The English Adventures in North America

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

Of all the European nations facing the Atlantic Ocean, none would ordinarily have seemed to have greater advantages for entering the race for North American exploration than England: better than the Spanish, better than the French, better than the Dutch. Survey the early English settlements in North America and meet the entrepreneurs who laid the groundwork for a nation.

Re-enactment of the First Landing of British in the, "New World."

To start your journey, step back to the 15th century, before the first English settlements in North America. The English enjoyed a westerly location in the Atlantic Ocean. They had a population with a long history of seafaring, and, after 1494, an ambitious new ruling family—the Tudors—whose first King, Henry VII, was eager to attach glory and respectability to his kingdom. In fact, a handful of English adventurers did follow quickly in the wake of Christopher Columbus, but few of those adventurers yielded anything.

King Henry VII was succeeded in 1509 by his son—Henry VIII—a spoiled self-indulgent brat who spent money like there was no tomorrow, and who treated the slightest disagreement with tyrannical rage and cruelty. For instance, when his queen—Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon—failed to produce an heir on-schedule, Henry tried to divorce her. When the Pope, as head of the Catholic Church, refused to grant the divorce, Henry announced that he no longer recognized the authority of the Pope. He enlisted his kingdom in support of the new Protestant Reformation movement, and allowed his officials to create a new Protestant church for his kingdom, the Church of England.

Learn More: The History of England from the Stuarts to the Tudors

The Confusion of the Tudors

All of this was confusing enough for the people of England in that age, but after King Henry VIII’s death in 1547, the next generation of Tudors made  the confusion even worse. Henry’s adolescent son, Edward VI, was deeply committed to the Protestant cause and authorized the leadership of the Church of England to do a thorough house-cleaning of all traces of Catholicism. King Edward VI, however, died in 1553, before marrying, and was succeeded by his older sister Mary, who was as committed to the old Catholic ways as her brother had been to the new Protestant ones.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition.. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Mary brutally enforced a return to Catholic practices and the authority of the Pope. However, Queen Mary I, in turn, died in 1558, and she was followed by her younger sister—Elizabeth—a Protestant, who swung England’s religious allegiance back the other way.

Portrait of Elizabeth I, Queen of England, by Anonymous, c. 1550-99, European painting, oil on panel
Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was Queen of England and Ireland. She was the last monarch of the House of Tudors.

All of this in-fighting exhausted and distracted England from undertaking any serious adventures in America, and it was not until Queen Elizabeth I had been securely on the throne for 20 years that English attention began to wander back over the Western horizon. That and war led the English back into the great game of American exploration. When England finally turned Protestant for good in 1558, this made England the ally of every Protestant and the enemy of every Catholic in Europe. Thus, between 1582 and 1602, Queen Elizabeth I cheerfully licensed Protestant sea captains—like Francis Drake and John Hawkins—to raid the great treasure fleets of Europe’s greatest Catholic power, Spain.

Now, for some of the sea captains, this kind of raiding was little more than legalized piracy, legalized only because Queen Elizabeth I gave them permission to do it. For others, it was a holy war on the great Catholic Satan, Spain. For still others, it was a carefully managed business, with investors putting up money to finance ships and crews, and involving the payment of handsome dividends from pirated Spanish gold.

Whatever the motive, this kind of freebooting required the exploring and mapping of the American coastline by the English. The more expensive and profitable the task of raiding the Spanish treasure fleets became, the more it made sense for the English to establish their own supply base on the North American coastline. In 1578, one of Queen Elizabeth’s “sea dogs,” as they were known, Humphrey Gilbert, obtained a charter from the queen to establish a North American settlement; he actually undertook surveying voyages for a likely site.

Walter Raleigh Enters the Stage

When Gilbert drowned in the wreck of one of his ships in August of 1583, his charter passed to his half-brother, another favorite of the queen, named Walter Raleigh. Walter Raleigh was an adventurer’s adventurer. He was witty; he was poetic; he was daring; he was courtly; he was brave; and above all, he was wealthy. In 1584, he used some of that wealth to commission a survey of the outer banks of North Carolina, and the following year he dispatched a corps of settlers to build a fort on the outer banks on Roanoke Island.

Portrait of Walter Raleigh). Engraved by J.Pofselwhite
Walter Raleigh (1552–1618). Engraved by J. Pofselwhite and published in Lodge’s British Portraits encyclopedia, United Kingdom, 1823.

It flopped! Oh, it flopped badly. Winter on the outer banks was more severe than anyone had dreamed in England, and the fort was abandoned. 

In 1587, a second party of settlers, again promoted by Raleigh, tried again on Roanoke Island, but the following year, in 1588, the Spaniards organized a grand armada, an enormous fleet, for the purpose of invading England. Though the armada and the projected invasion turned out to be a catastrophic Spanish failure, it meant that Walter Raleigh lost all contact with Roanoke Island until the invasion crisis had passed. Not until 1590, two years after the armada, did Raleigh succeed in organizing a supply flotilla for his colonists on Roanoke Island.

When that flotilla arrived on August 18, 1590, Raleigh’s men found Roanoke deserted; the only clue for the settlers’ disappearance was the word “Croatan” carved on the fort’s gateway. Croatan was a nearby island, but the settlers were not there either. The disappearance of Walter Raleigh’s lost colony of Roanoke became America’s first mystery. It also killed off Walter Raleigh’s interest in North American settlements, since the Roanoke debacle underscored how expensive and how risky such settlements were.

If settlements were beyond the means of individual entrepreneurs like Raleigh, though, it was thought that it might be possible to find the means of financing settlements by pooling the resources of many such entrepreneurs who would gladly pass up individual glory for themselves in the hope of joint profits.

Learn more: Motives for Exploration in the Renaissance

Corporations and the New World

It is now time to say a word about corporations, or, as those in the 1500s called them, joint-stock companies. The problem with any individual investment and enterprise is that while success means that all the profit goes to you, failure means that all the bills go to you, too. If you entered into partnership with another entrepreneur, you could increase your financial clout and increase the odds of success, but if you failed, both of you would be equally liable for all of your failed enterprises’ bills, all of which discouraged people from pooling large amounts of their money behind an enterprise, since, if they failed, each of them would become liable for all of the enterprises’ debts.

Without big investment pools, though, it was impossible to finance really large-scale projects like American settlements. One solution was to, well, change the rules, which the English obligingly did once the restricted financial rules of the Catholic Church had been pushed aside in England by the new Protestant regime.

From the 1550s onward, individuals were allowed to create pools of wealth, but their liability was limited only to the extent of their investment; in the event of failure, the failure did not make them liable for all of the debt of  the enterprise. Of course, this could also mean they could only profit in the same proportion, but it was the limitation of liability that was key to coaxing investors into creating investment pools big enough to finance big-time exploration and settlement.

The English quickly established a series of such companies, chartered by the crown, to open up trade with Russia, with the eastern Mediterranean, with West Africa, and even with India. In 1606, a group of promoters in London and Plymouth obtained a charter from England’s new king, James I, and organized itself under the title of the Virginia Company.

Arms of Virginia Company
Arms of Virginia Company, as depicted in John Stow’s Survey of London (1632)

No more glossy celebrities like Walter Raleigh. Settlement would now be managed by a business-like and faceless corporation. As it turned out, however, the Virginia Company did not do much better than Walter Raleigh. The company chose as the most promising site for their first settlement the coast of modern-day Maine, which they supposed to have the same climate as England because it was on the same latitude. The winter of 1606 showed them just how wrong they were about the weather in Maine, and the settlement folded in 1608.

From the lecture series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition, taught by multiple professors.

Images courtesy of: by http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Old_Dominion [Public domain] via Wikimedia commons U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Matthew Bookwalter [Public domain] via Wikimedia commons