; Elizabeth disguised parsimony as prudence; while James I signed a peace treaty with the nation’s colonial rival. Given such state disinterest, America remained peripheral to English policy while paramount for the Spanish purse.

Given a free hand, neither did English adventurers ever match the horizon-stretching deeds awarded to them on paper. Cabot, granted a continent, ventured inland “the shooting distance of a crossbow” before retreating to his ship. So, 150 years later, no Englishman had settled beyond the reach of the tide and all looked to the waterways for their succour: none had broken out from their beachhead to make the land their own.

Idle rogues

Not that it was so considered by those who underwrote most of the voyages. For the most part, settlers were seen as employees, sent forth to risk life and limb for the reward of their masters safe at home. What those investors wanted was swift and rich returns. This dichotomy had obvious results. The planters themselves were seldom England’s finest, often comprising idle rogues, criminals and even idler gentlemen, none of whom saw much benefit in over-exertion.

Secondly, given that English trade was in the hand of monopolists, most of the entrepreneurs wished to import items in which they dealt. Thus uneconomic glass and iron works and a silk farm were established on the James river and it was not until America started exporting its own products, chiefly tobacco and fur, that the economic viability of the settlements was established, aided by the introduction of freeholding land rights.

Moreover, despite much propaganda, not until 1630 were sufficient settlers shipped over to America to guarantee a plantation’s survival, given the high death rate. Just one contrast with Spanish practice is enough to illustrate this.

In 1493 Columbus founded the city of La Isabella at a poorly chosen site on the northern coast of Hispaniola. Five years later the disillusioned survivors moved over to the southern shore and founded a new and lasting capital, Santo Domingo. But, by then, 1,500 settlers had disembarked at the proposed site of La Isabella and had built a structure in stone, their numbers and their ramparts able to withstand any attack launched against them.

By contrast, in 1587 the grandiloquently and egotistically named corporate body, the Governor and Assistants of the City of Ralegh, appointed John White, an incomparable artist and an incompetent leader, to bring 110 people to the New World. Here he endeavoured to establish a new city at Roanoke (in present-day North Carolina) when he had originally wished to land at a more promising site inside Chesapeake Bay. Five years later, probably far less, it was no more.

The unexpected killer

The large number of Spanish emigrants is an indicator of state support, as is the composition of the groups that sailed. Those from Spain included a solid number of soldiers. Both Cortes, the conqueror of the Aztecs, and Pizarro, who defeated the Incas, led professional foot soldiers, gunners and cavalry inland with them. By contrast, faced with a determined enemy, the ex-mercenaries, John Smith in Virginia and Myles Standish in Plymouth, had to form their civilian companions into a militia just to defend the walls of their settlements.

To a large extent this disadvantageous position was of their making. The main problem that the English failed to appreciate was that they were invading the territory of another people. The enemy that the English feared was Spain, which had shown its resentment of foreign interlopers by massacring the inhabitants of a French settlement in Florida in 1565. Yet, for the English, the Spanish barked, but never bit. Their true foes were to be the Indians, famine and disease – which together disposed of more of the invaders, as a percentage, than were lost by either the Merchant Navy or Bomber Command during the Second World War.

Of these it was disease that was the major killer, but the enemy without, through siege and denial of sustenance, as well as assault, also made a major contribution to the devastation that the English settlers endured. However, such losses, especially in the north, paled against the destruction of entire native communities unable to resist foreign diseases such as smallpox and measles.

The English had dismissed the native threat as inconsequential, and yet, one tree trunk’s width from the shoreline, they could be ambushed with impunity. This meant that they could only move securely by water, which allowed them both to foray and forage, but not to force a frontier through the forest. Until they could clear the woods, they could not create a colony.

Tobacco was the crop that led to the clearances and, in 1622, Indians along the James, resentful at the expanding land grab, rose up in a surprise co-ordinated attack and massacred the English along the length of the river. Inexplicably, they did not follow up their initiative by laying siege to Jamestown. Had they done so, their victory would have been complete. As it was, they withdrew and allowed reinforcements to arrive.

Those reinforcements illustrate another fact that favoured the English: they could outbreed the opposition. The Indian tribes could not readily replace those warriors they lost in warfare. The great English tribe could just export another shipload to make up their number – so it was in bed rather than on the battlefield that the English defeated their enemy.

Given a religious homogeneity at home, Spain also exported Jesuits to proclaim and convert natives, often brutally, to the one true faith. By contrast, although every English Royal Charter included a paragraph on the need to spread the gospel, few English missionaries sailed to North America.

Indeed, the New World was seen as a place to despatch those, either Catholic or dissenting who, irritatingly, held to a doctrine deemed false. The export of such nonconformists began with the voyage of Mayflower in 1620 and reached a climax during the reign of Charles I, when thousands crossed the Atlantic to Massachusetts to escape from the persecution being instigated by Archbishop Laud. A similar exodus was to take Catholics to Maryland and Quakers to Pennsylvania.

These people could not consider themselves to be sojourners; they had no future other than in the New World. However difficult life became, they had to make it work to survive because there was no going back. Their loyalties were to their community and they made their own laws to ensure that they could live and survive together. From rules, such as the Mayflower Compact, democracy in America was born. Thus, ironically, the future of the English New World was assured by those who arrived carrying the curse rather than the blessing of the court.

Although the phrase ‘British empire’, coined in 1577 by John Dee, gives the impression that Britannia wished to set her bounds ever wider for the glory of crown, country and the Protestant creed, the actuality is very different. The early argument for overseas settlement was, in truth, based around finding a passage to Cathay; discomforting Spain; settling indigent or criminal elements; monopolising the distant fishing grounds; searching for precious metals and resettling loyal but non-Anglican groups.

While all of these aims could claim to be in the national interest, the crown, apart from granting charters, remained aloof, while the overweening desire of those masterminding the venture was self-aggrandisement. Success was never certain and came about not through a deliberate far-sighted policy, but through a series of inter-locking accidents from which the English emerged as the survivors.

David Childs worked as the development director of the Mary Rose Trust. He is the author of Invading America: The English Assault on the New World 1496-1630 (June 2012)


This article was first published in the October 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine